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VRE chief calls rail expansion a 'generational change'
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VRE chief calls rail expansion a 'generational change'

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The head of the Virginia Railway Express and a Fredericksburg-area congressman took a ride on one of the commuter trains Monday evening to talk shop.

Their train arrived shortly after 6 p.m. at the Fredericksburg train station. The two men disembarked in a good mood.

“This is a generational change,” VRE Chief Executive Officer Rich Dalton, standing on the city station platform, said of the agreements reached last week by federal and state officials on a $3.7 billion plan that will allow expansion of railroads that run through Virginia, separating passenger and freight traffic on the rails and connecting the Northeast and Southeast corridors along the East Coast.

The agreements between the state and the rail companies support the acquisition of 223 miles of track from CSX, increased service for Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak and the construction of the Longbridge project, which calls for construction of a new $1.9 billion bridge over the Potomac River, parallel to the current span, where there is a bottleneck between Virginia and Washington, D.C.

The program calls for doubling Amtrak service and adding more flexible schedules for VRE trains, including weekend service, increasing the commuter rail provider’s overall service by 60 percent.

Wittman said it is “an exciting opportunity” to improve travel through Virginia.

The Republican congressman, whose 1st District covers much of the Fredericksburg area, said he and VRE officials talked about policies during the train ride, focusing on such things as VRE’s work in preparing for and drawing riders back on the trains as figures remain at all-time lows. The rail provider continues to run limited service, but has instituted an intense cleaning process and requires masks and social distancing.

Dalton said rider numbers remain low but “keep ticking up.” He added that VRE is taking a “measured approach” and that the vaccine should help in getting people back on VRE trains.

Both men believe the expansion plans are one way to draw passengers back to trains. Also, they and other officials believe the rail expansion plans are a way to improve traffic flow on rails and Interstate 95.

Wittman said the Fredericksburg area is an “incredibly important part” of improving transportation in the state, pointing out the various I–95 projects, the rail expansion and its position as a major commuter hub.

He echoed other officials in saying the rail expansion “has a lot of potential” to “take a lot of pressure off” the interstate. Building new lanes “just can’t keep up with demand.”

The congressman also sees work flexibility as another important prong to alleviate traffic congestion.

“Listen, I don’t think there’s anything good about COVID-19, but there was lesson learned on this and how virtual work time can be done and how you can continue operations” of VRE by expanding the schedule to allow more flexibility for commuters and riders in general, he said.

Wittman added that traffic congestion could be alleviated by moving some federal agencies to the Fredericksburg area since so many local residents commute north for work.

“All these things are coming together at the right time,” he said. “Improvements to 95, the exciting [rail expansion] project here, the Longbridge issue now being taken care of, being able to understand how businesses can use virtual work scheduling. I think all those things are great opportunities for this region, not only now but in the future.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

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