Thursday, February 29, 2024

How Virginia Passenger Rail will be Transformed in Next Decade

A southbound northeast regional train idling at Richmond Main Street Station. Main Street Station is to receive an extra track and room for engine facilities. That project is in the preliminary engineering phase. (Anna Parada/VCU InSight)

RICHMOND — Virginia will break ground on several long-awaited rail projects next year and has recently announced funding and construction partners.

Virginia’s investment in its passenger rail infrastructure aims to reduce chronic traffic, decrease its carbon footprint and catch up to states with a competitive state-run passenger rail service, such as New York and Illinois. The new focus on investment comes after decades of neglect.

Flash back to a late March afternoon at Alexandria Station in 2021. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg sits masked on stage as then-Gov. Ralph Northam announces a $3.7 billion investment in the state’s passenger rail over a 10-year span. 

Flash forward two years, and 9 of the initial 15 projects overseen by the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority will soon leave the station.

The VPRA oversees all state-supported passenger rail services. The General Assembly created the agency in 2020 to keep up the momentum and shield public infrastructure projects from wavering political sentiment.

“Regardless of who’s in office, I’m pretty confident that they’ve been in rush hour traffic before and they’ve been frustrated by congestion,” said DJ Stadtler, VPRA executive director. “We’ve got such a compelling mission that we shield ourselves from that kind of political up and down.”

Stadtler worked at Amtrak for 12 years in various executive roles prior to his work with the VPRA. He’s the organization’s first and only executive director. Amtrak is a partner in some VPRA efforts to transform rail service in Virginia.

“When you’re looking at adding infrastructure, Virginia is actually way ahead of the game,” said DJ Stadtler, VPRA executive director. “We’ve got the projects that are ready, they’re being designed now.”

Coming down the line

Nine projects are in varied states of preliminary engineering. That includes projects to the underserved but growing regions in Southwest Virginia and along the heavily trafficked Interstate-95 corridor between Richmond and Washington, D.C. At least a million passengers and millions of tons of freight ride the rails there annually.

A Virginia delegation announced $729 million in federal funding on Thursday that will help the completion of a new Long Bridge across the Potomac River and other projects.

“This investment will help transform the rail system in Virginia, improving the flow of people and goods not only within the Commonwealth, but up and down the entire East Coast,” stated Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in a press announcement. “I appreciate the collaboration between our senators, our congressional delegation, and our Secretary of Transportation to finalize the funding for this critical project this year and get this accomplished expeditiously.”

The VPRA announced on Wednesday the selection of three construction partners for two major projects.

One is the northern part of the Long Bridge project.

The current Long Bridge, a two-track, 119-year-old piece of infrastructure owned by CSX, has become a choke point for passenger and freight trains alike. It operates at 98% capacity during peak travel hours.

A two-track railroad bridge dedicated to passenger rail will be constructed next to the old Long Bridge. CSX will retain ownership of the original bridge and use it for freight traffic exclusively.

Skanska and Flatiron were announced as the companies that will move the project from design to completion, with prep work starting next year and full construction beginning in early 2025. Skanska USA worked on the Moynihan Train Hall at New York Penn Station. Flatiron Corp. worked on the completed sections of the California High-Speed Rail project.

The new bridge will double rail capacity over the Potomac River and allow for almost hourly service between Washington D.C. and Richmond when completed in 2030.

The south part of the Long Bridge project will create a two-track passenger rail bridge over the Potomac River, and an adjacent bicycle-pedestrian bridge that connects trails and parks in Arlington to those in Washington D.C. VPRA will consider requests for proposals in February 2024.

The entire Long Bridge project is projected to cost $2.3 billion.

Flatiron and Herzog Contracting Corp. will work on the Franconia-Springfield bypass, the VPRA announced Wednesday. Herzog worked on the Brightline expansion of rail service in Orlando.

The bypass will create a dedicated passenger rail bridge under one mile long, south of the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. The area is one of the most congested points in Virginia, according to the VPRA. A $100 million grant was awarded for this project in September. It is slated to cost approximately $405 million. Full construction will start in March 2024 and last two years.

There are multiple phases of the work VPRA will do along the I-95 corridor, with varied completion dates. The first two phases will add a combined 37 miles of additional track. Eventually, passengers will gain access to additional Amtrak round trips along I-95, and additional round trips and weekend service on the Virginia Railway Express Fredericksburg Line.

Other capital projects include increased service to Newport News and Norfolk, expansion of rail service to the New River Valley for the first time since 1979, and improved service between Richmond and Raleigh, North Carolina.

North Carolina on Tuesday announced a $1 billion U.S. Department of Transportation grant toward the Richmond to Raleigh project. That southern route will create a faster, more direct route between the cities.

In a broader sense, the Long Bridge connects Washington D.C. to the entirety of the Southeastern U.S. All northbound passenger trains from this region terminate in Washington, D.C.

 “We’re strong partners with other states like North Carolina,” Stadtler said. “They know that all of the infrastructure that they’re investing in is useless unless we deliver the Long Bridge because that really opens the capacity for everybody.”

Driving train ridership

 VPRA-led work appears to have increased interest in passenger rail. A record 1.26 million people rode Amtrak Virginia in the last fiscal year. The all-time monthly ridership record of 119,280 passengers was set in August 2022.

Erika Olivo-Espinoza is a college student who regularly takes the train between her Northern Virginia home and school in Richmond. Amtrak has pretty good diversity among its Virginia ridership, she said.

“I've seen a lot of students use Amtrak to go home as well,” Olivo-Espinoza said. “I've also seen a lot of older people who can't drive, and also some families.”

Olivo-Espinoza prefers Amtrak to other transportation methods, like the bus, due to its speed, frequency and amenities.

“I took the train because I didn’t have a car, it was just the most convenient thing for me, and it's not a long ride and they do have Wi-Fi,” Olivo-Espinoza said. “They have good services.”

The freight problem

Countries overseas have, for the most part, dedicated railways for passenger travel, according to Stadtler.

American passenger rail competes with freight railroads, which own the vast majority of trackage in the U.S. Freight trains stacked with cargo are long and slow-moving. Passenger trains need to go a lot faster. The two often get in each other’s way.

“Historically in our country, whenever we've wanted to add passenger rail, the freight railroads have said ‘well, it's our track, we're not going to do that,’” Stadtler said.

The U.S. standard is to negotiate track-sharing agreements with freight railroads, but the VPRA knew a different approach was needed to expand passenger rail.

“Let's go to the freight railroads,” Stadtler said. “Let's find out where we need to add capacity so we can literally put passenger trains on a different track.”

Virginia bought hundreds of miles of track from private freight railroads such as CSX and Norfolk Southern, at a total cost of $563 million. This investment will give passenger trains the right of way, make improvements to neglected rail infrastructure and increase train frequency.

A railroad crossing in Ashland, Virginia. Several crossings like these along the I-95 corridor will be closed and replaced with rail bridges. (VCU Capital News Service)

Redesigning rail safety

New rail infrastructure projects, especially along the I-95 corridor, will increase safety through design. Railroads will be routed above roadways via bridges and streets will be redesigned.

 Virginia is ranked 13th in U.S. railroad crossing collisions, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Almost all U.S. railroad fatalities are a result of either pedestrians trespassing or collisions at railroad crossings.

“So when you close crossings you eliminate entrances or, you know, passageways across a track,” said Margaret Cannell, state coordinator for North Carolina Operation Lifesaver.

Cannell pointed out that in Japan there are very few instances of vehicles or pedestrians hit by trains. High-speed trains in Japan travel up to 200 mph. In Virginia, Amtrak trains move at speeds up to 79 mph, but on average at 50 mph.

“It's because the train tracks are separated from vehicles and from people,” Cannell said. “They're elevated or they're completely separated so that those paths don't cross.”

North Carolina engaged in a series of rail improvements in the late 2010s called the Piedmont Corridor project. It was similar to the improvements Virginia is undertaking now. Over 48 North Carolina crossings were closed, according to Cannell.

 The North Carolina Department of Transportation and VPRA are working closely together on projects, according to Cannell.

“They’re fully invested in making sure that it's the safest that it can be and that the number of crossings that have to exist are minimal and they're as safe as they could be,” Cannell said.

Cannell saw how impactful the North Carolina improvements were, and said Virginia’s new focus is “a big deal” -- a “legacy” program.

“It’s a big thing to be doing and the cooperation of CSX and VDOT has … just completely made this a really great project,” Cannell said. “One that people will be talking about using for many, many years to come.”

Reporter Anna Parada of VCU InSight contributed to this report. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for various media outlets in Virginia. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.

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