Southwest Virginia on Track to Receive Regional Rail Service

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

January 29, 2021

House of Delegates signs off on proposal. Now it goes to the Virginia Senate.

CHRISTIANSBURG – In politics, finding broad, bipartisan support for an issue is next to impossible. But legislators from across the Commonwealth have rallied around the idea of extending passenger rail service into Southwest Virginia. 

A bill currently sailing through the General Assembly would help make that idea a reality by creating a mechanism for municipalities to pool their money and invest in building a new platform or station.

House Bill 1893, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst (D-Blacksburg), would establish a regional passenger rail authority in the New River Valley. The effort has support from various counties throughout the region, as well as the governor’s office. On Thursday, the bill passed the house on a 93-7 vote.

New River Valley Primed for Passenger Rail

The group NRV Passenger Rail has led the charge locally since at least 2016. After years of advocacy, the effort’s finally moving full steam ahead.

 “A whole group of people have been working for a long time,” NRV Passenger Rail spokesperson Larry Hinkner said. “We feel very strongly that there’s demand for this, not only in our gut but in the very, very good marketing study.” 

The study was completed by the New River Valley Regional Commission (NRVRC). This regional commission is a coalition of 13 local governments and colleges that provides technical and planning assistance to its members. NRV Passenger Rail is a community partnership of universities, political leaders, and businesses in the region. 

The New River Valley area has a significant population, and it’s only growing in size. Montgomery County, which hosts both Blacksburg and Christiansburg, is the state’s second-most populous county west of Richmond. 

The county and surrounding region are home to multiple institutions of higher learning, including Virginia Tech and Radford University. That means 40,000 college students call the area home. More than half of Virginia Tech’s students come from Northern Virginia, where they travel several times a year. 

The NRVRC study revealed that university-related events could generate more than 100,000 trips per year.

Rail Encourages Economic Development 

This increased interstate travel could also support the region’s broader economic development.

The New River Valley is already a hotbed for tourism and especially outdoor recreation. It is located in a sweet spot relative to mid-Atlantic urban centers that makes it ideal for passenger rail. The region is too far from cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia to make car trips convenient. At the same time, air travel to those hubs is cost-prohibitive. Trains are the perfect compromise. 

Before Amtrak extended service to Roanoke in October 2017, the passenger rail provider estimated the western Virginia station would see about 40,000 riders a year. In fact, the Roanoke stop touted a ridership of more than 56,000 in its first 12 months

And in 2018, the Roanoke route was the only one in Virginia that showed ridership growth compared to the prior year. Use of the route grew an impressive 9.5%. 

By 2019, the Roanoke/Lynchburg route was the most popular single-train, state-supported route in Virginia, and carried more than 223,000 riders that year, according to the Roanoke Times. 

Repeating The Success Of Roanoke’s Rail Service

Of course, the entire Amtrak system faced a steep decline in revenue and ridership due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, advocates for passenger rail argue that a strong case can still be made for extending service to the New River Valley.

Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) is a co-patron of House Bill 1893. 

He highlighted the success of the Roanoke line so far and said bringing Amtrak to the New River Valley would be good for tourism, students and business. 

“It makes it easier for folks who would like to visit, from a business perspective…who maybe don’t want to jump on I-81 and get caught up in the traffic. People, including myself, have found (riding the train) very pleasant,” Rasoul said. 

Engineering The Perfect Location

Amtrak is not the only one at the negotiating table when it comes to bringing passenger rail to the New River Valley. 

Train tracks already wind through the New River Valley. But most passenger rail systems rely on agreements between private railway owners, Amtrak and municipalities, to operate. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation needs permission from Norfolk Southern, which owns rails in the region.

If Norfolk Southern agrees to lease its rails for Amtrak service, Amtrak will also have to establish a station or platform in the region. NRV Passenger Rail has already done extensive research into which locations would be best. 

The group considered 28 different locations for a potential platform, Hinkner said. They narrowed the list down to three for final study, and an empty lot across from the Christiansburg Aquatic Center won out. 

Ultimately, Hinkner said, “It’s not up to us where the train station’s going to go, that has to be in cooperation with Norfolk Southern and Amtrak. But we believe we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Small Town Prepares To Build Rail Station 

The Town of Christiansburg government agrees. To date, the town has spent $360,000 purchasing six acres around the site for possible development. 

Christiansburg is a small town, though. When Amtrak services a new location, it’s the responsibility of the local government to fund construction of the station or platform. On its own, Christiansburg can’t do that, nor can any other city in the region. 

“We looked around and we said, nobody’s got the heft or the financial wherewithal to do that,” said Hinkner. 

Advocates realized that establishing an authority was their best option, and that’s exactly what House Bill 1893 would do.

Forming An Authority

Authorities are partnerships between municipalities that have the legal status to enter into contracts and agreements. Often, authorities are established to provide regional water or trash service, for example. Forming an authority requires an act of the Virginia General Assembly. 

If the bill becomes law, it would establish an authority to support regional passenger rail in the New River Valley.

Hurt & Proffitt, Inc., an engineering and surveying firm in Blacksburg, offered a cost estimate of $4.2 million to construct the new Amtrak station in Christiansburg. 

The New River Valley Regional Commission suggested a cost-sharing model wherein multiple counties and towns in the region would contribute to annual construction and maintenance expenses for the station. 

Those expenses are estimated at $360,000 per year, with Montgomery County, Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Virginia Tech shouldering the vast majority (78%) of the burden in NRVRC’s proposal. Most riders are expected to originate from those places as well.

Full Steam Ahead

Next up for House Bill 1893 is consideration in the State Senate. The proposal already has the support of the governor’s office.

In Governor Ralph Northam’s most recent budget proposal, he suggests investing $50 million to, among other things, support extending intercity passenger rail service from Roanoke to the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area.

Rasoul is hopeful the project will make progress quickly.

“I think that it’s something that’s on the horizon in the next several years,” Rasoul said. “It’s really such a win-win and of course we want to make this happen and eventually get it on down to Bristol too.” 

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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