One couldn’t ask for a better icon for the small railroad town of Ashland, Va., than Tiny Tim’s Toys and Trains on South Railroad Avenue. The cramped hobby store boasts of model trains with such colorful liveries as those of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway; the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad; and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
Outside the shop, two tracks run straight down the main drag, neatly bisecting the quaint downtown with its stores, an Amtrak station, Randolph-Macon College and historic Victorian houses with spacious porches. There’s even a webcam that’s on 24/7 so that global rail fans can watch the 40 to 60 trains that pass daily.
Railroading has built Ashland, 15 miles north of Richmond, dating to the 1840s. But now it threatens to destroy it.
Ashland is one of several Virginia towns struggling with the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail corridor that would speed rail travel from Washington to Florida. Impressed by the glamour of far-faster bullet trains in Europe and Asia, U.S. planners have been pushing high-speed rail for years. Fast passenger trains pollute less than automobiles, don’t create huge highway traffic jams and could spur new connections and development in urban areas.
Many Washingtonians take rail convenience for granted since they tend to travel Amtrak’s busy Northeast corridor to New York and Boston. Their routes are dedicated to passenger travel, and many of the problems of grade crossings and rights of way were solved more than a century ago.
Not so for southbound rail travelers. Decent and timely service tends to come to an abrupt stop at Union Station. From there, the rails are owned by CSX, whose freight trains have priority. Functioning gear such as switches can be more problematic.
That could change because a program to boost passenger train service to about 90 miles per hour is now gaining speed. Called DC2RVA and run by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the program is expected to unveil its next step, a draft environmental impact statement covering a 123-mile route, in the next month or two.
Some might think that folks in Ashland and other towns would find this great news. Instead, they fear that their lives and property could be forever diminished. “This is coming on faster than expected,” says Kathy Abbott, a member of Ashland’s Town Council. “It seems to be in such a rush.”
One proposal would add a third track right through Ashland’s downtown where there’s hardly room. Grade crossings in the area may be closed. Shop customers and residents wouldn’t have the same freedom to walk across the tracks they do now. Some of Ashland’s finest homes face the tracks and would be endangered.
Downtowners are rallying to protect central Ashland. But that means the high-speed rail line might bypass downtown and run a half-mile to the west, pitting downtown people against residents who live near the western route.
“Officially, all the town is saying is that we are not for a third rail,” says Ashland resident Dan Bartges, an artist and former advertising executive. But players are lining up muscle.
Ashland is hiring Williams Mullen, an influential Richmond law firm, to fight the third rail. Randolph-Macon College, whose leafy campus would be split by two 850-foot-long elevated passenger stands and a parking lot, has signed up McGuire Woods, another blue-chip Richmond law firm. It isn’t known yet if the western bypass players will follow suit.
Some feel squeezed by big inside players such as CSX, Amtrak and state and federal bureaucrats. They control the bureaucratic process in which the 17-member Commonwealth Transportation Board will make a final recommendation after state and federal officials complete their assessments, including routes and costs.
One option that would let many off the hook is using a short-line railroad trunk line to bypass Ashland to the east. But in 2002, bureaucrats took that off the table, saying it was too disruptive and expensive. Still, some Ashland residents see it as a solution to ease community tensions.
Ashland isn’t the only city to be put in such a squeeze. In Fredericksburg, there are similar controversies about putting an extra line at the downtown Amtrak station or going with an eastern bypass that critics say would destroy homes, farms and Civil War battlegrounds. In Richmond, there’s a dispute over whether to shut down Main Street Station, a newly renovated Italianate structure built in 1901, in favor of a brand-new one near Boulevard and Interstate 95.
Back at Tiny Tim’s Toys and Trains in Ashland, the manager is wistful as she views the double tracks just outside her shop’s front door and ponders a third rail. “It would destroy us,” she says. “Our business would be done.”