Full steam ahead

Published 10:37 pm Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Passenger train: Virginia and Norfolk Southern Railroad have signed an agreement that will result in a few years in passenger rail service between Norfolk and Richmond.

Officials press forward on passenger rail

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series about the move to bring passenger rail service to Southeast Virginia.

In a few short years, Hampton Roads residents might be able to zoom to Richmond along a train track, instead of chugging along a crowded interstate or highway, leaving their cars — pollution, congestion and all — behind.

At least, that’s the vision of local and state officials, who have been hard at work in recent months taking steps toward making the dream come true.

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Last month, the state signed a key agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway Company that lays the groundwork for bringing daily passenger rail service back to Norfolk for the first time since 1977.

Ultimately, riders who begin their trip in Norfolk would be able to sit in the same seat all the way to Richmond, Washington, D.C., and cities as far north as Boston.

“What we’re looking for is to give people the options of getting out of their cars and not having to fight the congestion at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel or [Interstates] 64 or 95,” said Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “You never know, when you get on 95, what’s going to happen.”

One-seat service from Richmond to Boston operates currently, Drake said. The goal is to link Norfolk — via a stop located near Harbor Park — with the Richmond station.

The proposed route would send those trains through Suffolk.

Generally, Suffolk officials are excited about the plans and even hope to attract the attention of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation for a potential stop in the city. However, plans for that station at this time are merely conceptual.

Drake emphasized the passenger rail project is separate from the federal high-speed rail project. The two sometimes get confused, she said.

“We’re talking about two things intermingled together,” she said.

During the initial high-speed rail discussions, Drake said, Norfolk Southern stepped forward and offered its tracks along the U.S. Route 460 corridor as a possibility for passenger rail.

Unlike passenger rail, which would run at maximum speeds of 79 miles per hour, high-speed rail trains would run at more than 100 mph and would be a federal project. The two projects could connect somewhere at some point in the future, but the federal project is many years down the road, officials said.

Drake could not yet provide any details on the pricing or scheduling of the trains. She did say the current price for a one-way ticket from Richmond to Alexandria — about a two-hour ride — is $28.

No matter the price, Drake believes passenger rail would be a benefit to the area and the state.

“We think this is going to be a real plus for our military and federal workers,” she said, adding, “It’s great to be traveling on that train and looking over to your left and seeing the traffic stopped.”