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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Plans take shape for how Virginia-CSX agreement will reshape rail travel (updated) NEWSWIRE

Plans take shape for how Virginia-CSX agreement will reshape rail travel (updated) NEWSWIRE

By Dan Zukowski | January 27, 2020

$3.7 billion deal will expand capacity south of Washington, opening door for more Amtrak, VRE service

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This map shows planned rail improvements under Virginia’s agreement with CSX Transportation. A full-size download is available here.
Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation

First of three parts

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The $3.7 billion agreement between the Commonwealth of Virginia and CSX Transportation will dramatically expand rail capacity for Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Amtrak over a 10-year period.

The agreement, announced in December by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, includes state acquisition of 225 miles of track and 350 miles of right-of-way from CSX [see “Virginia, CSX announce major rail infrastructure plan,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 20, 2019]. On Monday, Northam proposed a 4-cent increase in the state’s gas tax to help fund the deal.

When completed in 2030, improvements will include a second two-track bridge over the Potomac River, a fourth mainline track between Crystal City and Alexandria, a third track from Franconia to Lorton, six new passing sidings, and a Franconia-to-Springfield bypass for passenger trains.

The first new service to result, likely in 2021, would be an additional Amtrak round trip to Norfolk and one new VRE round trip on the Fredericksburg line. Later, four more Fredericksburg runs are planned, including new weekend and late-night service, along with additional round trips on the Manassas Line. Those won’t begin until at least 2026.

“We’ve worked very well with CSX in the past on adding service incrementally,” says Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). “Then this opportunity came up.”

Virginia will pay CSX $525 million over three years for property and track. The biggest part of this deal: acquiring 100 miles of CSX right-of-way between Washington and Richmond. Essentially splitting the corridor down the middle, the Commonwealth will own all track within its right-of-way. CSX will continue to own and operate its separate, but adjoining, right-of-way.

“The eventual impact, once the phases are complete, will be a positive one as it will separate freight operations from passenger operations allowing for better fluidity through this key corridor,” CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild tells Trains News Wire.

Freight traffic is projected to grow 14% by 2040 according to the environmental statement issued by the Federal Railroad Administration in September 2019.

The Commonwealth also gets the Buckingham Branch from Doswell to Clifton Forge, 30 miles of passenger rights from Richmond to Petersburg and 75 miles of abandoned track south of Petersburg to Ridgeway, North Carolina. It plans 37 miles of new track, including the new bridge.

The deal came at the end of a year which saw on-time performance for VRE Fredericksburg Line trains vary from 53% in July to 90% in the best months. Katie Cristol, chair of the operations board for VRE and an elected member of the Arlington County board of supervisors, says freight train congestion, weather-related delays, and “hiccups” with Positive Train Control all contributed.

The worst bottleneck is Long Bridge, a two-track steel truss bridge built in 1904 across the Potomac. Owned and operated by CSX, it currently carries 34 daily VRE trains (including deadhead moves), 24 Amtrak trains, and approximately 18 CSX trains. During peak periods, it’s at 98% capacity.

Even slight delays for trains in tightly scheduled slots cascade quickly. The FRA says these delays “are a daily event.” The second span and a fourth track from L’Enfant Station to Alexandria would allow VRE, Amtrak , and CSX to increase operations with fewer conflicts and delays.

“By 2030, once this is all built out, we expect that we’ll be able to have more reliable service in addition to the additional frequencies,” says Mitchell. The new bridge alone will cost $1.9 billion.

VRE also plans to lengthen station platforms in Crystal City, Brooke, Franconia-Springfield and elsewhere to accommodate trains as long as 10 cars. VRE currently runs 4, 6 and 8-car trains.

Longer trains and more service will likely require additional rolling stock. Mitchell says that DRPT is working with VRE to determine needs for more coaches, cab cars, or locomotives. That, in turn, will require more capacity at VRE’s yard in Fredericksburg and in Washington.

The Virginia-CSX agreement is being hailed as “transformational” and “a game-changer.”

Jeannette Chapman, director of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University, says, “The Washington region has two paths of growth. One is to start looking like a more traditional Northeastern metro that’s denser and has more rail commuting, or we could continue to be a more car-centric Southern metro.”

The DRPT commissioned the Institute to study the deal’s economic benefits. It found construction of the second Long Bridge and related improvements would support 14,000 jobs.

Longer term, by enabling better, faster, more reliable commutes, the Washington region will benefit greatly. A large part of that is due to who rides the trains. “Rail commuters tend to be highly educated and have fairly high average wages,” explains Chapman. By 2040, they could add $12.2 billion to the regional economy each year, almost twice their current contribution.

By 2040, VRE will have the carrying capacity of two lanes of interstate highway traffic at rush hour. Both Cristol and Chapman point to quality-of-life improvements from expanded service hours, the ability to avoid traffic congestion, and greater choice of work and home locations.

Longer-term planning includes an idea, floated by a VRE-commissioned study, for run-through service of Maryland’s MARC commuter trains to Virginia. VRE and DRPT are talking with Amtrak as it plans for expansion of Washington Union Station.

Most funding is in place for the $3.7 billion project, split roughly equally among federal, state, and local sources. Amtrak is kicking in $944 million. DRPT has dedicated state rail funds available along with discretionary transportation monies, and is working on local funding with locations with Northern Virginia jurisdictions. “We’ll be talking to DC and Maryland as well about funding contributions,” says Mitchell.

VRE has $100 million available to contribute from its Commuter Rail Operating and Capital fund, Cristol says.

The deal isn’t quite done. The DRPT and CSX must hash out definitive agreements, but Mitchell expects those to be done by the end of this year. Some reports have stated additional trains could start running in 2020, but Mitchell tells News Wire, “I think it’s more likely that it will be 2021.”

— Updated at 12:40 p.m. CDT on Jan. 27 to include gas-tax proposal.

Coming Tuesday: The impact on statewide passenger service

24 thoughts on “Plans take shape for how Virginia-CSX agreement will reshape rail travel (updated) NEWSWIRE

  1. This deal covers the economic engine of Virginia. The urban crescent from NoVA to Richmond to Hampton Roads is 2/3 the population of the state and 80% of its economy. Its where the money and people are. A viable East-West line might help out the rural parts of central and western VA.

  2. “Essentially splitting the corridor down the middle, the Commonwealth will own all track within its right-of-way. CSX will continue to own and operate its separate, but adjoining, right-of-way.”

    What does this mean? Is CSX going to build a new 100 mile freight railroad? Is Virginia getting one RF&P main and CSX keeping the other? From Doswell to Richmond CSX had/used to have the C&O so I suppose they could pull CSX freight off the RF&P Doswell to Richmond?

  3. Doesn’t the borderline of State of Maryland include the Potomac river right up to the Virginia shoreline? Won’t Maryland have something to say about this?

  4. Without being intimately familiar with the locations here, I still find myself chuckling. 4 tracks total in some areas for passenger and freight so they have dedicated tracks for each? Wasn’t that the whole idea of the PRRs Broadway or the NYCs Water Level Route? Dedicated trackage to speed each along? Ah yes, whatever is old, is new again.

  5. Washington DC is the former Maryland part of the original District of Columbia. The feds gave the Virginia part back to Virginia (Arlington County and part of the city of Alexandria, as is evident from a map with political boundaries), as they thought it would never be needed. So the DC/VA line follows the old Maryland/Virginia line at the river’s edge.

  6. Jeff Hoover is right, Arlington, Virginia, and a part of Alexandria, were briefly part of DeeCee. The entire Virginia part was returned (south of the Potomac). Complete the imaginary ten-mile by ten-mile square, you will see DeeCee’s original boundary.

    I haven’t actually been in WashingtonDeeCee since 1983 (missing it – NOT!!!). On several recent occasions I’ve changed planes at Ronald Reagan National Airport. The view from the air is spectacular and beautiful and well worth the long detour compared to a shorter route to where I’m flying.

    If coming into Reagan from the north and if on the starboard (Virginia) side of the plane, one sees Dulles Airport, the CIA, and the Pentagon, the trifecta of our corrupt and all-powerful federal government. The development on the Virginia side of the river is unbelievable. This is where Pentagon and CIA budget mega-$$$$$’s end up being spent. One can see the railroad ROW threading through built-up urbanism, Arlington looking like a city center although it’s a suburb. Someone not in the know might think Arlington is the central city and Washington is a suburb of Arlington.

    Adding capacity to that rail corridor, and building the approach to a second Potomac rail bridge, will be and effort and take trainloads loads of money. That’s the negative. The positive is, there’s plenty of passengers to sell tickets to.

    On a side note (politics … politics … politics) I find it ironic that NorVirginia has gone solidly Democrat. Not only are the CIA and the Pentagon both located in NorVirginia, they both spread around lots of jobs and lots of money there. Anyone who tells you the military and the CIA are Republican-leaning right-wing agencies is so 1970’s. The Vietnam War was long ago.

  7. Right you are, Jeff. The Potomac’s waters are entirely in Maryland, from its origin in Garret County to about 15 miles south of Point Lookout. The boundary between Maryland and Virginia then turns ENE about 15 miles south of Point Lookout, across the Chesapeake for a while, then south of Smith Island to the lower Delmarva Peninsula. Long Bridge is essentially in Maryland except for the western abutment. And while they are at it, maybe they could start by painting Long Bridge. Could really use it.

  8. Carl, I wonder if VRE has ever considered extending the Manassas trains to Charlottesville. The New England train to Lynchburg/Roanoke handles quit4e a bit of traffic for Washington in Charlottesville. Of course, NS might object strenulously.Also, it might be difficult to create a facility for servicing the equipment overnight. Perhaps upgrade the Orange-Gordonsville-Charlottesville track and use it instead (there is not much difference in distance between the two routes)? That would bring the Buckingham Branch and CSX into the decision.

  9. I think that the CSX has no use for the Buckingham Branch and saw this as an opportunity to off-load it onto the state while retaining their current operating rights. I assume thatthe BBRR will continue to operate also.

  10. This is great news.

    As I recall the Commonweath used to own a significant portion of the RFandP but was bought out in the 1980s I think. Anyone have sourced information about how much they sold it for and what percentage of the company that was?

  11. Follow-up- I don’t think we will ever know how CSX and the state priced various pieces of this transaction, but I’m willing to bet that the BB portion was pretty cheap. From the states viewpoint, they dont want to see any more R/W’s disappear. For CSX it’s another piece off the books in accordance with PSR philosophy. As for Richmond to Charlottesville passenger- well I dont see it anytime soon, and if there is, its not more then one a day.

  12. Alexandria County was part of the District of Columbia from 1790 to 1847, not exactly what I think of as being a brief period of time. Those early residents came to believe that they would fare better returning to Virginia rather than remaining part of DC. It looks like history has proven them right.

  13. This is exactly what the Class 1’s would like the states to do. Purchase their own ROW.

    Instead of states subsidizing passenger service over Class 1 assets, the state might be better off investing the money into their own ROW and letting Amtrak and various commuter lines operate on it. Perhaps sell some franchise rights.

    This model only works where density can support the volumes needed to fund it.

    This wouldn’t work on the Empire Builder so much.

  14. JACOB – At some point, the Commonwealth turned over its share of RF&P to its retirement fund.. If I recall, the Commonwealth owned 50% and the connecting railroads together owned 50%, (I may be wrong – this is from memory.)

    The merger of two of the connecting railroads, SCL and Chessie, made sense for the merged CSX to buy out everyone else. As for the Virginia retirement system they were probably happy to get out of the railroad business and count the cash.

    This was when states were fiscally responsible instead of as now socially responsible. Hard to be both.

  15. I’m interested in what the long- (or short-) range plans are for that C&O line to Clifton Forge. Putting Charlottesville on a VRE route might be good, but there has to be a faster route…

  16. This deal is a NOVA-Richmond-Beach driven deal. They’re the only Virginians that will benefit.

    The line to Clifton Forge purchase is just plain stupid and will benefit nobody…it is too circuitous even Richmond to Charlottesville…two cities an hour apart via car.

    The line to Raleigh will never happen. Too many encroachments and then NIMBY protests will inevitably take place.


  17. With regard to 2021 politics, passenger rail investment in VA has been a bi-partisan matter. Remember it was a republican governor that led the way, McDowel, I believe, on this latest wave of passenger rail initiatives.

  18. It will be interesting to see what happens to this agreement after the 2021 elections in the Commonwealth. (Stop calling Virginia a state. It’s a Commonwealth!) I say that because I see the headlight of a “Wisconsin Talgo” possibly on the horizon. For reasons unrelated to railroading, pending legislation has “awakened” a previously politically passive rural Virginia. There could be a political “sea change” coming. A good barometer would be how much Donald Trump loses “reliably blue” Virginia by in this year’s general election. If it’s by less than five percent, There could be a philosophical change in Richmond after the 2021 election, with Nick Freitas possibly being elected governor. The late night trains for VRE make sense in a perverse way, given the “workaholism” endemic to the “Beltway Bandits” which infest the region.

  19. JEFFREY – My bad, me wrong. I should have looked it up before calling the period part if VA was in DC “brief”. In any event, it was before the Civil War. so Abraham Lincoln could – and did – see the Confederate flag from his window in the White House.

    Virginia seceding – by a disputed vote – followed by North Carolina – was the proximate cause of the Civil War. It’s possible that the previous nine states seceding, the US might have let them go. But not Virginia.

  20. john, I wouldn’t worry about the Commonwealth in 2021. Remember…passive rural VA is only a very small part of the electorate. Dems are very passionate about their legislation as well.

  21. SEPTA has a similar arrangement with CSX on two ex-Reading Company lines. On the Fox Chase Line SEPTA has one track and CSX the other between Newtown Junction and Cheltenham, and on the West Trenton Line SEPTA has two tracks and CSX one between Neshaminy Falls and Yardley, then each has one track over the Delaware River bridge between Yardley PA and West Trenton NJ. Each dispatches its own trains without interfering with the other.

  22. “With regard to 2021 politics, passenger rail investment in VA has been a bi-partisan matter. Remember it was a republican governor that led the way, McDowel, I believe, on this latest wave of passenger rail initiatives.”

    Mr. McIntosh, that guv’s name was Bob McDonnell. But good guess.

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