Third rail idea floated for Ashland

November 16, 2014

Source: Herald-Progress, Ashland

Ashland residents could benefit from a project aimed at improving passenger rail service from Washington D.C. to Richmond. But, engineers are grappling with how a proposed third track could fit alongside the two tracks that already run through the middle of downtown Ashland.

Last week, citizens were able to learn about the project at a public meeting held by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration at the Hanover Arts and Activities Center. The two agencies are working together to come up with railway improvements that will ultimately enhance passenger travel between the two cities on the 123-mile stretch of track owned by CSX.

In order for the agencies to acquire a grant to enter the design and construction phase of the project, they are required by the federal government to produce an environmental impact statement that will detail actions they plan to take to improve rail service in this corridor. The statement would also include whether the improvements will affect things like air and water quality and populations living in the area.

Emily Stock, manager of rail planning for VDRPT, said the first part of the process of the three-year study is the “scoping” phase, which is when they host several meetings in areas along the corridor to introduce the project and receive citizens’ input.

During the meetings, Stock said they try and figure out what resources are important to citizens living near the track and how they use existing train services. At the Nov. 6 meeting in Ashland, citizens had the opportunity to raise concerns to representatives from the agencies and fill out a comment form.

Proposed enhancements to the railway include a combination of those proposed by engineers to increase the speed of the rail and improvements residents living in the corridor believe are needed. Officials are floating the prospect of four additional round-trips in the corridor, Stock said.

The agencies are also considering adding a third track that would go from Northern Virginia to Richmond and would be used by both passenger and freight trains. Stock said they’d also like to add “passing sidings and crossovers that allow for more train movements” on the rail to maximize the trains’ efficiency.

“That’s really what drives down those trip times and increases the reliability of the service,” she said.

Improvements under consideration in the Ashland area include the additional track.

“There’s not much space in Ashland – that would be a big deal­,” Stock said.

“It’s something that we want people’s input on,” she added.

Stock said another alternative to that action would be to bypass the town, but the purpose of this study is to look at the pros and cons of every possibility along the corridor.

One of the meeting’s attendees Gwen Bennett, of Ashland, was excited about the project possibly becoming a reality. Bennett said she’s interested in the project because she hopes it would make travelling to and from the Washington D.C. area less of a headache, especially for her daughter who often tries to visit her in Ashland, but is often hampered by heavy traffic on Interstate-95.

“In one of the best areas of the country, your life is dictated by the traffic and it’s just kind of ridiculous that we are in 2014 and you can’t get into the nation’s capital at certain times of the day,” Bennett said.

She hopes that the agencies can come up with a plan to shorten the travel time from Ashland to Northern Virginia and the D.C. area.

Another Ashland resident Penny Boyd echoed some similar sentiments. Boyd, who lives near the tracks that run through town, travels by train a few times a year to places such as Maine or D.C. and welcomes any improvements that would make her trips faster and more enjoyable.

Boyd believes that adding more trains would allow for more flexibility when individuals are scheduling trips, because right now there are a limited number of trains leaving out of the Ashland station.

“I think it would allow more travel,” she said.

Citizens can submit comments electronically by visiting the website or send suggestions and input by mail to: Emily Stock, Manager of Rail Planning, DRPT, 600 E. Main Street, Suite 2102, Richmond, VA 23220. All comments must be submitted by Dec. 5 to be a part of the official public record for the “scoping” phase of the project.