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High-speed rail line would include various stops in Va.

(The following story by Peter Bacque appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on June 4, 2009.)

RICHMOND, Va. The train still is going to run through the Ashland and Staples Mill stations.

The Federal Railroad Administration has dropped consideration of an eastern route for proposed high-speed rail service through Richmond that would have bypassed Ashland and Amtrak's main station on Staples Mill Road in Henrico County.

"We concluded that the eastern route didn't make a whole lot of sense," Charles M. Badger, the director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said yesterday.

"It was more expensive and had more environmental impacts. There are some wetlands that the eastern route would have taken," he said. "And it had the trains tie back in north of Ashland, so it would eliminate service to Ashland and even Staples Mill."

During the past year, the state rail agency conducted an environmental study to select the most feasible route between Richmond's Main Street Station and Doswell in northern Hanover County for the U.S. southeast high-speed rail service to Washington.

The eastern route between Main Street Station and Doswell followed the Buckingham Branch rail line, which runs generally east of Interstate 95. The western route follows the CSX rail line, to the west of I-95.

Ashland and Hanover officials opposed the eastern route.

"We're excited that the commonwealth has come to that decision," Hanover County Administrator Cecil R. "Rhu" Harris Jr. said. "We have a very significant stop for Amtrak in Ashland. Continuing that service is very important to the county, the town and Randolph-Macon College, in particular."

Jennifer Scott with the Hanover Association of Businesses and Chamber of Commerce said, "We're just glad the conversation is still happening about trains coming down that corridor."

"It's really smart that our county leaders and the state government leaders are thinking about the transportation issues now," she said. "We believe that high-speed rail is one of the solutions."

The hometowns of 80 percent of Randolph-Macon students are near the Amtrak line between Richmond and Boston, R-MC President Robert R. Lindgren pointed out.

Ashland officials worried that the loss of passenger train service would slash the income of some of the town's businesses by 20 percent and force others to shut their doors.

Last year, 275,479 travelers used Amtrak's Staples Mill Station, making it Amtrak's busiest station in Virginia, while 16,497 passengers used the Ashland station.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was one of eight governors at the White House yesterday for a roundtable discussion on high-speed rail. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood challenged governors to think boldly when designing high-speed rail plans.

Detailed guidance for up to the first $8 billion in federal rail grant applications will be announced this month, and the first round of grants are expected to be awarded as soon as late summer.

The governor's office also announced yesterday that Virginia has signed an agreement with Amtrak to run an additional train between Richmond and Washington during commuter hours, starting in December. The train and previously announced daily service between Lynchburg and Washington will be the first state-supported intercity passenger rail services in Virginia.

The state will pay Amtrak, the national passenger rail corporation, $17.2 million to operate the two round-trip trains and $8 million to rehabilitate the cars and locomotives for the services.

The state rail agency's study found that capital improvements to the eastern route on the Buckingham Branch would have cost $402 million, considerably more than the $234 million needed for the existing western line, Badger said.

"The Buckingham Branch has been shown to fail as a reasonable alternative," agreed Mark E. Yachmetz, the Federal Railroad Administration's associate administrator for railroad development.

Now, Badger said, "the commonwealth can move forward with the I-95 corridor development plan to support enhanced passenger and freight rail service."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

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