Virginia Passenger Rail Authority meets for first time, outlines plans to boost train travel across the commonwealth

Published: Oct. 26, 2020 at 8:43 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Stopped on the tracks and waiting — sometimes for hours — for freight trains to pass. If you’ve ridden a train at some point, you’ve probably been in the same situation. A new authority is looking to improve and expand the passenger train experience state-wide.

“We believe that the rail initiatives we are putting forward are addressing transportation issues for decades,” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine explained.

The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) has officially left the station, meeting for the first time on October 26. The group, charged with transforming rail transportation throughout the commonwealth is made up of a variety of stakeholders and experienced transportation officials. The membership includes Charlottesville’s Charles “Wick” Moorman, former president and CEO of both Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.

“We did try to encourage a commuter rail, passenger rail, to the extent that we could,” Moorman explained of his time working for both rail companies. “Working through what we’re always and will always continue to be difficult issues.”

The infrastructure and access improvements the VPRA is proposing are made possible by a deal struck in December of 2019. At that time, the commonwealth acquired several hundred miles of rail and track from CSX Transportation. Not only does Virginia own the rails, they own the right-of-way, potentially giving passenger trains priority on those routes.

Those purchases include the Buckingham Branch Railroad, running from Richmond to Charlottesville. While there’s no direct passenger rail between the two now, that’s an area they’re looking to expand into over the next decade.

“We’ve talked about the increase in passenger rail, six new Amtrak trains, five new VRE trains and that’s just in phase one and phase two,” Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s Michael McLaughlin explained. “We will be looking to expand even further with more passenger trains and phases three and four.”

While the pandemic threatened to derail the VPRA’s fast start and keep it from gaining steam, Valentine says that the Commonwealth has managed to keep the initial projects moving.

“All the projects are remaining in our six year improvement grant program on time and on schedule,” she said. “Not knowing exactly what is going to unfold, with the knowledge that we have today, we believe this is the smartest path forward for Virginia.”

To this day, the deal struck between Governor Northam and CSX has not been finalized, in part due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Providing an update during her opening comments to the VPRA, Valentine explained that the final execution of that agreement is being worked out. She hoped to bring more information to the authority over the next few weeks.

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