Yesterday, the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor planning group (SEHSR) — a project run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in association with the State of Virginia — released its draft environmental impact study (DEIS) for the 162-mile Raleigh-Richmond passenger rail route. The DEIS will undergo public review over the next two months in preparation for an eventual grant submission to the Federal Railroad Administration for up to three billion dollars to pursue the completion of this project over the next decade.
SEHSR is not proposing true high-speed rail: its trains will be limited to 110 mph, be powered by diesel locomotives, and be limited to single tracks along several route segments. But the project is nonetheless quite ambitious. Whereas current Amtrak service between the two capitals takes almost four hours, this project would reduce travel times to two hours by rerouting trains onto a more direct route and speeding travel. Whereas current service averages around 47 mph, the proposal would allow average speeds of 86 mph, a vast improvement.
If fully implemented, the states would offer four daily round trips between Raleigh and Washington, D.C. along the corridor. A final decision about exact route choices will be made next year.
Neither the Federal Railroad Administration nor the States of North Carolina or Virginia have yet committed significant funding to the completion of this project, though the two states did receive a total of $620 million from Washington in January thanks to the ARRA stimulus bill. Those funds will allow the construction of a third track between Richmond and Washington, D.C. and allow North Carolina to increase speeds to 90 mph between Raleigh and Charlotte, the state’s largest city.
SEHSR’s long-term plans would reduce travel times along the 450-mile route between Charlotte and Washington to between 6h10 and 6h50, down from 9h40 on the Carolinian today (though the Crescent runs a separate route in 8h07). The primary time savings in the medium-term would come from the implementation of this Raleigh to Richmond corridor. A direct route between Raleigh and Charlotte (trains between the cities now take an round-about route to serve Durham and Greensboro), long mentioned as a possibility to speed trains to Atlanta, would be similarly effective, but that project is far off.
Today, Amtrak Carolinian trains travel along a circuitous route through Rocky Mount, North Carolina between Raleigh and Richmond. In this study, SEHSR has proposed moving most of those trains to the 35-mile-shorter CSX-owned alignment that parallels U.S. 1. The states hope to reach agreement with the freight rail company to increase speeds to 110 mph by eliminating all grade crossings along the route (requiring the closing or bridging of more than 100 crossings) and by including five-mile siding tracks every ten miles along the single-track corridor.
This closing of the corridor to vehicle traffic would increase safety and allow for the eventual conversion to electric locomotion if warranted. The report states that “The current designs will not preclude conversion to electricity in the future, thus allowing higher speeds.” Such an investment would basically mean the extension of the Northeast Corridor south from Washington — and indeed, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman suggested last year that electrification from Washington to Richmond was one of his top priorities. That possibility, however, remains far in the future; it’s not included in the funding estimates here. And though this more limited proposal has merit, it is in competition with dozens of other proposals from around the country, so it has no guarantee of being funded anytime soon.
Even if funded, the SEHSR project does face a number of additional obstacles. In other states, CSX has proven to be a mediocre partner; after weeks of negotiations, the company finally agreed to let New York State use its corridor between Albany and Buffalo for new rail service, but it has yet to endorse the 110 mph trains that the state wants. Similarly, CSX demanded a large insurance policy from the State of Florida for the construction of the Orlando-area Sunrail line. Will North Carolina and Virginia be manhandled similarly?
Meanwhile, there are a number of alternative route alignments for this corridor that could pit local interests against statewide needs. In downtown Raleigh, two separate corridors are being considered; one would cost far more but the other may produce too much damage to a growing center city.
In recent years, though, both of these Mid-Atlantic states have been good custodians of their intercity rail networks; they’re likely to see this project through eventually. That is, as long as the federal government reaffirms its commitment to rail through continued annual appropriations, no sure thing in these cutback-ridden times.
Image above: Route options for Raleigh-Richmond Corridor of Southeast High-Speed Rail, from SEHSR