A trip of 90 minutes: That's the ultimate dream of high-speed train travel between Richmond's Main Street Station and Washington, D.C.'s, Union Station.
It's an idea that's been talked about in Virginia since the late 1970s, often seeming like the distant whistle of a phantom train that never arrives.
Now, regions throughout the nation are looking at the prospect of grabbing some of the $8 billion in federal-stimulus money promised by President Barack Obama for faster trains. In addition to that sum, Obama has committed $1 billion annually for five years to Amtrak; the money is expected to help modernize passenger cars, expand safety features and get trains to their destinations quicker.
As federal transportation officials decide how to divvy up the money, Virginia rail proponents expect the Richmond-to-D.C. route to figure as a prime candidate for funding.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Rail Administration must apportion the funds to rail projects. Establishing the criteria is keeping the FRA busy — it's never had this much to give out. Virginia's application for a grant is due in August, and high-speed rail is just one component of state rail needs.
"The first phase of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor has essentially been studied and is nearly shovel-ready, " says Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail. "The only thing missing is the money. … All told, we have seen more progress in the last two years than we saw in the previous 20."
Bringing high-speed rail into the Southeast corridor, which stretches from Washington to Charlotte, N.C., would help extend the nation's only high-speed passenger line. Amtrak's Acela train runs from D.C. to Boston in seven hours, and these days with a 90-percent on-time rating. Rail officials say the goal of a high-speed Richmond-to-Washington train will be to shave about an hour from the current two-and-a-half-hour trip.
According to Amtrak, which has managed the nation's passenger-rail service since 1970, ridership at the region's train stations — Main Street, Staples Mill, Ashland and Petersburg — jumped significantly in 2008, a result of spiking gas prices. In 2007, for instance, Main Street Station handled 12,757 riders; in 2008, ridership swelled to 19,360. At most depots, however, the numbers were rising before gas prices soared.
In the coming months, when the stimulus funds are doled out, state rail officials hope that their recent work will be rewarded. "Not many states are as out front on their rail plans or investment as we are," says Charles M. "Chip" Badger, Virginia's director of rail and public transportation. His office is working with Amtrak, CSX and the Virginia Railway Express in Northern Virginia on how to accommodate high-speed rail.
Under the administration of then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, Virginia stepped ahead of the curve for rail reinvestment in 2005 when it created the Virginia Rail Enhancement Fund. This now functions as a $23 million capital-improvements war chest — the first dedicated revenue stream to improve rail in Virginia.
The list of what one might consider the state's rail priorities, however, is long.
During the past 50 years, important crossovers and sidetracks once used by passenger trains have long been dismantled or neglected. Freight and passenger lines today use the same tracks, creating delays and congestion.
Along many places in the system, trains are slowed to 10 mph or 30 mph. The snarl of Richmond's Acca Yard, between Staples Mill and Main Street stations, is the regional poster child for rail jams and enforced slow speeds. Two others are an interchange outside Alexandria and the approaches to Union Station.
George E. Hoffer, a Virginia Commonwealth University economics professor who specializes in the automobile industry but also closely follows rail transportation (and uses it), says that making passenger travel more reliable should be a key priority before trying to implement high-speed routes.
"You have three major bottlenecks between Richmond and D.C. that must be addressed" for improved passenger travel, he says. "Solving all that would cost about $3 billion. Now there's $8 billion for the country, and $1 billion for Amtrak, and can you realistically spend [that much] of the country's money on the Richmond-to-D.C. stretch?"
The ultimate solution for avoiding passenger and freight snarls is a third track. But first, getting trains up to a top speed of at least
90 mph requires work on the present route.
"It's going to take some time to reinvent an industry that the country declared dead a half-century ago," says Richard Beadles, a former executive with the old Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad who co-founded Virginians for High-Speed Rail 13 years ago.