Train speeds up: Get to D.C. 10 minutes faster

Charlottesvillians traveling to the nation's capital aboard Amtrak's "Cardinal" may soon get an extra 10-minutes in D.C., thanks to the first moneys from the state's new Rail Enhancement Fund.

The $21,000 will allow the Cardinal– which runs between Washington and Chicago three times a week– to switch over from slow-moving CSX-owned tracks to speedier Norfolk-Southern tracks between Orange and Charlottesville.

"It's a straighter shot at a higher speed," says Jennifer Pickett, spokesperson for the state's department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Pickett says that stretch on Norfolk Southern tracks has a top speed limit of 79 miles per hour, while the CSX tracks– operated by a company called Buckingham Branch– has some speed limits as low as 30 miles per hour. The upgrade, Pickett says, entails installing about 225 new ties, surfacing 1,500 feet of track, and replacing two epoxy joints.

The smallest among the 12 awards for projects around the state approved December 15, the $21,000 is dwarfed by one for $7.5 million toward a massive project comprising a Roanoke area intermodal freight facility and various tunnel expansions.

Pickett says the projects offer the promise of pulling more than two million cars and nearly one million trucks from Virginia's roads, with the annual fuel savings estimated at over 17 million gallons annually.

But controversy persists.

When the Buckingham Branch took over the old C&O mainline a year ago, some union leaders predicted that the new operator would seek state funding for track maintenance. Indeed, the Buckingham Branch did apply for over $2.9 million for replacements and upgrades– including $525,000 to replace rails in Western Albemarle County and $1.4 million to upgrade signals on North Mountain (between Charlottesville and Clifton Forge).

Those proposals were "not recommended," according to Pickett, although she believes they may stand a chance if they're resubmitted next fall to the "Rail Preservation Program," the state's special money pool just for short lines.

Indeed, Steve Powell, Buckingham Branch's general manager, says the company may apply to the Preservation Fund.

The Rail Enhancement Fund was long touted by Governor Mark Warner and received bipartisan support in the 2005 General Assembly. Using a portion of the rental car tax, it provides approximately $23 million in dedicated funding for passenger or freight rail improvements in Virginia. Each project must obtain at least 30 percent in matching funds and demonstrate public benefits.

Other big dollops of dollars that might someday affect Charlottesville travelers include:

* $140,000 to study Richmond improvements, including access to the Main Street Station for the proposed TransDominion Express;

* $700,000 toward a study of a possible $200 million extension of the Virginia Rail Express from Manassas to Haymarket; and

* $750,000 to study the idea of bringing high-speed rail to Richmond, an award not mentioned in last month's list of finalists.

"That's a brand new one," explains Pickett. "That one we added because we were hearing that it was time to move forward on high-speed rail between Richmond and Raleigh."

Former Charlottesville City Councilor Meredith Richards is glad to hear about addition of the high-speed rail money. The longtime passenger rail advocate considers many of the current funded projects mere "maintenance issues."

"It seems like we're relieving [the freight railroads] of fairly routine expenditures," says Richards. "I'm not sure how much of the public interest is being served."

The Cardinal travels between Chicago and Washington.