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Virginia expands Amtrak service to downtown Richmond as part of $3.7 billion rail program

The new service to the state capital starts Monday as Virginia kicks off service enhancements

A Virginia Railway Express train crosses the Long Bridge over the Potomac River from Washington headed toward Arlington, Va. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Virginia is expanding Amtrak service in downtown Richmond this week that links to the nation’s capital, the first of multiple service enhancements planned as part of the state’s new multibillion-dollar rail expansion program.

A morning trip from Richmond’s Main Street to downtown Washington — with a returning night train to Richmond — is a response to growing demand for increased service between the two capital cities and is part of a plan to re-energize Richmond’s historic station.

“This transformative plan will make travel faster, and it will make travel safer. It will make it easier to move up and down the East Coast … and as of today, it will be easier to get from the heart of Richmond to Washington and back,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Monday before boarding the inaugural train to Washington.

“This will truly make Virginia a better place to live and to work,” he said.

Virginia is a rising leader in passenger rail. Here’s how it happened.

Northam joined other Virginia and railroad officials Monday to board the first train out of Richmond’s Main Street station at 5:35 a.m. The trip to Washington takes 2 hours and 47 minutes, arriving at Union Station at 8:22 a.m.

The service is part of the state’s $3.7 billion passenger rail program that seeks to get more commuters into trains. The plan includes a $1.9 billion rail bridge over the Potomac River to expand capacity for passenger trains and pledges to double passenger service in the state within the decade. It also would create a path to separate freight and passenger traffic.

The new Virginia-sponsored service to Main Street Station is an extension of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Route 51, which previously originated at Staples Mill Station outside Richmond. That trip had been suspended since the start of the coronavirus pandemic until it resumed Monday with the new station origin.

With its restoration, train service in Virginia is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Passengers will still be able to board at Staples Mill, said Haley Glynn, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The state in recent years has made improvements in the track between Staples Mill and Richmond Main Street to reduce the trip time from 45 minutes to about 25 minutes, Glynn said. Slow speeds between the stations were impediments to expanding service to downtown.

“We are bringing trains where the people are, to the more dense areas,” said Glynn, noting that Main Street is accessible via public transportation and bike sharing, and is near most destinations in downtown Richmond.

Amtrak is a top travel choice in the Northeast. With an ally in the White House, it wants trains in the rest of America.

Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, a nonprofit that advocates for rail service in the state, said the rail connection with Washington and Richmond is vital for the region to attract businesses and good-paying jobs.

“This new train opens up opportunities for someone to work for Amazon or the [federal government] in Washington and live in Richmond,” he said.

The extra trip to downtown Richmond is expected to generate 12,600 additional riders annually, state officials said. The trip costs about $38, but Virginia officials said promotions are often available, with fares for the 110-mile journey as low as $15.

This will be the first route to originate and terminate at Main Street Station in decades, according to state rail officials. Other service to downtown Richmond continues into Newport News.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said in a statement that bringing more trains to downtown Richmond is critical to “connect our vibrant capital city to Washington D.C. and population centers along the East Coast.” She added, “This extension will bring trains closer to where people live and work, expanding access and economic opportunity.”

In the long run, Amtrak expects to add six daily round trips to Richmond as part of the state’s decade-long growth plan.

Plans call for adding a new trip from Washington to Norfolk and another to Roanoke next spring. Two more trains would be added — one ending in Richmond and the other in Newport News — by 2026, with three additional trains to Richmond added by the end of the decade. Amtrak now runs five daily Northeast Regional round-trips to the Richmond area.

Virginia moves forward with plan to expand passenger rail in southwest part of state

In May, Northam announced a state agreement with Norfolk Southern to buy a stretch of rail tracks in southwest Virginia to bring passenger service to an area west of Roanoke to Christiansburg. That service, which could begin as early as 2025, would bring train service to the New River Valley for the first time in more than four decades.