Don’t give up on the idea just yet of passenger rail service coming to Abingdon and Bristol, despite the news that a recently announced passenger rail plan for Virginia does not include the extension of Amtrak trains from Roanoke to our region.
In fact, the proposal unveiled by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and executives of CSX Transportation should help end an impasse that has been preventing any consideration of expansion of service that would bring our region and perhaps even East Tennessee onto the Amtrak route map.
What the new plan eventually will do is end a railway congestion problem at the Potomac River just outside Washington, D.C., that prevents further passenger or freight rail traffic expansion, because the only railroad bridge across the river is already operating at nearly full capacity.
State transportation officials have been telling us for the past year that until the rail traffic jam over the Potomac is resolved, there’s essentially no hope that we’ll see regular passenger service extended here.
The remedy is at hand: Northam and CSX announced that there is an agreement in the works for a $3.7 billion project that includes money to pay for a new state-owned rail bridge over the Potomac that would be dedicated to passenger trains entering the busy rail gateway that trains into D.C. and northward must use.
According to a report in the Bristol Herald Courier, the proposal would include federal, state and regional partners — including Amtrak — to fund the new bridge. The story also noted that Amtrak’s board of directors “has approved a memorandum of understanding with the commonwealth that outlines its commitment.”
If all the necessary approvals are obtained, the agreement could be finalized by the second half of this year, according to the Northam’s announcement.
So rather than be disappointed that the new passenger rail plan doesn’t include expansion of service past Roanoke now, rail planners in our region can rejoice that the key obstacle to any expansion is about to be removed.
Although Northam did not mention Southwest Virginia Amtrak service specifically, his announcement alluded to unspecified future expansion, which could very well include our region.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our rail system work better for everyone, both in Virginia and along the entire East Coast,” the governor said in his announcement. “This agreement will change the future of transportation in Virginia, improving our ability to move people and goods across the state and opening up potential rail service in underserved parts of the commonwealth.”
Now, the only rail link between Virginia and the Northeast corridor is the two-track Long Bridge over the Potomac, which often reaches 98% of its capacity during peak times. After the new bridge gets final approval, it would take about five years to get it built and operating, so passenger rail service here still would be on hold until after that happens.
But there’s definitely hope for such expansion if the new bridge comes to fruition, even if we must wait awhile.
Passenger rail proponents in the Bristol area have visions of expansion of the Northeast corridor service beyond its current terminus in Roanoke all the way into Bristol and even south through Knoxville and Chattanooga, eventually connecting to Atlanta. A local coalition including the city of Bristol, Virginia and the Bristol Chamber of Commerce has been actively pursuing the expansion from Roanoke.
Although she expressed disappointment that Northam’s latest proposal does not mention Amtrak expansion to Bristol, Chamber President and CEO Beth Rhinehart said, “We are very pleased to see that passenger rail in Virginia continues to be a part of an ongoing conversation and budgetary priorities.”
She added: “Opening the access to and through Bristol, and further into Tennessee and beyond, would make a huge positive impact on the economies of these communities and a great alternative for travel — for both business and leisure travelers across the commonwealth.”
At least one challenge remains: Getting Norfolk Southern Railway on board with such an expansion. Amtrak trains from Roanoke to Bristol would have to operate on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern, which currently is not involved in discussions about that service.
Regional proponents of Amtrak expansion need to keep up their efforts to make that a reality, even if it’s going to take longer than we might like. If we really want it, we’re going to have to continue to show that to those who can make it happen.