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A Charlottesville rail revival: New and improved lines to Richmond, Chicago and Tennessee under review

In the realm of railroads, Charlottesville may be the little city that could, as three federal grants announced Friday appear to move Charlottesville closer to more daily trains and something that’s not been seen in 47 years: a direct rail connection to Richmond and Tidewater.

“I would 100% take that,” Charlottesville mother Jessica Trapeni told The Daily Progress Friday as she waited for a train with her nearly 4-year-old twins. “We were literally just talking about how nice that would be if we could go to Richmond and not have to drive.”

Funded at $500,000 each, the three grants are part of a package of Federal Railroad Administration investments funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed two years ago by longtime Amtrak rider and rail enthusiast President Biden.

“It’s a wonderful thing and something that we’ve been working on for many years,” Rail Passengers Association Chair Meredith Richards told The Daily Progress.

Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilor who successfully championed new Charlottesville rail service in 2009, said the trio of studies could transform transportation in the commonwealth and Charlottesville, taking advantage of the city’s position at the junction of two major rail lines operated by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway.

Planners are officially calling the proposed east-west service the Commonwealth Corridor, but they might as well call it the “College Corridor” because, according to research by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Virginians for High Speed Rail, it would connect 35 higher education institutions and 330,000 college students.

Four years ago, the corridor got a boost when the commonwealth announced that it was buying a 164-mile stretch of east-west railway that would help connect the New River Valley to Richmond via Charlottesville.

Stretching from Charlottesville to Doswell, the segment was long the main line of C&O Railway, later acquired by CSX. It’s used only for freight today, but in its heyday, the C&O ran not only multiple locals but also such storied passenger services as the George Washington, the Sportsman and the Fast Flying Virginian, or FFV. The final passenger train to ply the Charlottesville-to-Richmond route was an Amtrak service called the James Whitcomb Riley, which stopped rolling in the summer of 1976.

A 2021 state study envisioned launching the Commonwealth Corridor with a pair of daily round trips between a new station in the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area and Newport News. That study pegged the capital cost at $416.5 million and suggested construction in 2030, though planners have never named a launch date.

“Everyone wants a train to Richmond and the beach,” Charlottesville planning commissioner Rory Stolzenberg told The Daily Progress. “This grant will fund a plan to map out the path to starting service.”

Stolzenberg noted that Charlottesville’s Union Station has the highest train ridership per capita in the commonwealth.

“The platforms at Union Station are packed with passengers every time a train stops in the city,” he said in an email.

Another grant announced Friday would lay the groundwork for upgrading the Cardinal, a notoriously tardy three-day-a week train linking Chicago to New York, into a daily service. Even when on time, which is about half the time, today’s thrice-weekly Cardinal schedule confuses some Charlottesville passengers, said Richards.

“It limits the accessibility for many people,” said Richards. “It’s sort of catch-as-catch-can.”

Amtrak announced a push to make the Cardinal daily in 2010, but that effort stalled and Richards suspects a holdup from the freight railroads that host the Amtrak services. They may demand construction of longer sidings so coal trains, which can stretch up to 3 miles, can safely pass.

“The sidings just aren’t long enough,” said Richards.

A daily Cardinal would mean 14 boardings each week instead of the six currently offered. That would likely be welcome news at the Greenbrier, a West Virginia resort the C&O developed with its own train depot over a century ago and now operated with a casino. Other Cardinal attributes include a lengthy meander along the New River and under the New River Gorge Bridge, one of America’s highest and most photographed spans.

The final study directly affecting Charlottesville would explore extending the Northeast Regional service all the way to Bristol, a city that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border.

The $500,000 grants were distributed to 69 routes across America. That three of them could bolster service in Charlottesville comes as little surprise to Richards, who was the most visible champion of the 2009 extension of the Northeast Regional to Charlottesville.

Originally projected to serve 51,000 Virginia riders per year, that service now routinely surpasses 30,000 each month, nearly half of them stopping in Charlottesville. Those numbers have been aided by the year-ago addition of a second daily round trip, plus the 2017 extension of the route, initially terminating in Lynchburg, to Roanoke.

The Charlottesville passenger numbers don’t appear to be plateauing. In October, there were 14,636 Northeast Regional boardings at Charlottesville’s Union Station. That’s a 12% increase over the 13,031 who climbed aboard or stepped off the previous October.

Richards said that Virginia, which began dedicating funding to rail in 2011 and furthered that commitment by creating the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority in 2020, is widely seen as a leader. She noted in a telephone interview last week with The Daily Progress that she was en route to Seattle to speak to a rail advocacy group.

“They always want to hear about Virginia,” said Richards. “Virginia has become a national model for investing in rail.”

Much larger than the $500,000 planning grants, a pair of federal construction grants bolstering other Virginia service were also announced last week. There’s $729 million toward a new span to double the capacity of the Potomac River-crossing Long Bridge connecting Washington and Virginia as well as $1.1 billion toward the revival of a dormant line to create a faster way between Richmond and Raleigh.

While the three grants investigating improvements through Charlottesville are much smaller, Richards said the impending studies will put each of the three Charlottesville-touching projects into consideration for future federal funding.

Richards noted that she was riding a Megabus to catch her flight to Seattle.

Why not a train?

“If we only had a train to Dulles,” she replied, “I’d be on it.”


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