Push for shorter passenger train trips east from Roanoke could make positive impact

Plans include better option for rail between Roanoke, Hampton Roads

There’s a new push to allow faster train travel “connecting the Blue Ridge to the beach,” a slogan now used by a group supporting passenger rail service expansion in the commonwealth.

A new report from the group Virginians for High Speed Rail argues for improvements to the existing tracks from Charlottesville to Richmond, which would open up a shorter route from Roanoke to Hampton Roads.

A map shows the group’s goals, which include having a rail station in Christiansburg to connect the New River Valley with the rest of the commonwealth.

“It’s all about giving Virginians more options and that is why the state has been advancing and been aggressive on expanding passenger rail,” said Daniel Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail.

The plans would allow people in Roanoke, particularly young people whose use of rail is increasing, to more easily ride the train east. Right now, passengers have to go north first, through D.C., which causes the trip to Virginia Beach to take about 14 hours.

The expanded service would serve 3.7 million Virginians who would live within 20 miles of a rail station, the group said.

Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge expects rail expansion to increase local tourism revenue in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

“This is going to add to that ability to bring more people here to spend more money,” said spokeswoman Catherine Fox. “The Tidewater area loves going to the mountains to vacation just like we like going to the beach to vacation.”

But a lot has to happen for these plans to get on track. Those who support them are hoping they’re eight years away from becoming reality. That’s about how long it took for Virginia to get passenger rail service from D.C. to Roanoke.

Plaugher said the tracks from Charlottesville to Richmond would need improvements to handle passenger service. His group plans on asking Virginia lawmakers in January to fund a feasibility study, which would show the commonwealth how much these projects would cost.

A more long term goal is to have service extend west to Bristol.

These efforts come as 10 News learned of new numbers Monday showing that the growing use of the downtown Roanoke Amtrak station is moving full steam ahead. There’s been 5.1% increase in ridership in about the last year compared to the same time the year prior.

In February, numbers showed a 9.5% increase in use from 2017 to 2018.

The plans from Virginians for High Speed Rail will also affect the New River Valley, as leaders there are still hoping to have a station in Christiansburg. Last October, town leaders picked a plot of land to buy in the hopes it can house a future rail station.

The push also comes as Oct. 1 nears, which marks the 10th anniversary of Amtrak service in Virginia. Transportation officials said they’re making a special announcement Tuesday in Richmond celebrating the efforts.

Virginia has continued to expand rail service in the last decade, including renewing trips out of Roanoke in 2017.