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Virginia moves closer to extending passenger rail to the New River Valley

Cardinal News – June 4, 2024 | By Markus Schmidt

The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority on Tuesday announced that it is in preliminary discussions with Norfolk Southern about an alternative way to extend passenger rail to the New River Valley that would avoid a costly tunnel upgrade and make it easier to eventually bring service to Bristol.

After receiving information earlier this year regarding the cost and timeframe for a previous plan that would use about 28 miles of the Virginian Line, which the commonwealth purchased from Northfolk Southern in 2022, the authority revisited negotiations with the railroad operator to find a more cost-effective and timelier alternative. 

The previous proposal — which included building a temporary platform on Cinnabar Road in 2028 with an extension through the Merrimac Tunnel to a permanent station near the New River Valley Mall in 2030 — would have had a price tag of an estimated $951 million. Under the alternative plan, a new platform would be built on Norfolk Southern’s main line, the so-called N-Line, at the company’s Cambria Yard in Christiansburg, which served rail passengers from 1904 to 1979. A cost estimate has not been made available yet.

“The shift to a Cinnabar mall location was much more expensive than any of us expected and would also take a lot more time,” DJ Stadtler, the authority’s executive director, said at Tuesday’s board meeting. 

“We took that and we went back to Norfolk Southern and talked with them, and we said that this is not what any of us had in mind when we made the announcement back in 2021. Is there any way we can revisit getting Christiansburg back on the mainline? And Norfolk Southern totally understood where we were coming from, and they said, ‘Right, the main line is a better solution; let’s work together to see if we can make that happen.’”

Norfolk Southern Senior Vice President Mike McClellan said in a statement that the company values its relationship with VPRA and appreciates the role the authority plays in advancing passenger rail in Virginia.

“We look forward to continuing to partner on projects like this that stand to serve the interests of our communities while also balancing the needs of our freight customers and the economy we support,” McClellan said. 

As part of the new proposal, the commonwealth would sell its 28-mile stretch of the Virginian Line back to Norfolk Southern — it purchased the line for $38.2 million several years ago — and in return would buy the Manassas Line in Northern Virginia, which the VPRA said would be beneficial to riders using the line’s Virginia Railway Express commuter service.

The state’s new agreement with Norfolk Southern could potentially reduce the cost and accelerate plans to expand passenger rail service through Southwest Virginia, the agency said in a statement Tuesday. 

“Following recent public outreach in the New River Valley that included surveys and public meetings, it became clear that service on the N-Line was also the preferred option for constituents there,” the statement said.

Stadtler said at the board meeting that the authority will work with Norfolk Southern between now and its next board meeting on Aug. 4 to determine the feasibility of staying on the main line and having a station stop at Cambria.

“It’s a hard deadline, so when we come back in the August board meeting we will have a recommended path forward,” Stadtler said. “We have a level of optimism. … Cambria is really in the heart of Christiansburg. It really would be a good solution for all.”

Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, who has been advocating for an extension of passenger rail into Southwest Virginia for years, called Tuesday’s announcement a practical path forward toward getting Amtrak to the New River Valley.

“This helps alleviate the vehicle traffic on Interstate 81 and it’s a safe means by which to move people and passengers. I think it’s a viable solution for our transportation needs in Virginia,” Austin said. “With the volume of ridership that we have promoted out of Roanoke, this will further help getting cars off the interstate. But I think it requires an investment in both road and railway to move people today.”

Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller said in an email Tuesday that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration was encouraged that the VPRA and Norfolk Southern are “exploring an opportunity that could deliver passenger rail to a historic location in the New River Valley sooner, faster, and cheaper,” while also enhancing rail service in Northern Virginia. 

“We will continue to work with VPRA and Norfolk Southern to advance negotiations and due-diligence activities to ensure the commonwealth can deliver the highest return for taxpayers,” Miller said. 

Decades of work

Efforts to expand a passenger railway to Southwest Virginia and beyond began in the late 1980s, when the commonwealth transitioned its rail division to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, an agency that was — at least in theory — equal to the Virginia Department of Transportation. 

“Back then it was so hard to get anything done at all for rail, because there was the ideological viewpoint that the state had no business financing anything to do with railroads,” said Michael Testerman, the executive director of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute, a nonprofit working to improve public policy relating to freight and passenger rail in the commonwealth. “During this transition period, the department was taking baby steps just to try and develop any kind of public policy for rail development.”

William Wampler Jr., a state senator at the time, was instrumental in getting the funding for a “very ambitious passenger rail study,” Testerman said. “It was basically going to be an in-state service that originated in Bristol and went to Lynchburg, where branches would split off to Richmond and up to Charlottesville, Manassas and Washington, D.C.”

While there was some initial enthusiasm for the idea, especially in the Tri-Cities area, “it wasn’t getting anywhere because Norfolk Southern said we were too aggressive in planning for passenger trains,” Testerman said. The railroad, he added, would have held up freight trains to allow passenger trains to pass in the opposite direction on the single-track road from Radford to Bristol. “These were legitimate concerns.”

An effort by the Lynchburg Chamber of Commerce to promote a service called the Trans Dominion Express — which would have provided trains in Lynchburg that split, going to Washington, Richmond and Bristol — also stalled after nearly a decade. 

But in October 2009, Amtrak launched regional daily service in Southwest Virginia with one round trip between Lynchburg and Washington. During its first year of operation, ridership outperformed forecasts by more than triple. In November 2017, the state expanded service to Roanoke, and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the route was one of the most profitable intercity passenger rail routes in the country, according to the governor’s office.

In the spring of 2021, then-Gov. Ralph Northam announced during a visit in Christiansburg that Virginia had reached an agreement with Norfolk Southern to bring passenger rail to the New River Valley and increase the intercity service from Roanoke to the Northeast corridor.

The administration at the time said that the expanded intercity rail service would create “significant economic benefits” and provide additional options for travelers along the Interstate 81 and U.S. 29 corridor, and add approximately 80,000 new passengers in the first year. 

The commonwealth then acquired about 28 miles of the Norfolk Southern-owned Virginian Line right of way and tracks from Christiansburg to Salem, and a passenger rail easement between Salem and the Amtrak platform in Roanoke. Under the agreement, Norfolk Southern would continue to provide freight service on the line.

During the final days of the Northam administration in January 2022, Virginia and Norfolk Southern reached a definitive agreement to extend passenger rail to the New River Valley.

After that the state began more formal planning to extend the route from Roanoke to Christiansburg — with an eye toward eventually expanding it west to Bristol.

At the time, Norfolk Southern wanted Amtrak’s New River Valley extension to avoid its busy mainline route and instead go from Roanoke to Christiansburg on its lesser-used Virginian Line through the Ellett Valley, with a new passenger station to be built near the New River Valley Mall.

While it would have been fairly straightforward to get to that site from Norfolk Southern’s mainline, reaching it from the Virginian Line would have required going through the Merrimac Tunnel. That plan hit a snag in early 2024, when the VPRA released a report stating that upgrading the pre-World War I-era tunnel to modern passenger rail standards would be so expensive that an extension of the line to Bristol would be impossible. 

According to the report, the mile-long tunnel lacks the means to evacuate passengers in an emergency. To get the tunnel up to National Fire Protection Association standards, it would need three ventilation fans and two vertical shafts — one the equivalent of 15 stories, the other the equivalent of 20 stories — to be able to get rescue workers in and passengers out. Geological studies have found that the soil around the tunnel is “largely poor to very poor quality,” which makes construction difficult — and more expensive.

The passenger rail endeavors by Northam and his secretary of transportation, Shannon Valentine, were “sincere and intentional” in wanting to get service to the New River Valley, said Testerman, the VRPI executive director. 

“But the fact that they looked at placing a station that was not on the main line, and when they finally purchased the Virginian Line, it just made no sense whatsoever, if you are going to get to Bristol.”

While negotiations over the latest proposal are in the early stages, VPRA and Norfolk Southern now say that they have “established a mutually beneficial framework for both passenger and freight rail that would service,” according to the statement released Tuesday.

Beth Rhinehart, the president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, joined the board meeting virtually to thank VPRA officials for their latest effort.

“You are working to recognize the value of this additional mode of transportation for all Virginians, and a lot of work has been done that is turning out a lot of positive results,” she said.

Rhinehart said in a recent interview that the chamber has never stopped fighting for the extension of passenger rail to Bristol. 

“We know how important it is for Southwest Virginia to have a lot of the same access and opportunities as the rest of the commonwealth, and passenger rail is no different in that regard,” Rhinehart said. 

“It is certainly a mode of transportation that anyone who’s been on I-81 between here and Roanoke and beyond knows how important it is to be able to transfer some of that freight off the interstate and give people a new opportunity for travel that we don’t currently have.”

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