State and federal officials recently finalized a package of rail improvements that had been delayed due to the COVID pandemic.
The chief focus of the $3.7 billion program will be north-south traffic, especially between Richmond and Washington.
But the package is of regional interest because it provides funding for the state’s purchase of the Buckingham Branch Railroad, preserving and expanding service along the line.
The BBR has succeeded as — if you’ll pardon the pun — “the little engine that could.”
When other entities were divesting themselves of track, the BBR saw an opportunity — a chance to purchase rail real estate, operate on a modest level, and turn a careful profit.
It started in 1989, acquiring the rights to manage track on a small section of rail, the 17-mile stretch north-south between Buckingham and Bremo Bluff.
It later expanded its reach to include trackage all the way from the Richmond area west to Clifton Forge in the Alleghanies, a route that includes Mineral, Gordonsville, Orange, Charlottesville, and Waynesboro.
Plus, it acquired operating rights to two other short spans of track: Burkeville to Clarksville in the southern part of the state and Virginia Beach to Norfolk in the eastern region.
Eventually, it amassed 280 miles of trackage, becoming the largest short-line railroad in Virginia, according to virginiaplaces.org.
Many of the trains running on these lines were coal carriers. As the demand for coal dwindled, that might have caused a problem for the BBR.
However, demand for passenger rail is rising. The tracks still have value for expanding passenger service, as well as for carrying freight traffic.
Passenger service between Charlottesville and Richmond has been a long-held dream, and the BBR’s inclusion in the new package could be the answer to that dream.
Much of the program will concentrate on the Washington-Richmond corridor. That includes the critical step of building a second bridge over the Potomac to supplement the venerable Long Bridge, which now carries all rail traffic into Washington from anywhere in the commonwealth — Charlottesville included. The bottleneck has been a problem for passenger and freight trains for years.
Money will go toward both Amtrak and the Virginia Rail Express, which serves as a commuter line between Washington and Northern Virginia. The state believes increased rail service will be more efficient than adding lanes to congested Interstate 95.
As for service to Richmond and beyond, eventually passenger trains could run almost hourly between the two cities.
The package also includes funding for a now abandoned rail line between Petersburg and North Carolina. Putting that back into service could be part of a high-speed rail route along the eastern seaboard. The governor’s office says that — except for Ashland — right-of-way between Washington and Richmond already is wide enough to accommodate four tracks, dividing freight and passenger trains and allowing trains to pass each other without diversions or delays.
A new passenger train is expected to be added between Richmond and Norfolk within the year. Otherwise, projects are expected to be completed by 2026 for Phase 1 and 2030 for Phase 2 of the expansions.
The package — based on a partnership among CSX Corp., Amtrak, the VRE and freight company CSX Corp., which still owns much of the track in the state — is a welcome advancement of passenger rail plans for Virginia. It promises to move more people and more goods more efficiently.
Because of Virginia’s strategic location on the East Coast, its employment connections with Washington and other cities both north and south, and its drive to bring in additional jobs, especially high-tech employment, rail is key to the state’s economic success.