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Chesapeake town favors a slow pace over the fast track

(The following story by Debbie Messina appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on April 13, 2010.)

CHESAPEAKE, Va. Trains have made their mark on the rural hamlet of Sunray.

They helped build the community, bringing dozens of Polish immigrants to settle and farm its rich, black soil. But they've also torn it apart, killing two residents and maiming three in tragic accidents along its tracks.

Trains, once again, have gripped this village of about 300.

A state proposal to run high-speed rail into South Hampton Roads would route the passenger trains through Sunray, on tracks that were abandoned nearly 50 years ago and a rail bed that has become so overgrown that it's difficult to spot.

The proposal has won overwhelming, enthusiastic support from all around Hampton Roads.

Even Sunray residents welcomed the idea - until they learned it would rumble next to their homes and hay fields and not on the active freight tracks that run just south of them at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.

"Sunray is pretty much like it was a hundred years ago," said Gary Szymanski, president of the Sunray Farmers Association and a third-generation resident. "Kids have built houses on their family's farm."

Extended families live in clusters. Most of the 100 or so homes have outbuildings, barns and tractors. There are no curbs or gutters. No city water or sewer system.

"We're a live-and-let-live community," Szymanski said.

Because of its age and agricultural heritage, Sunray is listed on federal and state historic registers. In the early 1900s, after a lumber company had cut over the land, a Polish-born employee enticed other Polish immigrants to settle there by sending interested individuals a small glass vial containing rich soil.

After the initial disappointment of finding the land covered with water and reeds, the newcomers worked to literally push back the boundaries of the Great Dismal Swamp. They established farms, churches and a two-room schoolhouse.

"There are resources here we cherish, and we cherish our way of life," Szymanski said.

Speeding trains would ruin that, residents fear. Safety, noise, quality of life are among their concerns.

Szymanski is living proof of the dangers. At age 18, he was broadsided by a 50 mph freight train as he tried to drive across the tracks at a crossing just outside of Sunray in 1977.

He said he was "blown out" of the car's side window before it rolled five times in front of the train.

Szymanski said, "I never heard it; never saw it." He added how difficult it is to hear trains until they're passing in front of you.

Today, Szymanski has limited use of his legs and walks with a cane: "I'm lucky to be alive."

A mother and daughter from Sunray were killed at the same crossing. Two other residents have been injured.

Szymanski, however, says, "my accident has nothing to do with" his opposition to the high-speed train route.

Other victims and their families are also not turning it into a personal crusade. Victims and family members of victims never hinted at their own tragedies at a recent community meeting with a state rail official.

Hence Szymanski's "live and let live" characterization of Sunray.

Barbara Nance, a relative newcomer who moved to Sunray 25 years ago, said she "can't image the thought" of the trains within the community. Having grown up around the jet noise near Norfolk Naval Base, she moved to Sunray for the peace.

Nance estimates her home is 30 feet from the tracks.

John Koonce, who lives about 200 feet from the tracks, worries about derailments.

"It's going to come through anyway," he said. "I can't stop it."

Residents recently learned that the state's high-speed rail proposal uses the old Virginian Railway tracks in their neighborhood. Szymanski invited the state to explain the plan to residents at a community meeting. Attendance was double its typical 30 residents.

The proposal calls for six daily round-trips between Richmond and Norfolk's Harbor Park, starting in about six years. The route mostly follows Norfolk Southern's freight tracks that roughly parallel U.S. 460, but then veers onto the unused freight track from Suffolk through Chesapeake and Portsmouth and into Norfolk.

The trains would run at 90 mph to 110 mph, but would slow down in communities like Sunray, Christine Fix, Virginia Department of Transportation rail-planning coordinator, told the gathering.

Meanwhile, the state is also in discussions with Norfolk Southern to start, within three years, conventional passenger rail at 79 mph along much of the same track, but it would continue on Norfolk Southern's active freight line through South Hampton Roads. That track runs just south of Sunray and the former Virginian Railway line.

Fix said the state proposed the Virginian Railway line for higher-speed trains because they generally need tracks separated from freight and because Norfolk Southern does not want to mingle higher-speed passenger trains with its freight trains for operational and safety reasons. Also, she said, the abandoned right of way offers a better location for a passenger station because of its proximity to highways.

Upon hearing the community's concerns, Fix said, "When some of this planning happened on paper, it looked great. Now that we're on the ground, it may not look so good.... We're going to take a hard look at it."

She told the gathering it would be difficult to change the route because the Commonwealth Transportation Board has already endorsed it. In an interview after the meeting, however, she acknowledged: "Nothing's a done deal."

Norfolk Southern officials said they are not considering allowing higher-speed trains on its freight tracks south of Sunray, only conventional passenger trains.

"We have not had discussions with the state about higher-speed rail at all," railroad spokesman Robin Chapman said. "And we generally do not make our lines available for higher-speed rail."

Fix said that the state will be taking a deeper look at the Hampton Roads high-speed rail proposal and will consider public input from citizens, businesses and municipalities, as well as the railroads.

Szymanski points to the freight tracks that were recently built in the median of Western Freeway in Portsmouth to keep trains out of the neighborhoods there.

"Hopefully, there will be some flexibility in this route," he said. "Some people will be right on it. It will change lives."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

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