Plans for higher-speed rail between Richmond and Washington on track

December 8, 2015

Source: Luz Lazo | The Washington Post

Virginia is moving forward with a plan to speed train travel between Washington and Richmond by 2025.

The state’s rail agency and the Federal Railroad Administration are exploring the feasibility of higher-speed rail on the 123-mile stretch connecting the two capital cities. Midway through a federal environmental review, the agencies have identified possible improvements, including adding a third track all along the corridor, adding passing sidings and crossovers to allow trains to pass one another more easily, and straightening some curves to achieve faster speed.

Over the past few months engineers have also identified locations where the track could be straightened to allow for higher speeds. The plan, officials say, 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.

Cutting down the travel time between the two cities from the current 2 hour and 45 minutes to 90 minutes would make train travel more attractive to travelers in the corridor.  Ridership between the capital cities was 186,268 in the past fiscal year, according to Amtrak.

“The improvements that we are considering are going to have a huge impact on reliability,” said Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

With the current capacity and infrastructure, she said, there are many instances where Amtrak trains have to wait for one another. If there’s one train that’s delayed, the one behind it is delayed, she said.  When a CSX trains has to do a crew change, the passenger train behind has to wait for those crew changes to happen before they can move ahead.

“The additional sidings and additional crossovers and a third track will make the system we have now much more efficient and allow for trains to overtake one another and stay on schedule,” Stock said.

Already there is an effort to add a third track in the area used by Virginia Railway Express, which provides commuter rail service from Spotsylvania to Washington. That undertaking is more than halfway complete, officials said. Stock said the plan is fill in the gaps to provide a third track all along the 123 miles.

The recommendations also include a bypass in Fredericksburg and in Ashland to improve train traffic in the corridor. In the Richmond area, officials say they will present alternatives for possibly consolidating the two stations serving the state capital, keeping both, or building a new station in between.

Even if speed isn’t significantly raised all along the corridor, officials say the other improvements could significantly improve the system, draw more ridership, and contribute to efforts to reduce traffic on Interstate 95. Currently travel between the two cities can be quickest by car– it can take up to 45 minutes less than a train trip between Washington and Richmond if there’s no traffic.

The Richmond-D.C. project is one in the nationwide push for high-speed rail and is part of a larger federal plan for bringing higher speed trains to the Southeast corridor, reaching all the way to Florida.

None of the recommendations are final, officials said.  The environmental review process is expected to be completed in 2017, with a draft laying out final alternatives next year.

Officials are presenting their preliminary recommendations at three public meetings this week. Those attending the open-house style meetings will have access to maps showing areas in Northern and Central Virginia where the tracks could be straightened to increase speed. The presentations are also available online.

The open-house meetings will be held 5 to 7:30 p.m., with a presentation at 6 p.m. These are the locations:

  • Tuesday in Fredericksburg: Dorothy Hart Community Center, 408 Canal St.
  • Wednesday in Springfield: Hilton Springfield, 6550 Loisdale Road
  • Thursday in Richmond: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 2300 W. Broad St.