The addition of a new Amtrak train from Norfolk to Washington starting Monday morning is part of a statewide strategy that relies on Virginia taxpayers funding hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements on privately held rail lines.
In exchange for the government money, major freight railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern have allowed additional passenger and commuter trains to run on the companies’ tracks around the state, and that basic arrangement is being replicated as part of a major project in Northern Virginia.
The resulting improvements also boost economic growth by allowing freight to move more smoothly through the commonwealth and have resulted in some time savings for travelers, according to backers.
Officials cite the example of the Acca Yard project and other improvements in the Richmond area, where the state covered the bulk of the $132 million tab for reconstructing a major rail yard, adding a pair of bypass tracks and building a second rail line south of the city.
“We paid CSX to build bypass tracks so our Amtrak trains can now sail right through the yard,” said Chris Smith, director of policy for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “We’re now cutting 20 to 25 minutes off the trip through Richmond.”
“Virginia invested $119 million in CSX’s Acca Yard in Richmond, and, in turn, the state got a new Amtrak service to Norfolk as well as speed improvements between Richmond and Hampton Roads,” Smith said.
The project also “significantly increases freight fluidity for CSX,” according to a state financial report on that and other projects last year.
The company said the improvements “will better position the region to capture economic growth opportunities.”
Virginia also invested $101 million in additional upgrades, mostly by Norfolk Southern between Norfolk and Petersburg. These upgrades were also made by CSX between Petersburg and Richmond, which helped lead to the launch of the first Amtrak train from Norfolk in 2012 and Monday’s addition of a second Norfolk train, as well as the planned launch of a third in 2022, Smith said.
Virginia is also funding $636 million in “rail capacity improvements in Northern Virginia for CSX, and in turn Virginia expects to run up to 23 passenger trains daily,” in addition to increases in Virginia Railway Express commuter rail service, Smith said.
Much of the Northern Virginia work is being done as part of major road and rail improvements known as the Atlantic Gateway. One part of the far-reaching project will include construction of an eight-mile stretch of track “on CSX’s freight corridor from the Franconia/Springfield VRE station to the Occoquan River in Fairfax County allowing for additional VRE service,” as well as more passenger trains, according to state plans.
The Atlantic Gateway effort also includes some preparatory work on the proposed Long Bridge expansion across the Potomac into Washington. District and federal officials are exploring a $1.3 billion plan to double the capacity of the current two-track bridge, which is described as a major impediment to ambitious plans to increase rail travel through Virginia and up and down the East Coast.
The Long Bridge and new Norfolk train “are all part of a bigger long-term rail strategy we’ve been doing for the better part of a decade,” Smith said. Among the benefits of such a strategy are getting trucks off the road, reducing highway congestion and having more reliable and frequent rail service, he said.
“In big-picture terms, none of that makes sense if it bottlenecks at the border” with the District, Smith said. But funding still has not been earmarked for a new bridge. Environmental work is underway to make it eligible for federal funding.
The bridge, which is located in the District, “really connects the entire Eastern Seaboard. Virginia can’t pay for it alone. Washington can’t pay for it alone. This is where federal support is going to have to be essential,” he said. “It’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort. . . . Long Bridge is the commonwealth’s number one priority for rail right now.”
It was a federal law, passed more than a decade ago, that required states to cover a large share of the costs of running Amtrak services on routes of lengths between 70 and 750 miles if officials didn’t want to see them shut down.
In subsequent years Virginia began covering some of those costs, and by 2011 had created an account known as the Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund — which uses a share of sales and use taxes to cover those costs. The state pays about 85 percent of the cost of operating and maintaining a half-dozen Amtrak lines in Virginia, officials said.
The fund is expected to bring in $52 million in revenue this year, most of which is budgeted for private firms and government entities to improve rail infrastructure.
The six state-funded Amtrak trains travel daily from Roanoke, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News to Washington and beyond, then back. Passengers can travel as far north as Boston. Ridership on those lines was 839,466 last year, according to state figures. Virginia covers the costs within the state and to the District. Other Amtrak trains also travel through Virginia, including those originating in Miami and New Orleans, but those are not funded by Virginia.
The Virginia-funded lines are heavily used for recreation, according to state ridership figures. Leisure travelers made up 69 percent of the total in Norfolk, 78 percent of the total in Newport News and 77 percent in Roanoke, according to the state. From Richmond, the leisure total was 58 percent.
The top five destinations for state-supported Amtrak service are Washington, New York, Alexandria, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Smith said the new Norfolk train will address requests from customers.
Many, particularly those working in military-related fields, are eager to have a predictable way to travel through the congested Interstate 95 corridor, he said. And the higher frequency of trains will allow them to set out from Norfolk in the early morning, have nearly a full day of work in Washington (or at the Pentagon or Quantico Marine base) and get back to Norfolk in time for bed, Smith said.