While the McDonnell administration seeks funding to extend Amtrak passenger service in Virginia, Hampton Roads planners are pushing European-style high-speed rail from Norfolk to Richmond and Washington — financed largely by the private sector.
by James A. Bacon
There’s an inherent difficulty in getting High Speed Rail to Virginia. Amtrak leases its rail lines from freight railroads. Freight rail tracks are designed to handle heavy-laden cargo trains, not fast-moving passenger trains, effectively limiting speeds to about 75 miles per hour. But 75 mph is barely faster than vehicles can travel the Interstate. Motorists stick to their cars and Amtrak is hard pressed to generate enough fares to pay its operating costs, never mind the capital cost of upgrading the rail lines.
But what if… What if a public-private partnership built its own line from Norfolk to Richmond and Washington that didn’t have to share the rail with freight trains? Such a partnership could design the rail line for passenger trains to run as fast as 150 mph. In that case, says Alexander E. Metcalf, president of Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc., a passenger rail consulting firm, the economics would change dramatically.
The faster a train can travel and the more frequent its schedule, the greater the number of people who want to use it and the more they are willing to pay for a ticket. As a rule of thumb, says Metcalf, a 110-mph train can contribute fares equivalent to five to ten percent of its capital cost. A 150 mph train can kick in 20%. Also, as demonstrated repeatedly in Japan and Europe, stations serving fast trains act as magnets for development. Office landlords charge higher leases, property values rise, and, if some of that value can be captured through a special tax district or other means, it could be possible to pay even more of the the rail line’s up-front capital cost.
Unbeknownst to most Virginians, Metcalf says, the Norfolk-Richmond-Washington route may be the best prospect in the country for high speed passenger service outside of the densely populated Washington-New York corridor. Driven by the rising price of aviation fuel, airlines are retreating from short flights. Meanwhile, rising gasoline prices and increasing Interstate congestion make long car trips increasingly expensive and inconvenient. The middle-range distance between Norfolk and Washington is the sweet spot where rail is most competitive.
While Virginia rail policy has achieved some notable successes, such as extending the slower Amtrak service from Washington to Lynchburg — a profitable route, incidentally — and from Norfolk to Richmond, the McDonnell administration has focused its high-speed rail initiatives mainly on the Washington-Richmond-Raleigh corridor, leaving Hampton Roads out of the loop.
However, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization has been building a case for a high-speed Washington-Richmond-Norfolk route. For the military-dependent region, a fast rail connection is a strategic economic-development imperative. Providing military personnel the ability to reach the Washington area, participate in a meeting and ride back in a normal work day would make Hampton Roads more competitive with other regions as the Department of Defense grapples with budget cuts and base closings.
“A two-hour trip to D.C. changes the way Hampton Roads does business,” says Dwight Farmer, executive director of the HRTPO. “We become a suburb of Washington, D.C. … If you downsize the military, where would you consolidate [operations]? Hampton Roads!”
According to the Preliminary Vision Plan published in 2010, there could be as many as 14 stations between Norfolk and Washington, D.C., including the terminus at Union Station. The route would swing south of the James River, running through Suffolk and Petersburg before stopping at Main Street station in downtown Richmond. Then the route would run north to Washington, with at least one major stop in the Pentagon/Reagan National Airport area. Some trains would halt at smaller stations along the way but others would blast through without stopping. Read More.