Some of you thought the golden age of passenger rail was back in the days of Roanoke’s legendary 611 steam engine – the Saturn V of steam locomotives.
It’s hard to beat the visual drama of steam, but there’s a case to be made that a second golden age is nearly upon us.
Roanoke thought that in 2017 when Amtrak finally arrived – the first passenger rail in the Star City since 1979. Some thought that would be a money-losing route. Oh ye of little faith! Before the pandemic, ridership out of Roanoke was so strong that it was the only route in the state where revenues exceeded expenses. Now Roanoke is set to get a second train sometime this year, and the route is being extended to Christiansburg by 2026 (this was originally 2025 but has been delayed). The state has also produced a report laying out the likely price tag for extending passenger rail to Bristol. It’s high, but we should have expected that given the distance involved. That price tag is also not necessarily higher than some big road projects in the state, so the question is really one of priorities. I pointed out in a previous column that the time seems right to make a push for Bristol rail: We have a governor elected on the strength of an unprecedented turnout in Southwest Virginia. If this is what we want, now’s the time to ask for it. (If this isn’t what we want, then we’d better be asking for something else. We shouldn’t let this moment go to waste.)
It turns out, though, that this passenger train to Bristol isn’t the only possible passenger rail expansion the state is looking at. Earlier this year, the state quietly released a report on a possible east-west passenger rail route from Newport News to the New River Valley. Near as I can tell, this report generated zero media coverage. I’m here today to change that.
First, let’s give credit to the legislators who asked for this study. In 2020, both state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, introduced measures asking for a feasibility study. Of course, we should really credit all the legislators who voted for this. In the Senate, the vote was unanimous. In the House, 90-2, with Republicans Mark Cole of Fredericksburg and Nick Freitas of Culpeper against. Guess they won’t be riding this train.
As for the study itself, I won’t leave you in suspense: It says an east-west passenger train is quite possible. In fact, not just train but trains. The report envisions two trains a day in each direction. The price is high, but not as high as a passenger train to Bristol. That’s both good news and bad news. Good because it’s within the realm of discussion, bad because money is not unlimited so at some point someone may ask: OK, if we can only do one of these, which one should it be: a passenger train to Bristol or an east-west train? If you’re a Bristol rail advocate, you might come to wish this report on an east-west train didn’t exist. It does, though, so let’s take a look at what it says.
The report assumes the westernmost station is in the New River Valley – the state is currently evaluating two sites in Christiansburg for the station for when that Northeast Regional route gets extended there in 2025. That means if this east-west train happened, New River could go from zero trains now to four trains someday (two on the Northeast route, and then two east-to-west). The easternmost point is more debatable: Should it be Norfolk or Newport News? This report assumes Newport News. Among the reasons: That’s faster than trying to get south of the water to Norfolk. (Faster by an hour.) A Newport News route also takes the train through Williamsburg, an appealing stop to have for ridership reasons. For all those reasons, the report believes the Newport News terminus would have higher ridership than a Norfolk terminus. Another advantage to a Newport News terminus: It’s cheaper than trying to get to Norfolk. So, sorry, you won’t be able to ride the train from New River to Norfolk to that Virginia Tech-Old Dominion football game in 2024. Or the 2027 game or the 2029 game, either.
The report also assumes that an east-west train would go through Charlottesville (so, yes, Hokies and Wahoos fans could ride the rails to see Virginia Tech-Virginia games). Charlottesville makes for a longer route but it’s considered too big a market to pass up. In fact, of all the likely stops on the route – Newport News, Williamsburg, Richmond, Ashland, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Christiansburg – Charlottesville is expected to generate more traffic than all of them except Newport News. Three-fourths of the traffic on an east-west route is expected to be between Newport News and Charlottesville (and vice versa). The reality is that any stops west of Charlottesville – Lynchburg, Roanoke and Christiansburg – are just add-ons. If planning for this train moves forward, it would not surprise me if some fiscal conservative (who’s not from west of Charlottesville) asks whether we really need that western leg at all. If we want this train, best we have an answer to that question before it gets asked. One answer is: Going west of Charlottesville doesn’t add much expense.
One of the beauties of this train (from a fiscal point of view) is that most of the route already has passenger trains rolling over those tracks (or will, once the extension to Christiansburg happens), so there are no upgrades required there. There are some costs associated with having a train stop (or start) in Christiansburg and Newport News. You need a place for the train to spend the night, for instance. However, virtually all the infrastructure costs required for an east-west train are between Charlottesville and Doswell. The present north-south trains run between Charlottesville and Gordonsville, but there’s presently no passenger service between Gordonsville and Doswell. The report says that route needs “significant upgrades” to be able to handle passenger trains rather than freight. By “significant,” the report means that the entire length of track between Gordonsville and Doswell – 49 miles – needs to be rebuilt, plus two passing sidings built. The total capital costs for the entire route are put at $416.5 million. Of that, $326.3 million is for that Gordonsville to Doswell stretch. Add in additional work required around Charlottesville, and $409.8 million – 98% of the total cost – comes between Charlottesville and Doswell. Once you’ve spent all that, why not go farther west and pick up a few more passengers?
That $416.5 million infrastructure cost for an east-west train compares to $535 million for a Bristol route. That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but not out of line with what some other big transportation projects cost. Here are some examples:
Expanding the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel from four lanes to six lanes: $3.8 billion
Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project, adding new lanes along a 22.5 mile stretch of Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia: $3.7 billion.
Coalfields Expressway: $3.1 billion.
Interstate 81 improvement plan: $2 billion.
The Fredericksburg Extension, which will extend Interstate 95 express lanes for about 10 miles: $565 million.
So, yes, it’s a lot of money, but the price tag is not so unreasonable that we shouldn’t think about this. It’s all a matter of priorities. Where does this rank compared to other transportation priorities? Where does this rank compared to other non-transportation priorities? We could have a good, fulsome debate about all that.
One way to look at this is ridership. This report projects 177,200 potential annual passengers in 2040, so it’s fair to ask whether it’s worth spending $416.5 million to benefit 177,200 passengers. Of course, the benefits extend beyond that – those are 177,200 people who aren’t on the roads. Still, if you compare dollars to passengers, this math probably doesn’t work out very well. Then again, neither does the Bristol route – $535 million for what that report calls a net of between 9,700 and 15,500 new one-way riders.
Forget I ever said that. When you look at the numbers that way, neither of these trains comes out looking very good, but the Bristol train winds up looking worst of all (even if you assume that the Bristol ridership numbers are underestimated because they don’t take into account potential casino traffic).
None of these routes will make money in the conventional sense, but they’re not expected to. If they could, the private sector would be running passenger trains. The question is whether we think they’re worth having for the common good because this is, after all, a commonwealth.
The annual operating and maintenance costs for the Bristol train are put at between $5.01 million and $5.56 million annually – with ridership revenue offsetting that to the tune of $500,000 to $715,000 a year. The annual operating and maintenance costs of an east-west train are put at $25 million a year, but this report doesn’t estimate revenue; it says more study would be required.
Right now, I see a lot more political support for the Bristol train. Support for that seems an article of faith among those in the business and political community around Bristol and it’s not hard to understand why. I haven’t seen similar enthusiasm for an east-west train. Will we?