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Virginia expands train service with two new Amtrak round trips

Virginia is adding more Amtrak service between the nation’s capital and eastern and western parts of the state, the latest milestone in Virginia’s multibillion-dollar expansion of its passenger rail network.

New round trips start Monday: one to Norfolk and another to Roanoke in Southwest Virginia, bringing to eight the number of state-funded round trips from Washington. The expansion, state and railroad officials said, addresses growing demand for more intercity train service in the state.

“We’re adding more options for people at the right time,” said Michael McLaughlin, chief operating officer at the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. “Capacity on the trains is getting full, and ridership is at record-high levels.”

Virginians are returning to trains after more than two years of pandemic-related disruptions, McLaughlin said, citing data that indicates ridership in recent months on the Norfolk and Roanoke routes has surpassed numbers from 2019. In April, for example, more than 26,000 passengers took the Norfolk route, up from fewer than 23,000 in April 2019, state records show.

“People are clamoring for more trains,” McLaughlin said. “They’re also clamoring for different train times.”

The added frequencies are an extension of the Northeast Regional route, providing a new way for Virginia residents to get to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

Virginia, among 17 states that have state-sponsored Amtrak service, expects to more than double its passenger operations within the decade, with plans to boost frequencies between Washington and Richmond, as well as other enhancements.

The extra train to Norfolk will be the third round trip to the area. It will depart Norfolk at 1 p.m. and arrive in Washington in 4 hours and 38 minutes, competitive with car travel. The new southbound train will depart Union Station at 12:05 p.m.

The Norfolk addition is part of a $3.7 billion agreement the state signed last year with CSX and Amtrak, which has pledged to double passenger service along the Interstate 95 corridor. Virginia had planned to launch the new Norfolk trip this spring, but staffing challenges at Amtrak delayed the debut.

As part of that deal, Virginia is expanding the track and will be able to separate freight and passenger traffic in portions of the I-95 corridor. More trains will be added in 2026, with additional trains in 2030 after the scheduled construction of a $1.9 billion rail bridge over the Potomac River that will expand capacity for passenger trains.

The additional round trip to Roanoke comes five years after Virginia extended service to the area and is the first of multiple enhancements planned in Southwest Virginia as part of an agreement between the state and Norfolk Southern. Virginia recently acquired 28.5 miles of track from the private railroad, from the Salem Crossovers west of Roanoke to Christiansburg. Officials plan to restore the track and extend service from Roanoke to Christiansburg as early as 2025.

Amtrak already runs a morning trip from Roanoke to D.C. and an evening trip from D.C. to Roanoke. Starting July 11, a train will leave Washington at 8:05 a.m. and arrive in Roanoke at 1 p.m.; a Washington-bound train will leave at 4:30 p.m., arriving shortly before 9:30 p.m.

Amtrak said the additions will give travelers more options to travel in Virginia and connect to the rest of the Northeast. In a statement, Amtrak chief executive Stephen Gardner called Virginia “a national leader” in passenger rail, while praising the expansion efforts.

“Together, we are providing more Virginians with a sustainable, comfortable, and productive alternative to driving and flying and we’re jointly investing to do even more together in the future,” he said.

Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, a nonprofit that advocates for rail service in the state, said the additional rail connections are vital and show the progress Virginia has made in just over a decade since it launched the rail program.

“This is a very exciting time for passenger rail in Virginia,” Plaugher said. “The best part is that this is really only the beginning. There are another five more round-trip trains planned to begin by 2030 and another five after those in our long-range plans. The future where any two communities in Virginia are connected by passenger rail is close.”

Amtrak this month is also restarting the Newport News train from Washington that was suspended earlier this year because of staffing issues.

This article originally appeared on Washington Post

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