The new federal infrastructure law includes billions for Amtrak service and expansion. Some Virginia leaders hope those plans will ultimately include Bristol.
The legislation includes $66 billion to eliminate the current Amtrak maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor and bring rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation document.
Of that $66 billion, “$22 billion would be grants to Amtrak, $24 billion as federal-state partnership grants for the Northeast Corridor and $12 billion for partnership grants for intercity rail service, including high speed rail,” according to the document.
Additionally, states will compete for another $5 billion in rail improvement and safety grants and $3 billion for grade crossing safety improvements.
Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who voted for the bill, is optimistic some of those monies can bring rail service into Southwest Virginia.
“The bipartisan infrastructure bill represents the largest investment in passenger rail in decades and more than half the money is slated to go to reaching places that don’t currently have Amtrak access,” Warner said in a written statement. “With passage of this legislation into law, I’m optimistic we’ll finally be able to complete some of these rail projects we’ve been talking about in Virginia for so long, including the expansion of service to reach more places in Southwest.”
Amtrak currently serves much of Virginia including the Clifton Forge and Staunton area, Danville, Lynchburg, the Richmond to Washington, D.C., corridor, the Norfolk-Williamsburg corridor and its most recent expansion to Roanoke in October 2017.
In May, Gov. Ralph Northam announced passenger service would expand from Roanoke to Christiansburg by 2025 and a second round-trip train would run between Washington D.C. and Roanoke by 2022, as part of his $257.2 million Western Rail Initiative.
“My administration has delivered a record expansion of passenger rail service in Virginia — expanding Amtrak to Christiansburg, rebuilding the Long Bridge to unlock the biggest bottleneck on the East Coast, and working towards passenger service all the way to Bristol,” Gov. Northam said in a written statement. “Extending this service means more jobs, more opportunity and more economic growth for Southwest Virginia, and I'm grateful to Democratic leadership in Congress for supporting this.
“The next governor will take office with a significant rail infrastructure already in place and funding from Congress to build it out. I'm hopeful he will take advantage of this opportunity and continue our important work,” Northam said.
Bristol’s last passenger train departed in 1971. However the city’s historic train station has since been revitalized and efforts to secure service stepped up in 2017 when Amtrak began running a daily route between Lynchburg and Roanoke.
Bristol Virginia Mayor Anthony Farnum said he is “very optimistic.”
“A lot of people have been working on this for a long time. I think the expansion from Roanoke down to Christiansburg brings us one step closer. Looking at the Amtrak map, if you connect that line from Christiansburg through Bristol — whether you’re going Knoxville to Nashville or you’re going Knoxville to Chattanooga and south to Atlanta, it just seems like a logical next step.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, total Amtrak ridership plummeted 47% in fiscal 2019-20 but many Virginia routes actually fared better than the company average, according to Amtrak’s latest ridership report. The Washington-Roanoke route was down about 43% with about 124,700 riders compared to over 218,000 the prior year. The Washington-Norfolk experienced the least falloff of any Amtrak service, down 35.7%, with 152,500 riders compared to 237,000 in pre-pandemic 2018-19.
The Roanoke route experienced nearly 10% ridership growth in its second year of operation.
Amtrak service at Roanoke was on time 88% of the time in fiscal 2019-20, according to an Amtrak. That made it one of 18 state-supported train routes which received a passing grade with 80% or greater on-time service. Norfolk-Southern is the host railroad for Roanoke — as it would be if service is extended to Bristol. That firm received an overall “C” grade on delays from Amtrak in 2020.
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