Photo Courtesy Town of Ashland
Ian Sutton, a chemical engineer who oversaw mega oil and gas production projects worldwide, throttled back after he retired, moving with his wife from Houston, the bustling “energy capital of the world,” to a quiet place on the East Coast nearer their grandchildren.
That spot was Ashland, a small college town of just over 7,000, and perhaps best known to visitors and tourists for the freight and passenger trains that whistle through the middle of town at all hours.
Sutton, who has lived here for three years, has come to cherish its slow pace and small-town values.
“I rarely drive in Ashland. I always bicycle or walk,” he says. “I’ve come to the point that every time I walk down the street, I meet people I know and talk to them — that’s community.”
Sutton believes that nearly everything he loves about Ashland could be threatened by a proposed high-speed rail link between Washington, D.C. and Richmond. Among the routes under consideration: a third track through the center of Ashland, alongside two existing tracks. That configuration could eliminate one of the two lanes of Center Street, also known as Railroad Avenue.
Another route would bypass Ashland on the west, but that option also has critics.
Sutton and other Ashland residents have been vocal about wanting to protect their homes and Ashland’s ambience, while preserving the community’s connection with the railroad, which traces to 1836.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is assessing the environmental impact of the project. The corridor under review is the 123-mile northern segment of the planned Southeast Corridor, a high-speed rail line linking Washington to Florida.
Rail officials say the link would relieve congestion and boost economic development in the rapidly developing Southeastern states.
It also would cut travel time. Passenger trains would run up to 90 mph on certain portions of the corridor between Richmond and Washington — versus the current 70 mph limit — shaving an estimated 20 minutes from the trip.
No one knows what the proposal would cost, except that it would be in the billions.
“This corridor is so important,” says Emily Stock, manager of rail planning for DRPT.
Whatever decision is made will shape the future of transportation for generations, she and other rail officials have said.
Critics contend a third track would damage Ashland’s historic character, lower home values, create problems for Randolph-Macon College, which has buildings on each side of Center Street, and make it harder for Ashland residents to visit neighbors and shop locally.
“I think this project has the potential to, maybe not destroy, but seriously affect this feeling of community,” says Sutton, who built his home on Center Street.
Ashlanders were among 200 people who turned out in April for a Hanover County meeting on the rail issue. The Board of Supervisors later rescinded the county administrator’s letter of Jan. 7 endorsing the western route for the third rail.
Instead, the supervisors passed a resolution saying the board “seeks to partner with the residents of Hanover County and the Town of Ashland to identify the best alternative for our community to provide safe and efficient freight and passenger rail service.”
“This is emotional for all of us,” says Phyllis Booth, who believes she might lose access to her home on Center Street under a third-track option. She contends that a western bypass would cause the least damage.
But that option, which would pass through many family farms, also faces opposition.
“I’m ready to lie down in front of a bulldozer to keep that from happening,” says Kevin Tobin, who lives on a farm near Governor’s Lane in Hanover County that has been in his wife’s family for generations.
Tobin says property values already are dropping in the area, and people are nervous that they won’t be able to sell their homes. He says builders don’t want to construct new homes because of the uncertainty.
The draft environmental impact statement will assess each alternative for the corridor in the Ashland area. It’s due to be delivered later this year, perhaps by November, according to one rail official.
A final environmental impact statement is due next year, and will include a “preferred alternative” recommendation for facilitating the high-speed rail corridor.
Richard L. Beadles, former president of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad (RF&P), which became a subsidiary of CSX in 1991, says he doesn’t believe either route option will pass the cost-benefit test. He says the western bypass, under the best of circumstances, would likely be too expensive, and the third track through downtown would be considered too disruptive.
“I’ve told a few Ashland friends... it’s not going to happen,” Beadles says.
The RF&P founded Ashland as a mineral springs resort in the 1840s, says Roseanne Shalf, author of “Ashland, Ashland” a history of the “turn-of-the-century railroad town.” The railroad also was instrumental in persuading Randolph-Macon College to move from Boydton to Ashland after the Civil War.
Over the years, the town and the railroad have had a close, affectionate relationship, she says, notwithstanding occasional blips, such as the time in March when a locomotive crew disembarked for a federally dictated rest period and left a 120-car train blocking traffic for hours until a substitute crew arrived.
Shalf says Ashland is different from the vast majority of railroad communities.
“Most towns where the rails are have become the industrial part of the town. Ashland never did change. We have always had the finest homes and the heart of the business district on the east and west side of the tracks,” she says.
The high-speed rail proposals are causing anxiety because so much is yet unknown and, as a result, rumors are flying and people are taking positions without having all the details, Shalf says.
“I do believe there is a compromise out there someplace that won’t destroy the town and won’t destroy people’s homes in the west end of the county,” Shalf says. “We just can’t see it yet.”