An Amtrak train in Roanoke. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The state recently released a long-awaited report on what it would cost to extend passenger rail to Bristol.

When I saw a story in the Bristol Herald Courier that said the cost could be as high as $1.5 billion, my first thought was: Holy railcar, Batman, that’s never going to happen.

My second thought was, I better read this report.

So now I have.

That brings me to my third thought: This isn’t as bad as it seems.

The report, from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, lays out two basic options for passenger rail from Christiansburg to Bristol. (Amtrak currently goes to Roanoke but is scheduled to extend to Christiansburg by 2025, so this report works from that.)

One option, indeed, puts the capital cost at $1.54 billion.

The other option comes in at $535 million.

Proposed routes for the Bristol train around Christiansburg. The train will enter Chrisitiansburg on the Blacksburg Branch to a station somewhere around the New River Valley Mall. The cheapest option is to go back the way it came and then transfer to the Christiansburg District route. Or it could continue on to the Whitethorne District Route, which would then require a tunnel under Vicker Heights to connect the route to Bristol. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The only difference between those two options is which route the train would take to get out of Christiansburg. The higher-priced route would require construction of a tunnel under the Vickers Heights section of Montgomery County. The lower-priced route goes a different way.

I don’t think you have to be a civil engineer to understand that the state isn’t going to spend about $1 billion for a tunnel when there’s a cheaper option available just down the road.

So forget that $1.54 billion option. That’s not a real option. It’s good to know it exists but it ain’t happening.

That means the real figure is $535 million. That’s still a lot of money but not one that jars my eyeballs out of their sockets the way $1.54 billion does.

It’s also possible to reduce that figure in some easy – although potentially controversial – ways.

That $535 million includes money for five stations between Christiansburg and Bristol – in Radford, Pulaski, Wytheville, Marion and Abingdon – that add up to about $85 million.

The specific costs:

Radford (listed in the report as station 5): $15,230,000

Pulaski (station 4): $19,180,000

Wytheville (station 3): $17,000,000

Marion (station 2) : $17,000,000

Abingdon (station 1): $16,180,000

Those extra stations don’t slow things down much (about two minutes per stop) but do add expense – and, presumably, extra passengers. The question is how soon they’d bring in enough passengers to justify the initial expense. We’re already seeing some pushback against those possible stations.

“I think our greatest chance of success is a direct shot from Christiansburg to Bristol,” Beth Rhinehart, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, told the Bristol Herald Courier.

If we drop all those stations, then the cost comes down to about $450 million.

Now, obviously, folks in Radford, Pulaski, Wytheville, Marion and Abingdon might have something to say about this. If I were me I think I’d opt for a station in Wytheville – a good midpoint – but I’m not in charge.

So whether the price tag is $450 million (no other stations) or $535 million (five other stations), how does that compare to other transportation projects?

Expanding the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel from four lanes to six lanes is estimated at $3.8 billion – it’s considered the biggest highway construction project in state history.

The cost of the Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project – which is adding new lanes along a 22.5-mile stretch of Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia – is $3.7 billion.

The cost of the Coalfields Expressway is put at $3.1 billion.

The entire Interstate 81 improvement plan is pegged at $2 billion.

The Fredericksburg Extension project – which will extend Interstate 95 express lanes for about 10 miles – is estimated at $565 million.

So $450 million to $535 million for passenger rail to Bristol is a big “ask” but not bigger than what other parts of the state have asked for – and received (although I notice Southwest Virginia is still waiting for that Coalfields Expressway money). A passenger train to Bristol is a big project but not unspeakably big, so if this is something we really want we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. The time sure seems ripe for it, too. We have a governor who was elected because of unprecedented support from Southwest Virginia and vows not to forget the region. We have a House of Delegates where the majority leader and deputy majority leader are from Southwest Virginia. We have no idea what the 2023 Virginia midterms will bring; we may never get the stars and planets (or governor and legislators) to line up like this again.

Of course, beyond the initial capital cost of getting the rail lines improved to passenger standards – track improvements around Christiansburg to connect to the main route south, five lengths of second track or passing sidings, signals, road crossing improvements – there’s the annual cost of actually running the train.

The study envisions one train north out of Bristol and one train arriving in Bristol every weekday – with a Saturday train going to Bristol and a Sunday train headed back north. Based on that, the study estimates annual operating and maintenance costs at between $5.01 million and $5.56 million annually. Ridership is estimated at a net of new one-way riders somewhere between 9,700 and 15,500, producing revenue of $500,000 to $715,000.

So, no, the Bristol train won’t pay for itself. No one should ever expect it to. Most public transportation loses money, if you want to look at it in those terms. That’s why it’s a public function. If passenger trains made money, Norfolk Southern would still be running the Powhatan Arrow. Pre-pandemic, the only Amtrak route in Virginia that made money was the one to Roanoke. That route has defied all expectations – even many of its early supporters expected it to lose money. Amtrak exists because we’ve deemed it an important thing to have for the public good, so the real question is how much we’re willing to pay for that public good. (Even in an era of airline deregulation, the federal government still subsidizes airline routes to some small cities that wouldn’t otherwise have service. When he was president, Donald Trump tried to defund the Essential Air Service program but quickly discovered that most of those cities are actually in Republican-voting localities, such as the Shenandoah Valley Airport in Virginia.)

Some think the potential ridership for a Bristol train has been underestimated because it doesn’t take into account the coming Hard Rock Casino. It’s easy to picture a gambler’s train out of D.C. bound for Bristol – that’s the stuff of country songs, right there. (The Augusta County-based singer Scott Miller wrote his classic “Amtrak Crescent” about another Amtrak route; the Birthplace of Country Music Museum could launch a contest for the best new song about the train to Bristol.) It’s also probably useful to point out that the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s bus routes in this part of Virginia have been quite successful. The busiest one is the one from Blacksburg to Washington, D.C., a popularity that mirrors that of the Amtrak route from Roanoke to D.C. In November, the department launched a bus from Bristol to D.C. that a) has seen traffic nearly double since launch and b) is now more popular than the routes out of Danville and Martinsville. For all those reasons, it’s reasonable to think the ridership for a Bristol train might be higher than projected – but unreasonable to think it would ever be enough to pay for the full cost. If the Metro subway system in Northern Virginia doesn’t pay for itself, though, we shouldn’t expect a Bristol train to pay for itself, either.

Will we ever see a passenger train to Bristol? Don’t know. My crystal ball is broken. But this report lays out a price tag that, while high, is within the range of reasonable discussion.  

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.