Expanding Amtrak to the New River Valley and Bristol

in 2020, the next planned extension of passenger rail in Virginia was to Christiansburg/Blacksburg
in 2020, the next planned extension of passenger rail in Virginia was to Christiansburg/Blacksburg
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia's Rail Network (2020)

In 2017 the General Assembly authorized the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to complete a study to expand passenger rail line service to the New River Valley.

the first budget for the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, established in 2020, included funding for expansion to New River Valley
the first budget for the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, established in 2020, included funding for expansion to New River Valley
Source: Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, Virginia Passenger Rail Authority Operating Budget (2020 Powerpoint)

There was an obvious demand for transportation alternatives to driving cars on overcrowded I-81. The Virginia Breeze bus service between Blacksburg and Washington, DC had been predicted to carry 7,000 riders annually, but there were 29,000 riders in 2019. The Roanoke Times reported in 2020:1

Since the train route expanded from Lynchburg to Roanoke [in 2017], Roanoke train revenues have exceeded operating costs. The Roanoke/Lynchburg route has the strongest single train ridership for a state-supported Amtrak route in Virginia, which, despite only having one roundtrip train, carried more than 223,000 riders in 2019.

a wide range of government and non-government organizations partnered to bring passenger rail to the New River Valley
a wide range of government and non-government organizations partnered to bring passenger rail to the New River Valley
Source: New River Valley Passenger Rail, Who We Are

The City of Radford, Montgomery and Pulaski counties, and the towns of Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Pulaski joined the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority. The New River Valley Regional Commission had completed a study in 2016 that identified multiple sites in Christiansburg and Radford for a new a train station.

Christiansburg acquired eight acres of land for a train station, even as the former train station site at Radford remained a logical alternative. In the end, the Blacksburg/Christiansburg area rather than Radford was chosen as the destination for expanding passenger rail south of Norfolk. An official with the New River Valley Passenger Rail group listed "Next Stop: Christiansburg" on its website, and noted regarding Radford:2

Physically, it made a lot of sense. There's room there [at Radford, but]... We didn't see people moving south to go north.

multiple locations for a train station in the New River Valley were identified in a 2016 study
multiple locations for a train station in the New River Valley were identified in a 2016 study
Source: New River Valley Regional Commission, New River Valley Passenger Rail Study (p.5)

In 2021, Governor Northam announced a deal for the state to purchase over 28 miles of track and right-of-way from Norfolk Southern between Roanoke and Christiansburg, specifically between Salem Crossovers-Merrimac. The governor also announced plans to add a second train to the District of Columbia-Roanoke route, with service to be extended to Christiansburg in 2025 after a new station was completed there.

In 2021, using just the data from studies already completed by organizations within the New River Valley, Governor Northam proposed a 2021 budget amendment that committed $50 million to acquire right-of-way and negotiate a deal with Norfolk Southern to facilitate extension of passenger rail from Roanoke to Christiansburg. Subsequent efforts by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation were designed to implement the governor's decision, rather than study if there was sufficient justification to extend Amtrak service to the New River Valley.

There were two tracks through the New River Valley which could be used for an Amtrak station. The track through the town of Christiansburg used the route chosen by the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in the 1850's, which later became part of the Norfolk and Western Railway and then Norfolk Southern. That track was still an active freight line.

A separate set of tracks had been built north of Christiansburg later, by the rival Virginian Railway. That track paralleled the Norfolk and Western track, passing through the Merrimac Tunnel.

the option of locating a station on the old Norfolk and Western Railway track was dropped after the state decided to acquire 28 miles of the old Virginian Railway track
the option of locating a station on the old Norfolk and Western Railway track was dropped after the state decided to acquire 28 miles of the old Virginian Railway track
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)

Closure of coal-fired power plants in Virginia, and reduced worldwide demand in response to climate change concerns, had reduced the number of "coal drags" going from West Virginia to Norfolk. Reduced traffic and more efficient "precision railroad" operations made the Virginian Railway track unnecessary, so the Norfolk Southern was willing to sell 28 miles of it to the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority.

By the end of 2021, the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study had identified four possible locations for a new train station on the old route of the Virginian Railway which the state had acquired. A fifth option, North Franklin East, was eliminated because it was located on the track still getting heavy use by the Norfolk Southern for its freight trains. Norfolk Southern was unwilling to sell that track to the state.

the original Christiansburg location (red circle) was dropped when the state purchased the old Virginian Railway track (green), but a connection (yellow) to the Uptown Christiansburg mall was possible
the original Christiansburg location (red circle) was dropped when the state purchased the old Virginian Railway track (green), but a connection (yellow) to the Uptown Christiansburg mall was possible
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The Town of Christiansburg previously had purchased land for the potential station at North Franklin East, on the old Virginia and Tennessee Railroad/Norfolk and Western Railway track. was on the primary track for Norfolk Southern to continue to haul coal and other freight. The town's investment in that property was not wasted. There was always a fallback plan to use the property to expand parking at the adjacent Christiansburg Aquatic Center on North Franklin Street.

in 2021, the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study identified four locations for studying construction of a new train station while eliminating the North Franklin East option
in 2021, the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study identified four locations for studying construction of a new train station while eliminating the North Franklin East option
Source: Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Fact Sheet (February 2022)

The feasibility study identified locations on the old Virginian line where track design would accommodate a station. Most were distant from where a station would facilitate transit-oriented development, and required expensive improvements to access roads.

In 2022, further study of the sites at Ellet and Merrimac were dropped. They would have been more costly to construct, and were isolated from existing development.

the Ellett and Merrimac options were eliminated in early 2022
the Ellett and Merrimac options were eliminated in early 2022
Source: Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, New River Valley Passenger Rail Station

the Ellett site would have required extensive investment in upgrading the access roads
the Ellett site would have required extensive investment in upgrading the access roads
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)

topography at the Merrimac site would have required placing the parking relatively far from the station
topography at the Merrimac site would have required placing the parking relatively far from the station
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)

Two sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall were selected as the preferred options. They required building a spur track to connect to the Virginian line. Excavation to build the 3,000' long connector track would require moving 600,000 cubic yards of material, requiring 62,000 dump truck trips.

both sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall required building a new spur to the track purchased by the state of Virginia
both sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall required building a new spur to the track purchased by the state of Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)

two sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall were the finalists for the new station location
two sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall were the finalists for the new station location
two sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall were the finalists for the new station location
two sites near the Uptown Christiansburg mall were the finalists for the new station location
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)

The purchase of 28 miles of Northern Southern track between Roanoke and Christiansburg was part of the $257 million Western Rail Initiative, which was part of the statewide $3.7 billion Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative. The Western Rail Initiative also included improvements far to the north. Adding a seven mile siding from Nokesville to Calverton was needed to create a continuous two-track corridor between Manassas and Remington, speeding the movement of trains between Christiansburg-Washington.

Governor Northam noted:3

While we are bringing rail to Blacksburg and Christiansburg, we're not finished. We want to take it all the way out to Bristol to open up the great southwest.

extending Amtrak service to Christiansburg included upgrades to the track as far north as Manassas
extending Amtrak service to Christiansburg included upgrades to the track as far north as Manassas
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Transforming Rail in Virginia

In 2022, the Virginia Rail Policy Institute suggested a Christiansburg station at the Uptown Christiansburg Mall (formerly the New River Valley Mall) for a new Amtrak station was not sufficient. The advocacy group proposed adding an Amtrak stop on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg and the Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, plus a station in Radford as well as in Christiansburg:4

...since most train riders between Roanoke and Bristol will be from Virginia Tech, why not maximize train ridership by directly accessing the Virginia Tech campus by rail and avoid a transfer-penalty at the proposed New River Valley Mall-West station... The mall would never be a high capacity, high-frequency type station. It's not designed to be anything but an endpoint for two or three trains a day

The draft 2022 State Rail Plan proposed opening the New River Valley passenger rail station in 2027. It also made clear that further extension to Bristol was anticipated, once Tennessee identified how it would connect Bristol to Knoxville and Chattanooga.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation found that extending Amtrak passenger service to Bristol would serve 15,500 passengers a year, at a cost of up to $1.5 billion. The low benefit-cost ratio did not reflect traffic which would continue into Tennessee, or the projection that four million visitors would go to the Hard Rock Casino Bristol each year after the $500,000,000 facility opened in 2024.5

In 2023, the US Department of Transportation awarded a $500,000 grant to help plan the extension of passenger rail to Bristol. Inclusion of the "Western Corridor" between Washington, DC-Bristol in the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor Identification and Development Program enhanced the potential for future funding.6

Using the Virginian Railway track purchased by the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority to reach a station in Christiansburg would require using the Merrimac Tunnel. Rehabilitating that mile-long tunnel so it would be safe for passenger trains would add $500 million in costs.

Upgrades to meet fire and evacuation standards, in case of a problem where a passenger train was trapped in the Merrimac Tunnel, included:
- adding three ventilation fan banks
- extending width of tunnel to accommodate emergency egress walkways at track level
- excavating one 15-story and one 20-story vertical shaft from surface to track level to allow for emergency egress and first responder access

the Virginian Railway built the mile-long Merrimac Tunnel to cross the Eastern Continental Divide
the Virginian Railway built the mile-long Merrimac Tunnel to cross the Eastern Continental Divide
the Virginian Railway built the mile-long Merrimac Tunnel to cross the Eastern Continental Divide
the Virginian Railway built the mile-long Merrimac Tunnel to cross the Eastern Continental Divide
Source: Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA), New River Valley Update (VPRA Board Meeting, January 2024); ESRI, ArcGIS Online

if the Virginian Railway route was used to reach Christiansburg, a Cinnebar Road station avoiding Merrimac Tunnel could save $500 million in construction costs
if the Virginian Railway route was used to reach Christiansburg, a Cinnebar Road station avoiding Merrimac Tunnel could save $500 million in construction costs
Source: Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA), New River Valley Update (VPRA Board Meeting, January 2024)

The alternative, still using the Virginian line so passenger trains would not interfere with busy freight traffic, was to build a new passenger station further east at Cinnabar Road and US 460 rather than west of US 460 near the Uptown Christiansburg Mall. The Cinnabar Road option would eliminate use of the Merrimac Tunnel, at least to reach Christiansburg.

Advocates to extending passenger rail south to Bristol were alarmed by the possibility that tunnel rehabilitation costs would be avoided in the process of extending Amtrak to Christiansburg. The tunnel costs would then be assigned exclusively to the Bristol extension. The extra $500 million would reduce the cost-effectiveness and potentially kill the extension of Amtrak service to Bristol and into Tennessee.

The debate regarding on the New River Valley station location, and its impact on a future extension to Bristol, delayed the plan to start service to Christiansburg until 2028. The demand for service was clear. Ridership from Roanoke grew from 143,000 in 2021 to 332,000 in 2023. An advocate for Bristol, 115 miles away, stated:7

We also know that a lot of those Roanoke numbers are our numbers. There are people coming from this region who are driving there to take the train.

two sites proposed near the Uptown Christiansburg mMall were projected in 2022 to be less expensive to develop than the Ellett and Merrimac sites
two sites proposed near the Uptown Christiansburg Mall were projected in 2022 to be less expensive to develop than the Ellett and Merrimac sites
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)

The problem was solved by changing the location of the New River Valley station to the main line ("N-line") of Norfolk Southern. The new site was at the old Cambria railyard in Christiansburg, which had been used between 1904-1979. Plans to use the former Virginian Railway track through the Merrimac Tunnel were dropped. That eliminated the need for a cost-prohibitive safety upgrade. A passenger rail station on the main line in Christiansburg facilitated future extension of Amtrak service to Bristol.

the Norfolk and Western Railway stopped using the Cambria Yard in 1979
the Norfolk and Western Railway stopped using the Cambria Yard in 1979
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Blacksbug VA 1:48,000 topographic quadrangle (1932)

Norfolk Southern and the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority renegotiated their Transform Rail in Virginia deal to sell the track through the Ellett Valley to the state. The state agency was no longer obligated to pay $38.2 million for a 28-mile segment of track which was not feasible to use. As part of the revised package, the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority agreed to purchase the Manassas Line in Northern Virginia, between the Broad Run station of Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Alexandria. That stretch of track had become a dead-end stub for the railroad after closure of Potomac Yard in 1982.8

Historic and Modern Railroads in Virginia

Virginia Railway Express

after Christiansburg/Blacksburg, passenger rail extensions were planned to Bristol, Raleigh (NC), and creation of east-west routes from Richmond
after Christiansburg/Blacksburg, passenger rail extensions were planned to Bristol, Raleigh (NC), and creation of east-west routes from Richmond
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia's Rail Network (2020)

Links

References

1. "Northam proposes $50 million to advance goal of bringing passenger rail to New River Valley," The Roanoke Times, December 17, 2020, https://roanoke.com/news/northam-proposes-50-million-to-advance-goal-of-bringing-passenger-rail-to-new-river-valley/article_e0568878-3f50-11eb-9f61-2b7fa5052ff3.html; "NRV officials praise Amtrak money; Christiansburg hub still not assured," The Roanoke Times, December 17, 2020, https://roanoke.com/news/northam-proposes-50-million-to-advance-goal-of-bringing-passenger-rail-to-new-river-valley/article_e0568878-3f50-11eb-9f61-2b7fa5052ff3.html (last checked December 20, 2021)
2. "NRV officials praise Amtrak money; Christiansburg hub still not assured," The Roanoke Times, December 17, 2020, https://roanoke.com/news/northam-proposes-50-million-to-advance-goal-of-bringing-passenger-rail-to-new-river-valley/article_e0568878-3f50-11eb-9f61-2b7fa5052ff3.html (last checked December 20, 2021)
3. "Northam announces deal to expand rail in southwest Virginia," Associated Press, May 5, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/virginia-lifestyle-travel-business-3ac08dfe194c259f809f1a1956fbc51e; "Virginia moves forward with plan to expand passenger rail in southwest part of state," Washington Post, May 5, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2021/05/05/virginia-rail-new-river-valley/; "NRV passenger rail: State seeks public input on study of potential station locations," The Roanoke Times, December 28, 2021, https://roanoke.com/news/local/nrv-passenger-rail-state-seeks-public-input-on-study-of-potential-station-locations/article_f3fca210-646e-11ec-8b02-17dfa883c3d5.html; "New River Valley Update," Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) Board Meeting, January 2024, https://vapassengerrailauthority.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/NRV_Presentation_VPRA_Board_01232023.pdf (last checked January 30, 2024)
4. "Report: NRV passenger rail return should include Virginia Tech stop," Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 22, 2022, https://richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/report-nrv-passenger-rail-return-should-include-virginia-tech-stop/article_7baf4f71-3c46-5e42-9de6-36fa03473d13.html (last checked July 22, 2022),br> 5. "$5.8 billion for rail in Virginia, but $0 for Bristol," Bristol Herald Courier, September 29, 2022, https://heraldcourier.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/5-8-billion-for-rail-in-virginia-but-0-for-bristol/article_9a2f0e94-402d-11ed-a7f1-0f2144d20d52.html; "Editorial: Rail service dream is still on track," TimesNews, April 2, 2023, https://www.timesnews.net/opinion/editorials/editorial-rail-service-dream-is-still-on-track/article_2c328ae2-cd68-11ed-a102-a74613fa3974.html (last checked April 11, 2023)
6. "Plans to expand passenger rail through Southwest Virginia get federal funding for further study," Cardinal News, December 8, 2023, https://cardinalnews.org/2023/12/08/plans-to-expand-passenger-rail-through-southwest-virginia-get-federal-funding-for-further-study/ (last checked December 11, 2023)
7. "Cost of extending Amtrak to Christiansburg could triple, raising concerns about future extension to Bristol," Cardinal News, January 29, 2024, https://cardinalnews.org/2024/01/29/cost-of-extending-amtrak-to-christiansburg-rises-raising-concerns-about-future-extension-to-bristol/; "New River Valley Update," Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) Board Meeting, January 2024, https://vapassengerrailauthority.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/NRV_Presentation_VPRA_Board_01232023.pdf; "Off track: Amtrak service delayed to Christiansburg; changes could impact Bristol," Bristol Herald Courier, March 28, 2024, https://heraldcourier.com/amtrak-service-delayed-to-christiansburg-changes-could-impact-bristol/article_060aa950-ec55-11ee-8041-0f6a64b315a2.html (last checked March 28, 2024)
8. "Virginia moves closer to extending passenger rail to the New River Valley," Cardinal News, June 4, 2024, https://cardinalnews.org/2024/06/04/virginia-moves-closer-to-extending-passenger-rail-to-the-new-river-valley/; "VPRA and Norfolk Southern in Discussions for New Rail Agreement," Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, June 4, 2024, https://vapassengerrailauthority.org/vpra-and-norfolk-southern-in-discussions-for-new-rail-agreement/ (last checked June 6, 2024)

after stretching to Blacksburg, the next extension of Amtrak service was to Christiansburg
after stretching to Blacksburg, the next extension of Amtrak service was to Christiansburg
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study (February/March, 2022)


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