Intercity Rail Norfolk Richmond

A Bipartisan Push for Rail in Virginia Produces Ridership Successes

» An expanding rail network in Virginia serves more customers and demonstrates that the public will come when new and better train service is offered.

Despite the significant opposition to investment in intercity rail from Republican governors in states from Ohio to Florida, Virginia’s GOP leadership has taken a considerably different course. In office since January 2010, Bob McDonnell has presided over a significant expansion in Amtrak routes — and more is expected by the end of this year. In the meantime, the state’s population has gobbled up the service offered, seeing very significant increases in ridership, offering considerable evidence that Americans are perfectly willing to take the train — if the right routes are provided.

Amtrak service to the state capital at Richmond and points further south via services such as the Carolinian, Palmetto, and Silver Meteor/Silver Star has been offered for decades, as has a line to Newport News, which serves as an extension of the Northeast Regional route that serves cities as far north as Boston.

But in 2009, thanks to an agreement between Amtrak and the State of Virginia (under former Democratic governor Tim Kaine), new service was opened between Washington and Lynchburg, via Culpepper and Charlottesville, offering rail to the western sections of the state. Later this year, another route will be opened, adding Amtrak services to Norfolk as part of the Virginia intercity rail mix. Though the project, which cost $115 million in line upgrades, will provide only one daily round trip to Washington (in four and a half hours), two more are planned if the state can secure an additional $75 million for the purpose. Federal rail grants, which are now impossible to get because of a deadlock on transportation funding in Washington, would be very helpful.

As seen in the chart below, Amtrak ridership has increased steadily over the past three years on many major state-supported Amtrak routes. The Keystone Corridor, a route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg that I profiled in 2009, has continued to see major gains in ridership, increasing its monthly ridership in May from about 100,000 to more than 120,000. Much of that improvement is likely due to increased service frequencies and faster trains introduced as part of a capital investment partnership between the State of Pennsylvania and Amtrak.

In terms of percentage change in ridership, however, routes like the Keystone are expanding ridership only about as quickly as the system as a whole, or about 20% since 2009. As shown in the chart below, other routes have seen far higher increases in ridership, notably in Virginia and North Carolina. Since 2009, trains to Newport News have increased their passenger counts by more than 60% and those running to and through North Carolina (the Carolinian and Piedmont) by almost 80%. Since 2010, the first year for which data is available, Amtrak trains to Lynchburg have increased their ridership by more than 60% as well. Investments in improved Amtrak services appear to be producing beneficial results.

Though the Amtrak trains to Norfolk will start off with very limited service, the service seems likely to be popular in a state with such a record of late. Norfolk’s new light rail line — the Tide — stops at the future rail station, and it has seen higher ridership than estimated. Its 4,800 daily users far exceed initial predictions of 2,900 a day. With a lengthening of that route into Virginia Beach now being considered, access to Amtrak service will be even more convenient to thousands more.

In addition to the planned increase in service frequency, Virginia hopes to invest further in its intercity rail portfolio. It has already spent $370 million on the upgrade of the line between Richmond and Washington, and it hopes to extend the spur to Newport News further south to serve that city’s downtown. But the biggest proposal on the books is a significant improvement in service further south, into North Carolina, as part of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Project. Tolls on I-95 have been mentioned to help pay for that project (though they have seen significant opposition from some), and indeed some source of funding is necessary if the project is to be under construction within a year, as is technically possible.

But without additional federal funding, the likelihood of real rail improvement projects actually being implemented is limited at best.

Image at top: Map of planned Norfolk-Richmond rail services, from Virginia DRPT

High-Speed Rail North Carolina Richmond Triangle NC

Southeast High-Speed Rail Releases Detailed Proposals for Raleigh-Richmond Corridor

» Project would halve travel time between the two state capitals, but it’s not yet an extension of the Northeast Corridor towards the south.

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