Editorial: High-speed rail plan picks up steam in Fredericksburg region

July 9, 2016

Source: Free Lance Star | Editorial Board Staff

Discussions of high-speed rail running through the Fredericksburg region have come and gone for decades like so many freight trains.

However, serious planning for faster passenger trains and expanded freight rail capacity is now underway by state and federal transportation departments along the East Coast. The Southeast High Speed Rail project is an overdue multimodal approach to ease congestion on the Interstate 95 corridor. Expanded rail service must be part of the solution.

The project involves adding tracks, straightening out curves and reducing the number of railroad crossings mostly along the existing CSX line. Bypass lines are proposed when a third set of tracks would be difficult to build because of nearby development, historic structures or other concerns.

A bypass east of Fredericksburg to avoid the city’s historic district and the 1910 station on Lafayette Boulevard has residents in the path of the proposed line all steamed up. The Right Rail for the Rappahannock Region group has formed to oppose the bypass. New tracks would be laid south of Spotsylvania’s Virginia Railway Express station in the New Post area, swing into Caroline County, cross the Rappahannock River into southern Stafford County and tie into the Dahlgren spur. It would link back to the CSX main line from there.

Another option is a no-build alternative that wouldn’t add a third track, but rather rely on improvements at crossings, signals and safety systems. This plan wouldn’t add capacity and would slow train speeds here. All the proposals envision some expansion of the Fredericksburg station.

Now’s the time for residents to weigh in on the alternatives. Those interested in seeing what the future may hold for faster train service between Washington, D.C., and Richmond can get details on the project from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at Fredericksburg Christian High School. Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation representatives will provide an update for what’s ahead for the 123 miles of tracks between the state and national capitals.

The project has gained momentum since the Federal Railroad Administration determined that raising the train speeds from Florida to D.C. would provide a viable and efficient transportation choice that’s competitive with airlines and autos. Improved rail service received a major boost last week when Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia will receive a $165 million federal FASTLANE grant for roads and rails in the I–95 corridor. Among the projects are construction of new tracks in Northern Virginia and expansion of Washinton’s Long Bridge, a bottleneck for VRE and Amtrak trains.

Such investments allow for a higher-speed rail system rather than anything like European or Japanese bullet trains. In our region, top speeds would increase to 90 mph. The current speed limit in the corridor is 70 mph. Some question whether that’s worth the money and effort, but our region can’t depend on highways alone.

A final decision on a preferred alternative route could be made once the environmental impact statement is completed next year. Funding for the improvements could take years.

Of course, the Fredericksburg area isn’t the only one where the plans are causing controversy. In Hanover County, residents of Ashland and Randolph–Macon College officials oppose plans to add tracks and a station in the heart of the town. The rail project would require the demolition of college buildings and divide the campus. However, that became the preferred alternative after the Hanover Board of Supervisors withdrew support for a bypass around the town.

Public involvement is at a critical point. No one wants to get railroaded, but for moving people and goods, improved train service must be part of our transportation system.