High-speed rail studied for Richmond-D.C. line

June 9, 2015

Source: Luz Lazo, The Washington Post 

If traffic is smooth on Interstate 95, driving is the quickest way to get from Richmond to Washington - even faster than taking the train, which can take up to 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Virginia transportation officials say they want to cut that train ride to 90 minutes, make passenger train travel more reliable and attractive to travelers in the corridor, and increase capacity.

And they want to make that happen by 2025.

The state and Federal Railroad Administration are exploring the feasibility of high-speed rail in the 123-mile stretch connecting the two cities. Virginia officials say the plan is to raise the maximum rail speed from the current 70 mph to 90 mph and, in doing so, make intercity passenger rail more reliable for people in the corridor and more competitive with car and air travel.

That would require maximizing the efficiency of the infrastructure while making enhancements to increase rail capacity. The corridor, which generally has a two-track system, is used by commuter and passenger rail as well as freight. The federal environmental review is looking at adding a third track all along the corridor, modernizing stations, adding passing sidings and crossovers to allow for trains to pass one another more easily and straightening some curves to achieve faster speed.

"These improvements will decrease travel time and increase the reliability of the service in the corridor," said Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Construction is half completed on adding a third track in the area used by Virginia Railway Express, which provides commuter rail service from Fredericksburg to Washington.

The Richmond-Washington project is part of a nationwide push for high-speed rail and a federal plan to bring higher speed trains to the Southeast corridor, all the way to Florida.

Any improvements in the commonwealth's rail system also would support Amtrak's vision to transform the Northeast Corridor into a high-speed system by 2040. Many Northeast trains start their route in Virginia. (Amtrak resumed service from Norfolk to Washington in December 2012. An effort to add high-speed rail between Norfolk and Richmond is years away.)

Amtrak's plan calls for the replacement of its Acela Express fleet, which rarely reaches top speeds of 150 mph, with new high-speed trains that would cruise at top speeds of 220 mph. Last year, Amtrak put out a request for bids for the purchase of 28 new high-speed trains.

Amtrak's plan for the busy Northeast Corridor - which carries about 12 million passengers annually - would make a trip from New York to Washington possible in just 94 minutes, instead of the current three hours.

These rail projects however, remain a dream because of their high cost and uncommitted funding sources. The Obama administration's High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program has made $10.1 billion available to projects across the U.S., so far investing in more than 150 projects to advance high-speed plans. But with no permanent solution in sight to replenish the nation's dwindling transportation fund, significant progress in high-speed rail appears unlikely anytime soon.

 The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation says it hopes the federal environmental study, which is expected to be done in 2017, will deliver a plan detailing the improvements and cost. By then, the state would be able to seek federal funding and implement the recommendations in phases. Officials say they expect improvement over the next decade.

The Virginian-Pilot contributed to this report.