Va. bets on higher-speed rail by 2025

The goal: 90-minute train trips be­tween Rich­mond and D.C.

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY LUZ LAZO luz.lazo@wash­post.com

If traf­fic is smooth on In­ter­state 95, driv­ing is the quick­est way to get from Rich­mond to Wash­ing­ton — even faster than tak­ing the train, which can take up to 2 hours and 45 min­utes.

Vir­ginia trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say they want to cut that train ride to 90 min­utes, make pas­sen­ger train travel more re­li­able and at­trac­tive to trav­el­ers in the cor­ri­dor, and in­crease rail ca­pac­ity.

And they want to make that hap­pen by 2025.

The state and Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion are ex­plor­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of high-speed rail in the 123-mile stretch con­nect­ing the two cap­i­tal cities. Vir­ginia of­fi­cials say the plan is to raise the max­i­mum rail speed from the cur­rent 70 mph to 90 mph, and in do­ing so, make in­ter­city pas­sen­ger rail more re­li­able for peo­ple in the cor­ri­dor and more com­pet­i­tive with car and air travel.

That ef­fort would re­quire max­i­miz­ing the ef­fi­ciency of the ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture while mak­ing en­hance­ments to in­crease rail ca­pac­ity. The cor­ri­dor, which gen­er­ally has a two-track sys­tem, is used by com­muter and pas­sen­ger rail as well as freight. The on­go­ing fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view is con­tem­plat­ing a third track all along the cor­ri­dor, mod­ern­iz­ing sta­tions, adding pass­ing sid­ings and crossovers to al­low for trains to pass one an­other more eas­ily and straight­en­ing some curves to achieve faster speed.

“Th­ese im­prove­ments will de­crease travel time and in­crease the re­li­a­bil­ity of the ser­vice in the cor­ri­dor,” said Emily Stock, manager of rail plan­ning at the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Rail and Public Trans­porta­tion.

Al­ready there is an ef­fort to add a third track in the area used by Vir­ginia Rail­way Ex­press, which pro­vides com­muter rail ser­vice from Fred­er­icks­burg to Wash­ing­ton. That un­der­tak­ing is half com­pleted, of­fi­cials said. Some rail ad­vo­cates say a fourth track might be a good ad­di­tion, par­tic­u­larly north of Fred­er­icks­burg, where rail traf­fic is reach­ing ca­pac­ity be­cause of the var­i­ous pas­sen­ger and freight ser­vices in North­ern Vir­ginia.

The Rich­mond-D.C. project is part of a na­tion­wide push for high-speed rail and a larger fed­eral plan for bring­ing higher-speed trains to the Southeast cor­ri­dor, reach­ing to Florida.

Any im­prove­ments in the com­mon­wealth’s rail sys­tem also would sup­port Am­trak’s vi­sion to trans­form the North­east Cor­ri­dor into a high-speed sys­tem by 2040. Many North­east trains start their route in Vir­ginia. Am­trak’s plan calls for the re­place­ment of its Acela Ex­press fleet, which only rarely reaches top speeds of 150 mph, with new high-speed trains that would cruise at top speeds of 220 mph. Last year, Am­trak put out a re­quest for bids for the pur­chase of 28 new high­speed trains.

Am­trak’s plan for the busy North­east Cor­ri­dor — which car­ries about 12 mil­lion pas­sen­gers an­nu­ally — would make a trip from New York to Wash­ing­ton pos­si­ble in just 94 min­utes, in­stead of the cur­rent three hours.

Other re­gions are un­der­tak­ing sim­i­lar projects. Cal­i­for­nia broke ground in Jan­uary for a mas­sive $68 bil­lion high-speed rail project that will connect Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco. When it’s com­pleted, it will al­low pas­sen­gers to travel be­tween the two cities in less than three hours, at top speeds of more than 200 mph. Illi­nois law­mak­ers last week passed a res­o­lu­tion cham­pi­oning a high-speed project that could bring 220-mph trains to the state and urg­ing Congress to in­vest $2.5 bil­lion in high-speed rail.

Th­ese rail projects, how­ever, re­main a dream be­cause of their high costs and un­com­mit­ted fund­ing sources. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s High-Speed In­ter­city Pas­sen­ger Rail Pro­gram has made $10.1 bil­lion avail­able to projects across the coun­try, so far in­vest­ing in more than 150 projects to ad­vance high-speed plans. But with no per­ma­nent so­lu­tion in sight for re­plen­ish­ing the na­tion’s dwin­dling trans­porta­tion fund, sig­nif­i­cant progress for high-speed rail ap­pears un­likely any­time soon.

Sup­port­ers of high-speed rail say it’s time the coun­try in­vest­ment in rail in­fra­struc­ture to stay com­pet­i­tive. For­eign sys­tems where high-speed rail net­works have been around for decades con­tinue to make strides in the in­dus­try. This spring a high-speed Ja­panese bul­let train reached a top speed of 374 mph. Ad­vo­cates say that while bul­let trains are a popular mode of travel for long jour­neys in ma­jor for­eign cities, in the United States, well over 85 per­cent of all trips are for jour­neys of less than 250 miles.

“Across the globe, high-speed and higher-speed trains are not only an es­sen­tial mode of trans­porta­tion in such cor­ri­dors, but also a sig­nif­i­cant driver of lo­cal devel­op­ment and eco­nomic growth,” An­thony R. Cos­cia, chair­man of the Am­trak board of di­rec­tors, told a Se­nate com­mit­tee in De­cem­ber. Am­trak es­ti­mates that its pro­posed up­grades to a true high-speed sys­tem would cost $151 bil­lion.

“And yet Amer­ica has yet to fully em­brace in­vest­ments in pas­sen­ger rail as a tool to grow our re­gional and na­tional economies, re­duce traf­fic con­ges­tion on other modes, and cre­ate new travel op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he said. “As a na­tion, weare squandering op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove our economies and qual­ity of life by fail­ing to make in­vest­ments in the type of high­qual­ity rail ser­vice that Am­trak plans for the [North­east Cor­ri­dor] and that we see in ex­is­tence or un­der devel­op­ment in nearly ev­ery other ma­jor econ­omy in the world.”

In Vir­ginia, ad­vo­cates for high­speed rail say in­vest­ing in rail is crit­i­cal to ad­dress­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion and sup­port­ing the state’s pop­u­la­tion growth and the de­mands for di­verse modes of trans- por­ta­tion, as well as the need to move goods along the East Coast.

An anal­y­sis from Vir­gini­ans for High Speed Rail, a non­profit coali­tion of cit­i­zens, busi­nesses, lo­cal­i­ties and com­mu­nity groups, found that while the state’s pop­u­la­tion grew about 42 per­cent in a 24-year pe­riod, high­ways only grew by 34 per­cent.

“We have limited abil­ity to pave our way out of con­ges­tion, which weas a state and as a coun­try have at­tempted to do many, many times,” said Danny Plaugher, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor. “We re­ally have to look at a di­verse trans­porta­tion sys­tem with roads, rail and air­lines all con­tribut­ing to mov­ing peo­ple and com­merce.”

The pri­or­ity, Plaugher said, should be to get­ting the trip from Rich­mond to the Dis­trict to un­der 90 min­utes and push­ing the max­i­mum speed to 90 mph so that the trip is quicker than by car. Im­prov­ing re­li­a­bil­ity and adding trips also are key, pas­sen­ger rail ad­vo­cates and trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say. Cur­rently, there are few daily Am­trak trips be­tween Rich­mond and Wash­ing­ton, and trains are of­ten de­layed be­cause of ca­pac­ity lim­its.

The Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Rail and Public Trans­porta­tion says it hopes the fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal study, which is ex­pected to be com­pleted in 2017, will de­liver a plan de­tail­ing the im­prove­ments and cost. By then, the state would be able to seek fed­eral fund­ing and im­ple­ment the rec­om­men­da­tions in phases. Of­fi­cials say they ex­pect im­prove­ment over the next decade.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Vir­ginia Rail­way Ex­press sta­tion un­der con­struc­tion in Spot­syl­va­nia County is seen in April. The ad­di­tion of the sta­tion, ex­pected to open this sum­mer, and the con­struc­tion of a third track be­tween Spot­syl­va­nia and the Dis­trict, is part of a broad plan to im­prove rail ser­vice in Vir­ginia.

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