Virginia has been a leader in a national revival of intercity passenger rail, but critical policy questions must be resolved if a decade of progress is to continue.
A key to ongoing progress is the commonwealth’s relationship with Amtrak, the nation’s public passenger rail carrier.
Virginia is one of 18 states that partner with Amtrak to provide funding, equipment and infrastructure support for intrastate and interstate routes of 750 miles or less. The results in Virginia are impressive: restored intercity passenger service to two of Virginia’s largest cities (Norfolk and Roanoke) and expanded Northeast Regional routes that have increased ridership by 75 percent since 2006.
So where do we go from here?
Virginia’s intercity rail
Having established intercity passenger rail to its largest population centers, Virginia can now concentrate on extending routes to cover more regions, increasing the speed and reliability of existing routes, and improving service frequencies.
The Interstate 95 corridor between Jacksonville, Florida, and Washington, D.C., is one of the Federal Railroad Administration’s designated high-speed rail corridors, of which Virginia is an essential link.
Virginia has received two federal grants to study the environmental impacts and route alternatives for high-speed rail and is working with North Carolina to develop the Raleigh-Richmond segment of the route.
For the Washington-Richmond segment, Virginia’s draft plan calls for building sections of third track as well as a bypass around the large CSX switching yard between Richmond’s Main Street and Staples Mill stations. This will reduce a major bottleneck, increasing the speed and reliability of passenger trains. As a match for this project, CSX is donating its abandoned S-line between Petersburg and North Carolina for state ownership. The S-line will enable the operation of higher-speed (110 mph) passenger trains on a dedicated passenger rail line between Richmond and Raleigh.
Serving Virginia’s most populous and fastest-growing region, the Hampton Roads-Richmond-Washington corridor, is the key to Virginia’s future economic prosperity. Fundamental to the region’s success will be the ability to move people and products quickly and unimpeded along the corridor.
Virginia is improving the CSX line between Petersburg and Richmond and at the switching yard to accommodate two additional frequencies of the Washington-Norfolk Northeast Regional. At the northern end, the expansion or replacement of Long Bridge across the Potomac will add capacity to the two-track Potomac River rail crossing, an improvement that is vital to Virginia’s ability to expand passenger rail services to Washington and the Northeast Corridor.
The western region has more than proven its enthusiasm for the return of intercity passenger rail. Virginia’s 2018 Statewide Rail Plan has this to say about the future prospects for the region:
“The strong ridership and revenues achieved by Virginia’s regional passenger service to Lynchburg” — this train also serves Charlottesville — “points to the value of the investments made so far and provides evidence that suggests additional expansion opportunities will generate more benefits for travelers and communities in Central and Southwestern Virginia.”
Following on the heels of the recent extension of the Northeast Regional to Roanoke, the state plans to add a second daily frequency of the Washington-Charlottesville-Lynchburg train. The new train would run southbound from New York in the mornings and return from Lynchburg in the evenings.
A second Washington-Roanoke Northeast Regional is included in the long-term plan, as is expanded passenger rail to other Southwest Virginia communities.
East-west rail connections from Lynchburg or Charlottesville to Richmond’s Staples Mill Station would provide convenient options for travel to destinations in Florida and North Carolina.
The Charlottesville rail connection would use the line operated by the Buckingham Branch railroad to Richmond. Currently, Charlottesville passengers travelling to destinations not available from their local station may use Thruway buses that make several daily trips between Charlottesville and Richmond Staples Mill.
Federal policy: Funding
Public policy at both the federal and state levels has had, and will continue to have, a powerful impact on Virginia’s ability to expand and improve its intercity passenger rail services. The success and growth of the state’s passenger trains depend on several critical elements — funding for Amtrak, the ability of passenger trains to maintain reliable schedules, the condition of infrastructure, and new methods of collaboration with the freight railroads.
While there are notable exceptions, conservative political orthodoxy holds that passenger rail either should be privately funded or the responsibility of state or local jurisdictions served.
Even though government spending on passenger rail remains a tiny fraction of subsidies for every other modality, including roads, aviation, transit and waterways, Amtrak is often singled out for substantial cuts.
In December 2015, Congress passed the FAST Act, which, along with many reforms for transportation, authorized six-year spending levels for different modalities. Its passage marked the first time in history that funding for Amtrak was included in a federal transportation bill. While the FAST Act authorized major new spending for Amtrak, Congress still determines Amtrak’s yearly support through budget appropriations, effectively perpetuating the instability inherent in annual funding cycles.
A little-known provision of the FAST Act will give private companies a chance to prove they can run Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains better and at a lower cost. The franchise operator would receive 90 percent of the annual federal operating subsidy previously provided to Amtrak for these routes. Every route outsourced to another operator would deduct that amount from Amtrak’s operating grant.
Federal policy: Track access
Nowhere are tensions between freight and passenger rail more evident than with the on-time performance of Amtrak trains.
Three years after Amtrak was established in 1970, Congress passed the Amtrak Improvement Act, giving Amtrak trains precedence over freight trains in using tracks and associated infrastructure. The law, unfortunately, failed to provide an effective mechanism for enforcing this provision. Consequently, the mandate is often ignored; in fact, some railroads regularly flout it without apparent consequences.
After decades of Amtrak’s poor on-time performance, Congress attempted to strengthen and quantify preference enforcement through the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. But the PRIIA provisions to enforce passenger rail priority have been challenged in a steady and convoluted series of court actions initiated by the Association of American Railroads, which represents the rail freight industry. Amtrak’s first efforts to use the new enforcement mechanisms have gone nowhere while they await the outcome of years of litigation.
Federal policy: Infrastructure
The lynchpin of Virginia’s successful intercity passenger trains is their connectivity to Washington and the Northeast Corridor. Of 1.6 million trips to and from Virginia stations in 2017, eight
of the top 10 city pairs in terms of ridership and nine of the top 10 in terms of revenue involved connections to Washington, New York, or Philadelphia. It is vital that the portals to these top destinations remain open and in a state of good repair; yet the only rail bridge that crosses the Potomac is a congested bottleneck, while the crumbling Hudson River Tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan are at imminent risk of failure.
Long Bridge across the Potomac, constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is owned by CSX Railroad and serves rail traffic for CSX, Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express. As the only railroad bridge connecting Virginia to Washington, it is so congested that CSX licenses specific daily time slots for Amtrak and VRE trains to use the bridge. Until the number of bridge lanes is increased, Virginia’s ability to expand its Northeast Regional services or advance its plans for high-speed trains to Washington will be limited.
Rail policy: Virginia
The success of Virginia’s rail policy depends on having the financial resources necessary to fuel the state’s partnerships with Amtrak and to pay for capital improvements required by the freight railroads for hosting passenger trains on their tracks.
Since both CSX and Norfolk Southern are paring down their capital expenditures, service frequencies and track mileage, they have little interest in expanding capacity. Multimillion-dollar public grants for capacity-increasing projects have lost their incentive value, at least temporarily.
The impact is already being felt in the failure of Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to launch the promised second frequency of the Washington-Charlottesville-Lynchburg Northeast Regional. In four years of negotiation, the state has been unable to offer sufficient capital incentives to Norfolk Southern to advance an agreement for an additional train on the corridor.
Another consequence is that Virginia’s Rail Enhancement Fund is accumulating large reserves of funds as the railroads, reluctant to commit their 30 percent match, cancel approved projects and curtail new ones. In FY15, the governor transferred some of this surplus from rail to non-rail uses in the state budget, and there is no reason to think this will stop as long as the REF is perceived by decision makers as being no longer needed.
If the railroads no longer value contributions for large capital projects, what do they value and how might Virginia create win-win solutions?
This is a time of instability, downsizing, shedding of rail assets, and changing corporate priorities in the freight rail industry. Transportation officials therefore should undertake a thorough review of the present state of rail in Virginia and suggest steps the commonwealth might take to protect the public interest in both freight and passenger rail for the future.
The railroads want to operate the longest trains possible as infrequently as possible on reduced infrastructure. Virginia wants more frequent, on-time, highway-competitive passenger trains serving more routes and more regions.
How do we reconcile these conflicting interests?
One potential reconciliation involves Virginia buying slots on freight lines for passenger trains at competitive market rates. Railroads have historically claimed that passenger access fees are not adequate compensation for revenues lost to passenger trains; competitive market rates for passenger access could be more appealing.
In exchange, the state could (and should) invoke performance requirements as a condition of full payment. This would give the railroads an incentive to deliver the trains on time while giving the state leverage that it does not presently have.
Another option is for the state to become an owner of rail infrastructure. It is potentially feasible for the state to negotiate the purchase of certain corridors deemed critical to the public interest, granting the seller perpetual operating rights and using these corridors for the maximum benefit of all concerned — freight, intercity passenger, and commuter rail.
While CSX and Norfolk Southern divest themselves of hundreds of miles of track, opportunities may emerge for the state to purchase abandoned track and dedicate it for future passenger rail. There may also be opportunities for “joint facility” agreements with the railroads that establish terms for the cost sharing, operation and management of publicly funded rail facilities.
As a leader in devising public-rail policies, Virginia’s goal has been to create a dynamic program of planning, funding, and expanding intercity passenger rail. A great deal has been accomplished in the past decade and more is coming.
However, we would be wise at this juncture to reassess and revise the state’s rail policy in order to protect our previous public investments and keep Virginia’s development of passenger rail services on track.
Meredith Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilor and vice mayor, is founder and chair of CvilleRail and the Piedmont Rail Coalition. She is president of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute and a former president of Virginians for High Speed Rail. She served as a member of the Governor’s Commission on Rail Enhancement for the 21st Century in 2004 and was president of the Virginia Transit Association from 1998-2000.
This commentary was excerpted from the second of a two-part series on rail that appeared in the Virginia News Letter of the University of Virginia Cooper Center, and is used here with permission.