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Passenger rail agreement has ‘potential’ for Southwest service
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Passenger rail agreement has ‘potential’ for Southwest service

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A major transportation project announcement in Virginia on Tuesday included “the potential” of extending passenger rail to Southwest Virginia, but no mention of service to Bristol.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and officials from Amtrak and CSX participated in a news conference to announce finalizing $3.7 billion worth of agreements, including a new Virginia-owned $1.9 billion passenger rail-only Long Bridge spanning the Potomac River and related impacts to rail service in Virginia and the eastern U.S. The event was livestreamed on the governor’s social media pages.

Built in 1904, the current single-track Long Bridge is the sole rail link between Virginia and the northeastern U.S. and — at 98% capacity with both freight and passenger service — has stifled the potential for any passenger rail expansion, state officials previously said.

“Together with our partners at Amtrak, CSX and VRE [Virginia Railway Express], we are finalizing agreements needed to move forward with a tremendous project, our $3.7 billion transforming-rail-in-Virginia initiative,” Northam said. “This transformative plan will make travel faster and safer. It will make it easier to move up and down our East Coast, and it will connect urban and rural Virginians.”

The new two-track bridge is expected to be completed by 2030.

The state is also poised to invest $1 billion in additional rail infrastructure projects over the next decade, Northam said.

Plans include preserving an existing freight corridor between Doswell and Clifton Forge for future east-west passenger service, laying the foundation for a Southeast high speed rail corridor, doubling the number of Virginia-supported Amtrak trains providing hourly service and increasing VRE commuter service in northern Virginia by 60%.

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Virginia will acquire 386 miles of rail corridor right-of-way between Washington, D.C., to Petersburg, Virginia, from CSX along with 223 miles of CSX track from Petersburg to Ridgeway, North Carolina, and the entire corridor from Doswell to Clifton Forge, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

“And we will create the potential to expand rail service to more parts of our commonwealth — this is important — including rail to Christiansburg and Blacksburg in Southwest Virginia,” the governor said.

Groups in Bristol and the New River Valley have worked for years trying to attract Amtrak service deeper into Virginia. Amtrak extended passenger service to Charlottesville in 2009 and Roanoke in October 2017.

Last week, Northam signed legislation to create a New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority. It would enable three governing bodies in the greater Blacksburg-Christiansburg region to create an independent governing body to establish a passenger station in that area.

Multiple studies have shown interest in extending service westward to Bristol, however, Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks between Roanoke and Bristol, withdrew from conversations about expanding passenger service in late 2018. The cost to upgrade the railroad tracks between Roanoke and Bristol was estimated at $30 million in a 2019 study by the Community Transportation Association of America.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn outlined some of his company’s plans.

“As we look forward to the future, our critical partnership with the commonwealth of Virginia, we’re going to invest close to $1 billion in the next 10 years to update infrastructure and expand passenger rail here in Virginia,” Flynn said.

The deal includes the state and Amtrak entering into a long-term partnership for six new state-supported daily round trips, and Amtrak will be Virginia’s exclusive provider of intercity passenger rail service along the Interstate 95 corridor for at least 30 years, according to a written statement.

Additionally, Amtrak is slated to receive $1.7 billion in new federal funding as part of the recently approved American Rescue Plan.

“After the passage of the rescue plan, Amtrak announced the restoration of 12 long-distance routes to 7-day-a-week operation, including the Crescent, Palmetto, Silver Star and Silver Meteor routes right here through Alexandria, Virginia,” Buttigieg said.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC | Facebook.com/david.mcgee.127

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