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Virginia Finalizes $3.7 Billion Deal To Acquire Train Tracks

Above photo: A VRE train enters the Franconia station. VRE.

NOTE: Transportation by rail needs to be a public good and a part of the solution to more ecological and affordable transit to mitigate the climate crisis. Public ownership of the tracks is an important step in this direction.  – MF

Improve Passenger Rail Service Over Next Decade.

Virginia officials and freight railroad company CSX have signed a $525 million deal to transfer 223 miles of track and 386 miles of right-of-way to the commonwealth, a key part of a larger $3.7 billion program announced in 2019 to increase Amtrak passenger service and VRE commuter rail service in Virginia over the next decade.

“Today, we’re celebrating a major, major milestone in our work to make it easier for people and goods to move around Virginia and up and down our East Coast,” said Gov. Ralph Northam, who stood alongside officials from CSX, Amtrak and VRE during a signing ceremony at a VRE station in Alexandria on Tuesday.

Tracks in America are almost universally owned by freight railroads, which allow passenger service like Amtrak and VRE to operate. That means freight often gets priority and makes it difficult to expand passenger service. (The point was illustrated coincidentally by a loud freight train interrupting Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn.) The deal will allow passenger rail and freight rail trains to operate on separate tracks in many parts of Northern Virginia.

Thanks to the acquisition, over the next decade Amtrak will be able to double the number of trains in Virginia, providing near hourly service between Richmond and D.C. It will also create a backbone for connecting Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor north of D.C. with the Southeast Corridor south of D.C.

Commuter rail service VRE will increase by 60% with trains every 15 minutes during peak hours and additional weekend service.

“Many essential jobs are not 9 to 5,” Northam said.

For instance, VRE’s Fredericksburg Line could go from eight to 13 round trips a weekday by 2030. One new train was set to come online after the close of the deal, but a VRE spokesperson said a date has not been set yet.

The deal will also provide the groundwork to marginally increase rail speeds in Virginia to close to 90 mph. Most trains average about 50 mph, but they currently can’t go above 79 mph.

The program also alleviates a major bottleneck by spending $1.9 billion to build a second span of the Long Bridge across the Potomac River that would be dedicated solely to passenger rail. Virginia will use the right-of-way to build more tracks in the area in three phases with completion in 2030.

“This transformative plan will make travel faster and safer,” Northam said. “It will make it easier to move up and down our East Coast, and it will connect urban and rural Virginia.”

Northam touted the ability of rail to move more people with less space.

“Now, America, as you all know, is still in many ways a nation of drivers,” he said. “We tend to like our cars, but all of those cars on the road come with a price every year. In Virginia, vehicle travelers experience 230 million hours of delays… but adding more highway lanes isn’t the answer.”

He said a study of I-95 found that adding just one lane in each direction for 50 miles would cost $12.5 billion and take 10 years to build. “And by the time it was done, the corridor would be just as congested as when we started. So we need a different solution. Rail can add that additional capacity at a third of the cost,” he said.

Northam said the rail investment will help the economy ($1 of investment on rail brings back $4 in return) and the environment (rail produces 83% fewer greenhouse gases than driving and 73% fewer emissions than flying).

After the press conference, Northam was asked if he is confident that people will return to commuter rail after the pandemic.

“If you look at the history of this country, I mean, people are big fans, generally speaking, of rail,” he said. “You’re taking for granted — not everyone has access to automobiles.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also used the event to promote the COVID-19 relief bill that is giving money to Amtrak and local transit providers to keep service levels steady during the pandemic even as ridership has nose-dived. (A press pool report noted that while the event wasn’t open to the public, about “10 Buttigieg groupies, as best could be described, attended, many wearing ‘Buttigieg 2020’ campaign gear.”)

After the event, Buttigieg declined to answer questions about infrastructure, according to the pool report, saying he didn’t want to get ahead of President Joe Biden’s announcement on Wednesday.

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