CSX 3141 at L'Enfant Plaza Station. Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

Virginia is studying how to run more and faster Amtrak trains between DC and Richmond. To do it, they need more tracks. But in the little town of Ashland, where trains rumble down the middle of the town's main street, adding more tracks may not be viable.

The agency says leaving things as they are won’t hurt capacity in the long run. They also claim they're being responsive to the town’s citizens, who are opposed to the two main options presented: adding a third track, or routing trains around the city.

Randolph Macon College, based in Ashland and straddling the current two rail tracks, was one of the organizations opposed to a third track being added through the town. The college says the additional track would split the town in two and make either side harder to get to, and would, “unalterably change the character of the historic town.”

Hanover County, in which Ashland resides, was opposed to an alternate plan which would route trains around the city. The county’s Board of Supervisors passed a resolution saying that the bypass would, “destroy the rural character of a historic and agriculturally significant portion of western Hanover.”

Here's how the tracks pass through downtown Ashland. Image by Google Maps.

Here's why Ashland needs a solution

Approximately 50 trains per day travel on the railroad tracks between Spotsylvania, Virginia and CSX’s Acca Yard just north of Richmond. Ashland’s small community sits in the nexus of this frequently-trafficked area.

As it stands, Richmond is between 2.5 and three hours away from DC with current rail service. A project called the DC2RVA Rail Improvement Project aims to make these trains a bit faster, as well as to allow more of them to run.

The Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) has few options for adding additional tracks through Ashland. The town, incorporated in 1858, grew up around the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad which was constructed in the 1830s and 40s. The RF&P rail, now part of CSX, runs right through the center of town with shops and houses within feet on either side of the two parallel tracks.

Options proposed in the DRPT's draft Environmental Impact Survey, which they released this past September, included variations of adding a third track through the town and adding a pair of tracks around the edge of town, or even digging a new tunnel under the existing tracks.

The vast majority of public comments about the DC2RVA project that DRPT received were about the Ashland rail alignment. Twenty four percent of respondents were opposed to the western bypass around town, and 16 percent were opposed to the proposed tunnel beneath the town.

The least objectionable proposal was the 3-2-3 plan, which the agency is now recommending for approval. The agency will recommend building three tracks up to the edge of town on both the north and south sides but leave only two going through the town itself — a plan that will mostly complete the process of running three parallel tracks to the RF&P between DC and Richmond.

DC2RVA map showing the 3-2-3 construction option for adding train capacity around Ashland. This option does not provide a third track through or around the city.

Still in the approval process, DC2RVA slowly moves forward

DC2RVA is one component of a larger project, the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which aims to provide better rail service in the southeast US from DC down to Florida. The states involved are taking a piecemeal approach to fixing the issue, making smaller gradual upgrades to the rail system even though there’s funding available for a more comprehensive overhaul.

The DRPT released the draft of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the DC2RVA project back in September. The report recommends how to best increase train speeds and add capacity between DC and Richmond, while also providing the necessary information about how the project would impact wildlife and watersheds. It also details how the project will mitigate those environmental concerns. The environmental study was the next of a number of steps required before construction between DC and Richmond could get going.

The process also included a 60-day comment period, allowing people and businesses near the proposed tracks to have a say in what they want built. The DRPT presents available options and recommends what the agency thinks is the best option out of the proposed routing.

The plans detailed in the study are split into six parts between DC and Richmond, and the Ashland area is one of those six. The state included recommendations for five of those areas but punted making a decision on the Ashland routing so the agency could hold more meetings and get more input from Ashland’s residents where they would want the trains to run. Two months later, we finally have the recommendation that the state came up with.

In a presentation to the state’s Commonwealth Transportation Board on November 9th, DRPT reported that with the chosen 3-2-3 option, the tracks could still handle the level of rail traffic expected in 2045. They say delays between DC and Richmond would most likely occur outside of the Ashland area and not be related to the 3-2-3 decision.

Amtrak train 65 as it travels through Ashland, Virginia. Image by John H Gray licensed under Creative Commons.

The project is contingent on funding

The overall DC2RVA rail project is estimated to cost around $5.2 billion, though very little funding has actually been allocated for the project. The 10-mile Ashland portion would cost around $350 million. If and when Virginia, CSX, or the federal government find money for the DC2RVA project, officials can pick and choose from these recommendations the order in which they want to complete the different sections.

The final environmental impact study and approval from the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to be released in 2018, at which point Virginia could begin making these improvements when money is available.