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Deal finalized to bring passenger rail to NRV

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Amtrak returned to Roanoke in 2019 — and plans have now been approved for the service to be extended into the New River Valley, and expanded service for Roanoke.

The state has finalized the agreement with Norfolk Southern Corporation to expand passenger rail service to the New River Valley for the first time since 1979, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced Thursday.

The Western Rail Initiative expands passenger rail service to the New River Valley and complements the $3.7 billion Transforming Rail in Virginia program, the Commonwealth’s roadmap for building a 21st-century rail network.

The agreement was executed following authorization from the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority Board of Directors, according to a news release.

A historic investment in Southwest Virginia’s rail network, the Western Rail Initiative will add a second state-supported round-trip train between Roanoke and Boston later this year, which will be extended to the New River Valley upon completion of a new station, track and signal improvements.

A study is ongoing to determine where the station should be located. The sites currently being considered are in and around Christiansburg as well as one in the Ellett Valley.

The agreement also allows for a third train to operate in the future between Roanoke and the New River Valley. The expanded intercity rail service, which will create significant economic benefits and provide additional multimodal options for travelers along the Interstate 81 and Route 29 corridor, is expected to add approximately 80,000 new passengers in the first year after service is extended to the New River Valley. Also, the agreement preserves the existing freight rail service provided on the lines.

In an agreement with Norfolk Southern, the Commonwealth is acquiring approximately 28 miles of the Norfolk Southern-owned “V line” right-of-way and existing tracks from Christiansburg to the Salem Crossovers and a passenger rail easement between the Salem Crossovers and the Amtrak Roanoke station platform, according to the release.

Norfolk Southern will continue to provide freight service on the line.

In addition, the Commonwealth will invest in infrastructure improvements between Manassas and the Roanoke Yard to improve the reliability of passenger rail service over Norfolk Southern Railway-owned right-of-way, according to the release.

The acquisition and infrastructure improvements are partially funded by contributions from the I-81 Corridor Multimodal Improvements Fund, Commonwealth Rail funds, and the General Assembly’s 2021 Transportation Initiatives. The Commonwealth anticipates reaching a financial close with Norfolk Southern in mid-2022, according to the release.

“This agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia is a great example of government and business partnership,” said James A. Squires, Chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern. “Together, we have created a path forward to increase passenger rail service and ensure that freight rail customers continue to move the goods that power our economy. Importantly, this will yield economic dividends from Northern to Southwest Virginia, both through the necessary infrastructure improvements and additional use of the rail lines.”

“The Commonwealth’s historic investment in this region’s passenger rail network is a significant milestone in our commitment to elevating the economic competitiveness of Southwest Virginia,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, who led the legislative effort to launch the first state-supported passenger train anchored in Lynchburg. “This cooperative agreement builds on the highly-successful passenger rail service in the corridor and enhances vital connectivity to the New River Valley with the rest of Virginia, adding additional transportation options for the region’s residents, tourists and college students alike.”

Amtrak regional daily service in Southwest Virginia began in October 2009 with one round trip between Lynchburg and Washington, D.C. During the first year of operations, ridership outperformed forecasts by more than triple, according to the release. In November 2017, the Commonwealth expanded service to Roanoke, and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the route was one of the most profitable intercity passenger rail routes in the country, according to the release.

The second Roanoke train, for which service is expected to commence in 2022, will serve Alexandria, Burke Centre, Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and then Roanoke and travel to and from Washington, D.C., and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

The agreement, too, acknowledges the potential for a future station in Bedford.

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