The existing Passenger Rail service is inadequate. But help may be on the way.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the State of North Carolina, and the Commonwealth of Virginia announced today that they have signed off on the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Richmond to Raleigh passenger rail line along the Southeast Corridor. The completion of the environmental review is one of the final steps necessary before construction of the project can move forward once funding is secured.There are some dormant or abandoned rail corridors that can be put back into use. I hope the track and catenary will be designed in such a way as to handle intermodal trains and autoracks, which will be a relief to automobile traffic on the likes of Interstate 81. (And use some of the so-called Highway Trust Fund money, if necessary, on the railroad. Less wear and tear on the interstates is the essence of holding an asset in trust.)
“Without a strong passenger rail system, the Southeast’s growth will be choked by congestion for a very long time,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “North Carolina, Virginia and the Department of Transportation have worked together to bring us closer to high-speed rail connecting Richmond and Raleigh, and I urge everyone involved to continue pushing this effort forward. High-speed rail in this region is not a luxury but a necessity.”
The 162-mile route between the two cities would utilize existing and former rail lines for approximately 60 percent of the route and is planned to be free from at-grade crossings of track and roads. This route is part of a larger multi-state planning effort to provide high-speed passenger service between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In July, Secretary Foxx announced that the Department of Transportation would invest approximately $1 million to develop a regional long-term vision for the corridor and engage states and stakeholders to help the region form a governance organization that can sustain planning efforts and implement the vision.
The passenger potential is clearly there.
Columnists Anthony Foxx and Dwight Jones, in Richmond's Times-Dispatch, say, let's get going.
It is true that it took a generation of discussions, planning and designing to get us to where we are today. But it is also true that we do not have another generation to reach the finish line. High-speed rail in this region is not a luxury; it is a necessity, and the clock is ticking. If we cannot figure out how to build this network soon, it is not hyperbole — it is a fact — that the South is going to be stuck in traffic for a very long time.They observe, less lost time in traffic than the national average. Why compare yourself with the worst? And yes, lane expansion has not kept up with traffic volume expansion, but adding more lanes does not head off congestion.
Back when planning for the Southeast Corridor started, Richmond commuters spent roughly 16 hours a year stuck in traffic. Last year, Richmond commuters lost nearly double that — 34 hours. Granted, this is still below the growing national average. But will it stay this way when there are 18 million more people, as the America 2050 study found, competing for the region’s road and airport spaces as we know them?
Faster trains facilitate commerce, yes, but note that simply providing frequency and connectivity brings riders.
Richmond and the other cities and towns along the corridor are more than just neighbors, so to speak. As the region adds more residents and its economy expands, regional markets will be more tightly linked. Road congestion in the Richmond area is a growing problem, and the average flight delay at airports along the corridor is nearly an hour.In Raleigh's News-Observer, Bruce Siceloff is also enthusiastic.
The proposed route from Richmond to Raleigh will in effect pull the cities closer together by cutting 75 minutes off the current train trip, making rail faster than even today’s traffic-free car trip. Further analysis of the Southeast Corridor has found that businesses pay 46 percent less for employees to travel from Richmond to Washington by train than by car.
Citizens are voting for this with their train tickets. Virginia has seen close to a 100 percent increase in ridership on its regional trains in recent years. Businesses and government are primed to make the Southeast Corridor plan a reality.
On the freight side, a lot of DOT’s attention is turned to the needs of container shippers in the realm known as “intermodal,” because it breaks down the barriers that separate competing forms of transportation.Note that regional railroads, not the four national systems, are involved. The national systems continue to make a hash out of moving trains through Chicago, which probably pushes a lot of container traffic onto the highways. But, again, using tax moneys to improve water-to-rail logistics is consistent with conserving the highways. On the passenger side, there's an opportunity to implement the Cold Spring Shops Free Rein to 110 campaign.
“That’s really where the industry is going, as far as moving containers from ship to train to truck,” said Paul Worley, DOT Rail Division director.
Most of the containers that arrive by ship at the Wilmington port leave it on trucks. DOT wants to improve the port’s rail connection so that more of those containers can move out on trains. A container with anything from bulk grains to UPS packages can be shifted from one train to another before completing its journey on the back end of an 18-wheeler.
The Rail Plan envisions new rail routes at both ports – possibly relocating N.C. Railroad tracks in Morehead City, and adding a new Cape Fear River bridge into Brunswick County from Wilmington – to improve rail shipping for port customers. At the same time, DOT wants to find ways to reduce train-related delays for motorists in the port cities.
This interstate line, formerly known as “high-speed,” is envisioned to provide faster train service from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., and the Northeast – and, later, from Charlotte to Atlanta and points south.That's the old Seaboard Air Line -- the straightest section, but if memory serves, a bit of a roller coaster. Getting passenger trains up to 110 is straightforward -- if not necessary for regional trains to Henderson -- and there's no reason not to set it up for 90 mph intermodal trains or 80 mph autoracks, which could move overnight.
Most of the planning work has been completed on the key section – a 35-mile shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond, Va., using the old CSX “S” line. DOT’s aim is to eliminate every at-grade crossing on the road – bridges for some, closings for the rest – for trains that could move as fast as 110 miles per hour.
But that won’t happen without an estimated $3.8 billion to $4 billion in federal funds. Rather than wait forever for this money to materialize, DOT has begun looking at a more incremental approach.
Worley said he will look at what it would it cost to acquire the entire “S” line and put in new tracks and stations – enough to introduce standard-speed train service to Richmond – without all the bridges and other improvements needed for faster trains. Another option might involve starting out with service along just part of the line – from Raleigh to Franklinton or Henderson.
And with the Federal Reserve not raising interest rates, the capital costs are favorable.