New River Valley residents can now look forward to no longer having to drive to Roanoke to catch a train to Washington, D.C., and beyond, but key particulars of the passenger rail plan are not yet on the tracks.
One matter is where a New River Valley station will be located.
Work led by the New River Valley Regional Commission recommended some years ago a spot near the Christiansburg Aquatic Center off of North Franklin Street, and the town bought land in that area primarily for that purpose. But a few people close to the passenger rail extension project now say it’s highly unlikely that will happen.
The state’s approximately $257 million investment into the Western Rail Initiative—the program that covers the planned return of passenger rail to the New River Valley and the upcoming addition of another train from Roanoke to Washington D.C.—includes the acquisition of right of way and track from Norfolk Southern Railway for just under 29 miles of the Virginian Line from the Salem Crossovers to Merrimac.
The New River Valley station will be on the old Virginian Line and not on the Norfolk Southern Mainline, which are the tracks near the Christiansburg Aquatic Center, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation spokeswoman Haley Glynn wrote in an email this past week.
“The exact station location and routes are still subject to environmental study, planning and definitive agreements,” she wrote. “Due to ongoing negotiations, that’s all the information we can provide at this time.”
Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber said he knew a few months ago a station near the Aquatic Center was unlikely but he remained tight-lipped due to the ongoing negotiations between the state and Norfolk Southern. He said he understands that one hurdle with a station near the Aquatic Center is interference with the rail company’s freight line.
Barber has also pointed to some topography challenges.
“I never thought the aquatic center site was the best site because of ingress and grading work required,” he wrote in an email. “I felt the costs involved would be [too] high.”
Further, Barber wrote that the site was recommended by the local passenger rail group long before the idea of using the Virginian line came into existence. The mayor, however, wrote the town will be involved in working with DRPT, the Virginia Department of Transportation and other agencies to determine possible sites.
One key reason the Christiansburg site was recommended is its centrality to the area and convenient access for the bulk of the anticipated ridership, said Larry Hincker, spokesman for the group behind much of the campaign to return passenger rail to the New River Valley. The site was also recommended due to its relative access to roadways, or in this case the North Franklin Street thoroughfare that provides a direct link to the Blacksburg and Christiansburg downtown areas, he said.
“That’s more or less the heart of the New River Valley, roadway wise and population density wise,” Hincker said.
Barber maintains that Christiansburg in general remains the logical location.
Previous research has found that most passengers would come from either Blacksburg or Christiansburg.
Christiansburg spent just under $400,000 a few years ago to buy the eight acres near the aquatic center, but town officials said at the time the land would be used for additional parking for the swimming facility should a train station not be built there.
Barber said the town already paved space for overflow parking on some of the acquired land. But he said a big reason the town bought the land was to show that it would be ready to accommodate passenger rail operations.
“We set the tone and bought the land to show we had a commitment to getting passenger rail to this area,” he said.
Another key component that will need to be finalized is the exact makeup and functions of the New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority, an entity expected to include representation from various localities and agencies across the New River Valley.
The organization will allow a number of regional partners to share in the cost of building and maintaining a train station, but the specifics on that still need to be worked out, officials close to the rail project say.
“Our agency will help guide the authority through formation,” Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission, wrote in an email. “We are not convening potential members until more information comes from the state. There are a lot more details needed before local governments/higher ed institutions can begin making commitments that an authority would entail.”
Overall, officials are praising the agreement to return passenger rail to the region. Barber said the area is far closer to the objective than it was a few years ago.
The infrastructure improvements necessitated by the project are expected to be complete by 2025, according to the recently announced plans. Afterward, two Northeast Corridor round trips will be extended from Roanoke to Christiansburg.
“Obviously, we were elated that the state has been able to strike a preliminary agreement with Norfolk Southern,” Hincker said. “It’s one more indication of the state’s seriousness about passenger rail and their ability to make robust investment.”