The future for DC-to-Richmond high speed rail

June 11, 2015

More than a hundred people attended a public meeting at the Department of Motor Vehicles HQ in Richmond last Wednesday, where they had a chance to look over maps, watch a video on the proposed new rail line, and meet with officials in charge of the proposed rail service.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is exploring the feasibility of high-speed rail in the 123-mile stretch connecting the two cities. The proposed rail line would service trains capable of going up to 90 mph, reducing travel times between DC-and-Richmond to 90 minutes, making intercity rail service more reliable and a more attractive alternative to a region famous for its highway gridlock.

One of the centerpoints of the public showcase last Wednesday were maps of various proposed routes in or around Fredericksburg, Ashland, and Richmond, along with the proposed changes that would be made to existing railroads in these cities. Part of the reason for reaching out to the public is to showcase what will be needed in order to do that according to Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

“Right now, rail between Richmond and DC generally uses a two track system owned by CSX, use both by freight rail and passenger rail, as well as commuter rail in Northern Virginia,” said Stock. “For most of the route, we’d be looking at adding a third track to the existing system, as well as adding passing sidings and crossovers to some higher traffic areas along the route, all of which decrease travel times and increase the reliability of the service in the corridor.”

Stock also was quick to point out that the line will be built largely with federal grant money, as well as with contributions from CSX Transportation, the host railroad. The most recent cost estimate for the route, in 2009, was about $2 billion.

The proposed high-speed rail line also plays a part in the ongoing plans for the renovation of Richmond’s Main Street Station, with the potential to turn the city into a regional high-speed rail hub forming a central focus of redevelopment, along with a proposed indoor market and tourism center. At a tour of the site last Thursday, officials said the implications for the city would be enormous.

“High-speed rail would be a game-changer for the city,” said city planner Viktoria Badger. “It would connect downtown Richmond to all the downtowns on the East Coast.”

That game-changing interconnectivity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rail line’s planners—part of the reason the project has earned much of the attention that it has is that once completed, Richmond would likely end up a major high-speed rail hub, something that could have a tremendous impact on the region according to Kevin Page, Chief of Infrastructure Initiatives and Strategic Partnerships at DRPT.

“The DC-to-Richmond high-speed rail line will eventually be the link between the Northeast Corridor, which goes from DC to Boston, and the Southeast Corridor, which would go from Raleigh to Atlanta and down to Florida,” said Page. “What that means for the region is that Richmond and Virginia would be the terminus for two of the largest high-speed rail networks in the country.”

This is one of the reasons the DC-to-Richmond high-speed rail project is attracting attention even as a number of other high-speed rail projects are being proposed or built across the country. California broke ground earlier this year on a high-speed rail line what will eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Texas, developers are promising a high-speed line between Dallas and Houston within six years. While the DC-to-Richmond Tier II Study is currently underway, one for a similar high-speed corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte was recently approved in North Carolina. One specific example brought up by Emily Stock was how plans for high-speed rail in Virginia are working Amtrak to compliment redevelopment being done to the Northeast Corridor.

“In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak will be replacing the Acela Express with new high-speed trains that can reach speeds of 220 mph, and will cut rail travel time from Washington to New York from three hours to 90 minutes,” said Stock. “It’s an exciting, innovative time for high-speed rail in this country, and we’re doing all we can to make sure Virginia will be a part of it.”

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation says it hopes the federal environmental study, which is expected to be completed in 2017, will deliver an updated plan detailing the required improvements and cost. At that point, the state would be able to seek federal funding and implement the recommendations in phases. Officials say they expect improvements to be implemented over the next decade, with a hopeful completion date around 2025.