Next Stop For Passenger Rail: The New River Valley?

Apr 29, 2021

As Amtrak marks its 50th anniversary, Virginia may be on the verge of finally accomplishing a dream that's been years in the making-- expanding passenger rail into the New River Valley.

One hundred years ago, trains were the way to get around Virginia. Then the rise of the automobile changed all that. Passenger rail lines were cancelled, and interstates became clogged with traffic.

Larry Hincker at the New River Valley passenger rail initiative says the interstates is great, but they’re not the solution to everything.  "We're been advocating for improvements to I-81, but we also can see that passenger rail helps alleviate some of that I-81 traffic."

An Amtrak passenger train rolls into Roanoke's new station in 2017. Amtrak's Northeast Regional service starts and ends each day in Roanoke.
Credit David Seidel/Radio IQ

Advocates for expanding passenger rail into the New River Valley say the railroad isn't some dusty old antiquated way to get around. It's also a peek into the future.  "It's really only been in the last decade that we've seen this resurgence throughout the country as we've seen the re-urbanization, people wanting to live in cities as Amtrak has bolstered its service along the northeast regional, the mid-Atlantic corridor," Hincker notes.

Earlier this year, Delegate Chris Hurst introduced a bill that will allow several local governments and universities to enter into a New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority.  "It's going to require everybody to pitch in and contribute," Hurst says. "And I think it's very reasonable for the localities to come together in this General Assembly granted authority to figure out where is this train going to arrive and take on the challenge of developing that platform, building the station, maybe looking at building a sort of town center or community around that station."

Last month, Governor Ralph Northam announced a deal with CSX to build a new bridge over the Potomac River and expand passenger rail to Richmond and Hampton Roads. Hurst says that new bridge two hundred miles away will also be a game changer for the New River Valley. "Part of the access point for us with Christiansburg is to open up markets via train to D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and we needed to make sure that Long Bridge is in good repair, and so once that is complete it will really help with congestion and safety."

The next step in the process is striking a deal with Norfolk Southern, a deal similar to the one the governor announced with CSX.  "They want to look at getting rid of a lot of the assets they have on their balance sheet," Hurst says, "and we are at a great juncture where Virginia's government is ready to come to the negotiating table and figure out what that price should be."

Jennifer Mitchell at the Department of Rail and Public Transportation says state leaders are hopeful they can strike a deal.  "We're still in negotiations with Norfolk Southern, and I feel like we're making very good progress. They're being very good partners. We are not quite there yet, but we hope that we will be very soon."

If Norfolk Southern is able to strike a deal with the governor and if that new authority builds a platform or a station, passenger rail will come chugging into the New River Valley -- and potentially even beyond. Why stop at Christiansburg when the train could go all the way to Bristol or even beyond?  "It's not clear to me yet whether it makes sense to terminate a route in Bristol," Mitchell says.  "It really does seem to me to make sense to make that connection to other southeastern states like Tennessee because we also know there's demand for going father west."

State leaders are currently conducting a study of what it would take to extend rail all the way to Bristol, how much ridership that line might have and how much it might cost. The results of that study should be available in November, just in time for lawmakers to take action during the next session of the General Assembly.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.