BHC 04202017 Passenger Rail

An Amtrack train stops in front of the Bristol Train Station during a special 2001 weekend excursion. Bristol Virginia will soon issue requests to conduct a feasibility study of extending passenger rail service from Roanoke to Bristol.

Finally a possible shred of good news for Bristol, Virginia.

The city has acquired the necessary funding for a feasibility study on once again providing passenger rail service extending from Roanoke.

The opportunity for re-engaging Amtrak service has certainly had years of discussion: The item was on the city’s comprehensive plan for its visioning project back in 2015, and the study’s completion was originally anticipated before the 2017 Virginia legislative session.

Both citizens and politicians are excited about the potential advantages for the city — and we are, too. Before our enthusiasm runs away with our imagination, though, it’s worth taking a few moments to contemplate some initial challenges.

In light of the inevitability of increased foot traffic, it might be safe to proclaim there will be some economic advantages — if the rail continues to a larger, metropolitan city. After the study is secured, the city will indeed be looking to discuss rail expansion with larger neighboring towns, such as Knoxville. But if rail service ends at Bristol, the very real possibility of limited incoming profit during non-peak tourist seasons might threaten the entire passenger service endeavor.

Many factors need to be in place to ensure that the study’s findings are as realistic as they could be. There’s an existing demand for preparation on the city’s behalf, then, to ensure (as much as possible) the success and viability of passenger rail service.

One of the reasons for the end of previous passenger rail service that might still create complications was the accommodation of freight trains. Because freight, not passengers, tended to yield more profit, those trains took priority over passenger trains. Since most of the trains on Norfolk Southern’s rail, the track connecting Roanoke and Bristol, carried coal, it’s unclear if any indirect benefit from President Trump’s executive order relieving climate regulations would slow or halt progress on reinitiating Amtrak services. On the same coin, it’s also unclear if passenger service might now be given more precedence considering that Trump also proposed revocation of Amtrak’s federal subsidies (more on that in a moment).

Regardless, how the reintroduction of passenger rail service impacts freight train activity — timing, scheduling and even increased rail maintenance — is unknown.

Let’s revisit the potential impact of Trump’s budget plan on this venture. The Appalachian Regional Committee, one of the programs that provided funding for the study, is coincidentally also on Trump’s funding chopping block. So any long-term financial planning on a rail project should omit participation from them (at least temporarily and as a precautionary measure).

Considering the proposed federal budget cuts and the cloud of constant uncertainty hovering over every entity depending on federal aid at the moment, we could forecast a shift in Amtrak’s priorities. Trump’s budget proposals would end subsidies for Amtrak’s long-distance trains, which compose a large part of its operating losses. Last year, Amtrak hoped to have an increase in subsidies mostly as an aid to help repair failing infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast Corridor, which has a backlog of projects that exceeds 100 years.

If its finances come under increased pressure from the absence of federal subsidies, Amtrak may well reinvest its efforts in its existing capacities, meaning the hope for passenger rail service in Bristol would be shelved if not scrapped entirely.

And this is all without even discussing the financial responsibility of construction, which, if the studies’ results suggest we move forward, is another conversation in itself.

While this is strictly speculative, it would be premature to start dismissing the project without enough details or projection. Some issues might be addressed in the operational feasibility study to start after the conclusion of the current economic benefit study. Others will be exposed in time, once federal budget reform becomes more finalized. It does seem passenger rail service would bring more business and people to the area and help relieve the congestion on I-81, which is expected to multiply through 2040.

We’re cautious, but we’re still optimistic.

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