The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority and Norfolk Southern Corp. on June 30 announced the financial closing of the Western Rail Initiative Agreement, which will permit expanded passenger rail service from Washington to Roanoke and to the New River Valley.
The first step in the expansion is the addition of a second round-trip Amtrak train between Roanoke and the District of Columbia, subsidized by the state government, which will start on July 11 and will give residents another option instead of driving roughly 250 miles each way.
The new Washington-to-Roanoke roundtrip will make stops at Alexandria, Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville and Lynchburg. The agreement also calls for a potential future station at Bedford. The new service is expected to add approximately 80,000 passengers in the first year once it is extended into the New River Valley.
Those taking the roughly 5-hour trip from Roanoke to Washington’s Union Station can then stay on the train and connect up Amtrak’s Northeast corridor as far as Boston.
The agreement also includes the future extension of the Roanoke service to the New River Valley with the construction of a new station as well as track and signal improvements.
“The closing of the Western Rail Agreement is great news for Virginians, as this is a big step forward in our mission to expand passenger rail to the New River Valley,” said D.J. Stadtler, executive director of Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which in 2009 began collaborating with Amtrak to serve specific communities in the commonwealth.
“Communities along the Interstate 81 and Route 29 corridors will now have more passenger rail options when traveling to and from our nation’s capital and beyond, and the improvements will also increase our economic opportunities by enhancing freight-rail service,” Stadtler said.
The agreement “marks the future of rail in the commonwealth,” said Norfolk Southern senior vice president and chief strategy officer Mike McClellan.
“Together, we have reached an agreement that expands access for passengers and preserves an important link in the supply chain for businesses that rely on freight rail to ship base materials and finished products,” he said.
As part of the agreement, the state government will acquire approximately 28 miles of Norfolk Southern-owned “V-line” right-of-way, including existing tracks from Christiansburg to the Salem Crossovers, plus the passenger easement between Salem Crossovers and the Roanoke station platform. The state government’s plans also include rail-infrastructure improvements between Manassas and the New River Valley for more frequent and reliable service.
The extension of passenger rail to Virginia’s Blue Ridge began in 2009 with service to Lynchburg, which saw ridership triple what had been predicted in just its first year. In 2017, the service was extended to Roanoke, and ridership continued to grow with more than 220,000 passengers traveling in fiscal 2019 (pre-pandemic). In April and May of 2022, ridership on the Roanoke route surpassed the record ridership of the same months in 2019.
The state government also works with Amtrak to provide service from Roanoke, Newport News, Norfolk and Richmond to Union Station in D.C. and thence to other Amtrak destinations.