Groups want a passenger train route from the ‘Blue Ridge to the beach’

An Amtrak passenger train crosses the James River in Richmond. (Taber Bain/Flickr/Creative Commons License 2.0)

As a long-awaited higher-speed passenger rail project between Richmond and Washington gets a key federal approval, a coalition of business, higher education, transportation and environmental groups wants the state to study the possibility of connecting the state via east-west passenger rail service.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation announced that the lengthy environmental impact review for the DC2RVA rail project, which aims to boost passenger and commuter rail capacity and cut travel times along the Interstate 95 corridor, is complete, making the project eligible for federal funding for advanced planning.

“DC2RVA includes a long-term vision for transforming the future of rail in Virginia for generations to come,” said DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell. “Now that environmental clearance is complete, construction of additional rail capacity in the Northern Virginia region can begin.”

The same day, Virginians for High Speed Rail, Virginia21, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Roanoke Regional and Hampton Roads chambers of commerce published a report urging the state to come up with a plan to connect “the Blue Ridge to the beach” by train. 

“This expansion to our rail system would increase points of access for so many people across the state and beyond,” said Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail. “The corridor could serve nearly 3.7 million Virginians who live within 20 miles of a rail station by expanding our transportation connectivity.”

Mitchell said the state is enthusiastic about a future east-west connection.

“It’s definitely something we’d like to see in the long term,” she said.

The last cross-state train, Amtrak’s Hilltopper, stopped running almost 40 years ago, the report stated. Now, passenger rail service run largely north-south. Riders who want to travel between Norfolk and Roanoke are in for a 16-hour ride, which includes a six-hour layover in Washington D.C.

An east-west train connection would connect 35 colleges or universities, the report stated, impacting close to half a million students when factoring in train transfers from the proposed east-west route.

Using the train to cross the state would reduce traffic and environmental impacts of driving, the report said, encourage more tourism and better connect 17 military installations in the state.

The group suggested using Norfolk Southern tracks from Christiansburg to Charlottesville, then Buckingham Branch to Doswell and then switch to CSX tracks, where some trains would go down the Peninsula to Newport News and others would go southeast to Norfolk with a bus connection to Virginia Beach. 

There are portions of that proposed route that don’t have tracks suitable for passenger trains, the report said. Plus, the state would have to work out an agreement to use the tracks that are owned by private companies (CSX and Norfolk Southern).

Finally, Amtrak and the state would have to figure out a way to provide enough train sets to run the new route. Right now, Amtrak doesn’t have enough, meaning Virginia would have to purchase its own or assist Amtrak in rehabilitating old trains.

At the moment, the state is prioritizing connections to Washington D.C., since so many regional passenger routes will go through or to D.C. and Northern Virginia, Mitchell said.