A look at the Virginia Railway Express train at the Manassas Train Station. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
A look at the Virginia Railway Express train at the Manassas Train Station. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Virginia lays out plan to bring rail to Christiansburg and Blacksburg, while looking ahead.

CHRISTIANSBURG – For the first time since 1979, a passenger train is coming to the New River Valley. But that’s just the start of railway changes we’ll see over the next few years. On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam launched the $257.2 million Western Rail Initiative.

Visiting Christiansburg for the announcement, Northam explained the Commonwealth reached an agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway. The deal involves both increasing the current services and expanding operations to new stations.

First, Norfolk will add a second round-trip train on the line from Roanoke to Washington D.C. That starts in 2022 and includes stops in Roanoke, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas, Burke and Alexandria. Work also immediately starts on expanding that service to Christiansburg.

That’ll happen in 2025, which is when Norfolk and state officials expect the track to be finished, the station built and Christiansburg’s operation ready to go active. First, the contracts have to be finalized, which both groups expect to happen by the end of this year.

“Today is a good day and we look forward to working with all stakeholders to put today’s announcement into action,” said Norfolk CEO James Squires. “Virginia and Norfolk Southern worked cooperatively to reach the Commonwealth’s goal of expanding passenger rail service in the New River Valley.”

Seeing Dollar Signs

The $257.2 million Western Rail Initiative includes several major economic and infrastructure impacts.

A total of $38.2 million will go toward acquisition of right-of-way and track for approximately 28.5 miles of the Virginian Line. That portion of rail will extend from the Salem Crossovers west of Roanoke to Merrimac in the Christiansburg area.

A total of $219 million will go toward infrastructure investments along the corridor. Some designated dollars will fund Roanoke Yard improvements.

Dollars will also fund a seven-mile siding from Nokesville to Calverton. That will create a continuous two-track corridor for 22 miles from Manassas to Remington.

Improvements from Salem to Christiansburg – including signaling and track upgrades, a maintenance facility and passenger platform – are also in the budget.

Last but not least, the budget also includes funding for infrastructure improvements along the Route 29/Interstate 81 corridor.

The Commonwealth plans to partner with the members of the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority. Together, they plan to fund the construction of a station building, parking and roadway access for the station.

Growth From New River Valley Riders

The new passenger railway expands a plan that began in 2009. Over the last 12 years, Virginia’s rail system grew from one route to four, one train to six roundtrips. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said right before the pandemic, Virginia rail reported the best numbers in its history.

“Ridership [went] from 125,000 to 971,000 in December of 2019, just prior to the pandemic,” Valentine said. “And January of 2020, up 31% over January of 2019.”

Today, ridership is between 30% to 50% of pre-pandemic levels and growing.

The local travel advancements could pay off quickly, as people utilize the railway resource. Northam estimated that the improvements would serve an additional 80,000 new riders in the very first year in the region, especially given the young adult population in nearby college towns.

“A lot of young folks say, ‘Well, we’ve never been on a train. We get there other ways.’ But when they take that train, they realize that’s the best way to travel. They can stay on their devices all day, do whatever they want to do,” Northam said. “And so I think what you’ll see with Virginia Tech here, I think you’ll see a lot of students really taking advantage of our rail.”

All Aboard

State and federal officials echoed their support for the plan. Virginia State Sen. John Edwards highlighted the different options this brings.

“It will make it easier for students to attend Virginia Tech, for families to visit, and for Hokie alumni to return for game days and events throughout the year,” Edwards said. “This service also forms a vital connection to Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in Arlington, and will be a second train each day through Roanoke, which has been one of the most successful lines in the country since it launched in 2017.”

Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith acknowledged he hadn’t supported previous rail efforts and wanted to change that this time.

“I have to confess, anybody who studies the record would know that I missed the train in Lynchburg. And I missed the train in Roanoke. I wanted to make sure I got on in Christiansburg,” Griffith said. “I was a little skeptical, but when the ridership numbers came in, it made it clear that this was something that needed to be done and that we needed to include the New River Valley.”

But some of the strongest words came from Del. Chris Hurst. It was his bill, HB 1893, that moved the New River expansion along and allowed local communities to form the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority.

Hurst took a moment to acknowledge the community’s hard work, thanking everyone who worked to make this happen.

“This is your community in action,” Hurst said. “These are the people who laid the groundwork for us to be here, where we are today.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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