Charlottesville Amtrak riders will be interested in this:
An east-west route is being proposed by a group of organizations that includes the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has an office in Charlottesville.
The proposed route is euphoniously labeled the Commonwealth Connector, linking the Blue Ridge and the beach.
Already, the north-south passenger train route that runs through Charlottesville is highly popular — with everyone from university students, to business people, to day-trippers visiting Washington.
Although a special bus service connects Charlottesville and Richmond train stations, many travelers would prefer a seamless transfer via rail. The proposed route would do that by running train service over the Buckingham Branch line to Doswell and then on to Richmond over CSX tracks. From Richmond, travelers could go to Newport News, with bus or transit connections to Virginia Beach; alternatively, they could travel to Petersburg and points south. From Charlottesville, passengers already can ride to Roanoke; service would be extended to Christiansburg and, it is hoped, eventually to Bristol.
At least, that is the proposal.
It’s an ambitious one.
The group — which also includes the Roanoke and Hampton Roads Chambers of Commerce and the organizations Virginia21 and Virginians for High Speed Rail — notes that passenger rail service has been a resounding success story in Virginia. To expand on that success, it recommends tripling Virginia’s passenger rail service and expanding passenger service to reach 85 % of Virginians, reducing trip times by up to 35%, and increasing on-time reliability to over 90%.
And all of this in the next 10 years.
To create the Commonwealth Connector, rail lines that aren’t currently used for passenger trains would have to be upgraded. Additionally, track time would have to be rented from the private railroads, whose primary business is hauling freight, not catering to passengers; rail advocates note that negotiating for space and time on these tracks can be challenging.
Finally, there might not be enough rolling stock to fill the new demand. Amtrak already is low on equipment, the proposal notes; recent expansions have been accomplished by refurbishing older passenger cars, however, and the same might work for the Commonwealth Connector.
The route would serve nearly 3.7 million Virginians who live within 20 miles of a train station, the group says. Many of these are millennials who prefer not to own cars. Other users would be tourists, college students, business travelers and military personnel who prefer train travel over highways.
The connector could eliminate the need to drive over 37 million passenger miles, cut fuel consumption by nearly 800,000 gallons and reduce airborne carbon pollution by 15.4 million pounds, the group says.
Even for those who continued to drive, there would be benefits, since converting millions of miles of highway travel into rail travel would leave the roads safer and less congested.
With Charlottesville lying at a crucial point on the proposed east-west route, the city could become a more important hub for train travel, as passengers use Charlottesville to connect to routes north and south.
That could be a boon for businesses located along West Main Street near the train station. It also could bear implications for the efficiency of the current station. The station already needs upgrading in a way that expands its space while preserving its history. Should usage increase with the new route, there will be even greater need to expand the station.
The group has made its case for creating an east-west passenger train service in Virginia. But that’s not even the beginning. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s just the beginning of the beginning.
This would have to be a state project. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation would have to do a feasibility study and determine whether the group is right about the likely demand for such a service. Then the state would have to identify the steps necessary for creating the corridor — and the costs involved in doing so.
A Charlottesville-Richmond rail link would be a boon to many local residents. So let’s get the feasibility study started.