High-speed rail continues to be an elusive dream for Richmonders. We need vastly improved passenger rail service, and we have been deprived of it for too long. Yet vastly improved, more frequent and dependable rail service to Washington and beyond shouldn't be a dream. It's not impossible; it's both realistic and attainable. What we need is a new approach.
The existing Richmond-Washington rail corridor — properly upgraded, expanded, maintained and operated — could meet our needs for years to come. As it is now, there is inadequate capacity for both freight and passengers, and all too often CSX, the owner of the corridor, relegates passenger service to secondary status. As a result, the quality of passenger service today can't satisfy public travel needs.
Rail enhancement goals have not been met, in part because they have not been a sufficiently high priority of governors, mayors and regional governments. Congress is not likely to ever force rail improvements upon us; we have to look and act as though we are interested. Thus far, the interest of the community has been more evident than that of the leadership. This serious deficiency must soon be addressed; otherwise, we will have to forever be content to live with the miseries of I-95.
Money alone won't get the job done. We need a new approach — a new model.
Fifteen years ago, in 1991, the commonwealth of Virginia imprudently traded away the former RF&P Railroad, in which it had a key ownership position, because certain leaders then in power coveted RF&P's extensive real estate holdings. It was the railroad that should have been retained, not the commercially developable real estate.
If we are to make meaningful progress toward beneficial development of the Richmond-Washington rail corridor, we need to forge a new business arrangement with CSX, the current owner of the right-of-way.
Notorious among other railroads for its poor performance, the CSX norms for infrastructure maintenance and operation — read as poor service to both freight shippers as well as passengers — are not adequate for the type of high-performance freight and passenger service needed in our north-south corridor.
Since the 2000 session of the General Assembly, the commonwealth has been trying to make rail infrastructure improvements, but so far, there has been very little improvement of service for a public investment approaching $100 million. In fact, amazing as it may sound, the state has not even been able to spend all the money it has for reasons too unflattering to both parties to dwell upon in this short account.
Gov. Tim Kaine might want to consider putting the brakes on public investment on CSX property until there is a new business structure in place, an appropriate joint venture agreement.
Rail industry history is filled with what are called joint facility agreements. The old RF&P had long and successful experience with such arrangements, which typically bring together all of the interested parties and provide for the ownership of existing assets, the investment and ownership of new ones, maintenance, operation and governance. These parties include CSX, the state, Amtrak, Virginia Rail Express and the federal government. None of this is revolutionary; it is certainly not rocket science.
Interminable studies, diverting otherwise productive public funds to consultants, are not the answer and should only be commissioned judiciously — not as an excuse for putting off fundamental decisions. Leadership is what we need most.
Somewhat like the Richmond International Airport's ongoing search for additional air service providers, we must also eventually have more than one rail passenger service provider. We need innovative passenger rail operators, which have an incentive to perform — and they need staying power. That, of course, means that any prospective passenger rail carrier needs a reasonable degree of certainty of continued public funding programs for both infrastructure and start-up operational support.
A properly funded Amtrak could do a much better job. Perhaps the highly successful Virginia Rail Express could supplement Amtrak service. The Rail Express, a commuter rail service, operates two major lines that bring passengers from Manassas and from Fredericksburg to Union Station in Washington, D.C. There are even other possibilities. But — and this is critical — unless the White House and certain members of Congress get serious about restructuring Amtrak — and that includes an adequate and continuing source of predictable funding — we are not going to have anything. Congressman Eric Cantor, please take note!
Several years ago, a statewide Virginia Rail Authority was proposed, but it was rejected by the General Assembly. It is still a good idea, and its time will come. In the interim, how about a public/private not-for-profit corporation — perhaps the Richmond Rail Consortium?
Let's toss that idea to the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and its Richmond Transportation Advocacy Board. S
Richard L. Beadles, a longtime advocate of improved rail service, served as president of the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. He currently serves as a member of the State Rail Advisory Board. The views expressed herein are strictly his own.
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