Virginia High-Speed Rail Project Advances

January 20, 2015

From ASCE.org (by Kevin Wilcox):

January 20, 2015—Work is under way on a Tier II environmental impact study (EIS), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, and preliminary engineering for a 123 mi high-speed rail corridor between the Washington, D.C., metro area and Richmond. The corridor, which passes through heavily urbanized areas and a Civil War battlefield, is a key link to extending high-speed passenger rail service along the East Coast.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) recently awarded a contract to the Richmond office of the engineering firm HDR to move the project forward on a projected three-year schedule. The 123 mi section is the northernmost part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which in current planning extends to Charlotte, North Carolina.

This project is the second Tier II EIS to be conducted in the corridor, building on a Tier I EIS completed in 2002, according to Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at RDPT. Each Tier II assessment covers a different segment of the overall study area.

"If you think about it, [this] really is the critical link between the Southeast high-speed rail system that is being developed by Virginia and North Carolina and the northeast corridor that runs between Washington, D.C. and Boston-maintained and operated by Amtrak," says John Morton, P.E., the director of rail environmental programs for HDR.

There are currently three rail lines through the busy northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. That number drops to two as the corridor moves into the more rural areas of the state. The corridor is bustling, CSX and Norfolk Southern freight trains sharing the rails with passenger trains operated by Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express.

"Right now, the corridor is pretty busy with freight trains, intercity passenger trains, long-distance passenger trains, and commuter rail activity," Morton says. "One of the challenges is to make sure that by introducing higher-speed passenger trains, we are not degrading anybody else's service. We need to be very mindful of all the other uses and all the other users on the corridor, [and make] sure that we are preserving those uses and those opportunities that they have there."

Although the team is still in the process of developing alternatives, the project will most likely include the addition of a third line in areas that currently have two. Also under discussion is a fourth line in areas of the corridor that currently have three. The addition of lines—crucial to bolster capacity in the corridor—presents a number of challenges for the team.

For one thing, the proposed corridor goes right through a military base: Marine Corps Base Quantico. "That is a big part of the corridor," Stock says. "We have a very secure, nationally important Marine base that we are going right through. So there are jurisdictional issues and security issues as you go through there."

The challenge is even greater in Ashland, Virginia, where the corridor right-of-way travels through a median between Center Street and Railroad Avenue in the heart of the city of 7,225. Adding a line there has been studied before, Morton notes, but to no avail. "Because you have a street on both sides and you have a lot of adjacent, historic land uses, so far nobody has figured out how to put a third line through there."

He says the high-speed rail team will work with the City of Ashland and others to examine alternatives.

Fredericksburg, Virginia, poses a similar challenge. Portions of the corridor are on a raised viaduct in the city. And, as the corridor exits to the south, it passes through the center of the hallowed ground of the Fredericksburg National Military Park.

Even in the areas that are not historically significant, the corridor is replete with tight rights-of-way, bounded by the Potomac River on one side and steep hills on the other. The corridor crosses several tributaries of the Potomac River, as well as wetland areas, meaning soil conditions for new rail bridges are poor. Additionally, Morton notes that the segment currently under study has a staggering 100 at-grade crossings that would need to be improved, removed, or grade-separated to provide safety for motorists and high-speed trains.

There are some obstacles presented by the historic nature of the corridor itself, as well. Portions of the corridor date to the earliest days of rail travel in the United States. And although infrastructure and the corridor itself have been updated and well maintained, some of the grades, curves, and bridges were designed at a time when a passenger train traveling at 90 miles per hour was considered science fiction. "The rail line was started in the early 1800s and the right-of-way today is pieced together from a number of different railroads that were chartered back in the 1830s and 1840s," Morton explains. "The width of the actual right-of-way, the ownership of the right-of-way, and the types of abutting land uses vary considerably. There are places where it is a very tight right-of-way."

Much of this infrastructure was simply not made for modern rail transportation, he points out. "The types of trains that operate on it, their speed, the length of those trains, were all different when this was laid out," Morton says. "Some of the routing decisions made sense at the time. But perhaps today you wouldn't necessarily make that same choice."

The design team's goal is to make all the lines in the corridor interoperable, so that freight trains and high-speed passenger trains can run on any of the available tracks. This creates a balancing act for the engineers of the project.

"The superelevation or the amount of bank you put in needs to be carefully thought out so you provide an appropriate ride comfort to your passengers, but at the same time the slower moving freight trains aren't tilting too badly," Morton says. "It is a very curvy rail line today, so curves and the superelevation are all things that we need to be looking at as part of the engineering effort."

The $55-million EIS and preliminary engineering project, which is slated for completion in late 2017, is funded by DRPT via a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, and a contribution from the host railroad, CSX.

>> Read full news story at: http://www.asce.org/magazine/20150120-virginia-high-speed-rail-project-advances/