If traffic is smooth on Interstate 95, driving is the quickest way to get from Richmond to Washington — even faster than taking the train, which can take up to 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Virginia transportation officials say they want to cut that train ride to 90 minutes, make passenger train travel more reliable and attractive to travelers in the corridor, and increase capacity.
And they want to make that happen by 2025.
The state and Federal Railroad Administration are exploring the feasibility of high-speed rail in the 123-mile stretch connecting the two capital cities. Virginia officials say the plan is to raise the maximum rail speed from the current 70 mph to 90 mph, and in doing so, make intercity passenger rail more reliable for people in the corridor and more competitive with car and air travel.
That effort would require maximizing the efficiency of the existing infrastructure while making enhancements to increase rail capacity. The corridor, which generally has a two-track system, is used by commuter and passenger rail as well as freight. The ongoing federal environmental review is contemplating adding a third track all along the corridor, modernizing stations, adding passing sidings and crossovers to allow for trains to pass one another more easily and straightening some curves to achieve faster speed.
“These improvements will decrease travel time and increase the reliability of the service in the corridor,” said Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Already there is an effort to add a third track in the area used by Virginia Railway Express, which provides commuter rail service from Fredericksburg to Washington. That undertaking is half completed, officials said. Some rail advocates say a fourth track might be a good addition, particularly north of Fredericksburg where rail traffic is reaching capacity because of the various passenger and freight services in Northern Virginia.
The Richmond-D.C. project is one in the nationwide push for high-speed rail and is part of a larger federal plan for bringing higher speed trains to the Southeast corridor, reaching all the way to Florida.
Any improvements in the commonwealth’s rail system also would support Amtrak’s vision to transform the Northeast Corridor into a high-speed system by 2040. Many Northeast trains start their route in Virginia. Amtrak’s plan calls for the replacement of its Acela Express fleet, which only rarely reaches top speeds of 150 miles per hour, with new high-speed trains that would cruise at top speeds of 220 miles per hour. Last year, Amtrak put out a request for bids for the purchase of 28 new high-speed trains.
Amtrak’s plan for the busy Northeast Corridor — which currently carries about 12 million passengers annually— would make a trip from New York to Washington possible in just 94 minutes, instead of the current three hours.
Other regions are undertaking similar projects. California broke ground in January for a massive $68-billion high-speed rail project that will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. When it’s completed, it will allow passengers to travel between the two cities in less than three hours, at top speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. Illinois lawmakers last week passed a resolution championing a high-speed project that could bring 220-mile-per-hour trains to the state and urging Congress to invest $2.5 billion in high-speed rail.
These rail projects however, remain a dream because of their high cost and uncommitted funding sources. The Obama administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program has made $10.1 billion available to projects across the U.S., so far investing in more than 150 projects to advance high-speed plans. But with no permanent solution in sight to replenish the nation’s dwindling transportation fund, significant progress in high-speed rail appears unlikely anytime soon.
Supporters of high-speed rail say it’s time the country make investments in rail infrastructure to stay competitive. Foreign systems where high-speed rail networks have been around for decades continue to make strides in the industry. This spring a high-speed Japanese bullet train reached a top speed of 374 mph. Advocates say that while the bullet trains are a popular mode of travel for long journeys in major foreign cities, in the United States well over 85 percent of all trips are for journeys of less than 250 miles.
“Across the globe, high-speed and higher-speed trains are not only an essential mode of transportation in such corridors, but also a significant driver of local development and economic growth,” Anthony R. Coscia, chairman of the Amtrak Board of directors told a Senate committee in December. Amtrak estimates that its proposed upgrades to a true high-speed system would cost $151 billion.
“And yet America has yet to fully embrace investments in passenger rail as a tool to grow our regional and national economies, reduce traffic congestion on other modes, and create new travel opportunities,” he said. “As a nation, we are squandering opportunities to improve our economies and quality of life by failing to make investments in the type of high-quality rail service that Amtrak plans for the (Northeast Corridor) and that we see in existence or under development in nearly every other major economy in the world.”
In Virginia, high-speed rail advocates say investing in rail is critical in addressing traffic congestion and supporting the state’s population growth and the demands for diverse modes of transportation, as well as the need to move goods along the East Coast.
An analysis from Virginians for High Speed Rail, a nonprofit coalition of citizens, businesses, localities and community groups, found that while the state’s population grew about 42 percent in a 24-year period, highways only grew by 34 percent.
“We have limited ability to pave our way out of congestion, which we as a state and as a country have attempted to do many, many times,” said Danny Plaugher, the group’s executive director. “We really have to look at a diverse transportation system with roads, rail, and airlines all contributing to moving people and commerce.”
The priority, Plaugher said should be to getting the trip from Richmond to the District to under 90 minutes and pushing the maximum speed to 90 mph so that the trip is shorter than by car. Improving reliability and adding trips also are key to passenger rail, advocates and transportation officials say. Currently, there are few daily Amtrak trips between Richmond and Washington, and trains are often delayed due to capacity challenges.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation says it hopes the federal environmental study, which is expected to be completed in 2017, will deliver a plan detailing the improvements and cost. By then, the state would be able to seek federal funding and implement the recommendations in phases. Officials say they expect improvement over the next decade.