Multibillion-dollar deal promises more VRE trains, weekend service

Tony Cardwell commutes almost every day from Stafford County to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, where he works at the Department of Homeland Security. 

“Right now I do a combination of slugging, catching the new OmniRide bus that came out and the train,” he said, referring to the Virginia Railway Express commuter train he was disembarking when he spoke with a reporter in January.

A current drawback of the train is the 47-minute gap between trains leaving the Brooke Station at 6:44 a.m. and 7:29 a.m. Running more trains, he said, would make the commute much easier.

“I like the bus because it has a time option the train doesn’t have,” Cardwell said. “If you’re not up here by 6:44 then you’re done.”

The fix for Stafford’s train trouble actually begins about 40 miles north at the Long Bridge, a narrow span that carries packed trains across the Potomac River.

In December, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a sweeping $3.7 billion public-private deal that includes building a new passenger-only Long Bridge that would separate Amtrak and VRE trains from CSX freight trains. Right now, all the trains share the crowded span to cross the Potomac, and that has limited the number and frequency of the commuter trains that can run from Stafford and Fredericksburg to Union Station.

The deal is expected to vastly increase the number of trains VRE can offer commuters, including the addition of weekend service.

Northam said the new bridge would be state-owned and that, all told, the project would create 225 new miles of Virginia-owned track. CSX would retain control of the right-of-way on the existing Long Bridge span.

A statement from Northam’s office said the parties plan to complete the formal agreement in the second half of 2020. 

The massive project will be broken into two phases that, when completed, will allow VRE to increase the number of weekday trains it runs from eight to 12 in each direction on the Bristow/Manassas line and from eight to 13 on the Fredericksburg line.

Phase II of the project, including the new Long Bridge and additional tracks in Alexandria and Woodbridge (as well as a Franconia-Springfield bypass) is expected to be completed by 2030.

Kevin Shepherd, a Marine, commutes every day from Brooke Station to the Navy Yard in Washington. He said weekend service would make it easier for him to visit his daughter in Washington as well. 

“We’d be able to go on the weekend, as opposed to having to deal with traffic,” he added. “Of course it’d be helpful.”

At his news conference, Northam also highlighted the speed improvements for existing lines.

“No longer will you sit on an Amtrak or VRE train stopped somewhere between Fredericksburg and D.C., waiting for a freight train to go by,” Northam said. “We can move freight and move it faster. We can get more people using passenger rail off our roads.”

Northam compared the investment to widening Interstate 95 between Washington and Fredericksburg, estimating that would cost $12.5 billion and still leave drivers stuck in rush-hour delays. 

“We can’t pave our way out of congestion,” he said. 

Instead, the governor estimated the rail project would remove 5 million cars and 1 million trucks from I-95 every year. When the project is complete, Northam said the number of Amtrak trains running in Virginia would double, and the carrier would be able to provide nearly hourly service between Richmond and Washington.

Arlington County Board Member Katie Cristol, chair of the VRE board, said the agreement would allow VRE to significantly expand evening and weekend service, citing a hypothetical Manassas Park resident who could attend weeknight job training at Amazon’s planned new headquarters in Arlington, or a Spotsylvania family that could take a weekend trip to the National Air and Space Museum without fighting traffic. 

“This vision is truly within reach.” she said.

Specifics on the financial agreement between Virginia and CSX were not announced, but Northam confirmed that some of the state’s share would come from bonds backed by future toll revenue from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s I-66 Inside the Beltway project.

Business leaders with the Greater Washington Partnership called the announcement one of the biggest achievements for passenger rail in the country since Amtrak was created.

The move will be a game-changer for the region’s transportation system, according to a joint statement from the partnership’s co-chairs on regional mobility issues, Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman, president and CEO of Dominion Energy; Kenneth Samet, president and CEO of MedStar Health; and Mark A. Weinberger, former global chairman and CEO of EY.

“We can leverage this investment to radically improve the reliability and performance of our transportation network for all our residents and ensure the Capital Region from Baltimore to Richmond continues to be globally competitive,” they said.

Standing at the Brooke Station, Cardwell noted that he’d use weekend service because driving into Washington isn’t worth it. “Driving is just not advantageous — you pay for gas, you pay for parking when you get into D.C. and the maintenance on your vehicle,” he said. “If there’s a reliable train I’ll take that.”

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