“We’re adding more options for people at the right time,” said Michael McLaughlin, chief operating officer at the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. “Train capacity is filling up and ridership is at record levels.”
Virginians are returning to trains after more than two years of pandemic-related disruption, McLaughlin said, citing data that indicates ridership in recent months on Norfolk and Roanoke routes has exceeded 2019 figures. April, for example, more than 26,000 passengers took the Norfolk route, compared to less than 23,000 in April 2019, state records show.
“People are crying out for more trains,” McLaughlin said. “They are also calling for different train schedules.”
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The added frequencies are an extension of the Northeast Regional Route, giving Virginia residents a new way to travel to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Virginia, among 17 states that have state-sponsored Amtrak service, expects more than doubling its passenger operations during the decade, with plans to increase frequencies between Washington and Richmond, as well as other improvements.
The additional train to Norfolk will be the third round trip to the region. It will leave Norfolk at 1 p.m. and arrive in Washington in 4 hours and 38 minutes, competing with car travel. The new southbound train will depart Union Station at 12:05 p.m.
Norfolk’s addition is part of a $3.7 billion deal the state signed last year with CSX and Amtrak, which pledged to double passenger service along the East Corridor. Interstate 95. Virginia had planned to launch the new trip in Norfolk this spring, but staffing issues at Amtrak delayed the debut.
Under the agreement, Virginia is expanding the track and will be able to separate freight and passenger traffic in parts of the I-95 corridor. More trains will be added in 2026, with additional trains in 2030 after the planned construction of a $1.9 billion railroad bridge over the Potomac River that will increase passenger train capacity.
The additional round trip to Roanoke comes five years after Virginia expanded service to the area and is the first of multiple improvements planned for Southwest Virginia under an agreement between the state and Norfolk Southern. Virginia recently acquired 28.5 miles of private railroad track from the Salem Crossings west of Roanoke to Christiansburg. Authorities plan to restore the trail and expand service from Roanoke to Christiansburg as early as 2025.
Amtrak already operates a morning trip from Roanoke to DC and an evening trip from DC to Roanoke. From July 11, a train will leave Washington at 8:05 a.m. and arrive in Roanoke at 1:00 p.m.; a train to Washington will depart at 4:30 p.m. and arrive shortly before 9:30 p.m.
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Amtrak said the additions will give travelers more options for traveling in Virginia and connecting to the rest of the Northeast. In a statement, Amtrak Chief Executive Stephen Gardner called Virginia a “national leader” in passenger rail travel, while praising the expansion efforts.
“Together, we are giving more Virginians a sustainable, comfortable and productive alternative to driving and flying and we are investing together to do even more together in the future,” he said.
Amtrak expanded service to downtown Richmond last fall.
Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, a nonprofit that champions rail service in the state, said the additional rail connections are vital and show how far Virginia has come in a bit. more than a decade since the launch of the rail program.
“This is a very exciting time for passenger rail in Virginia,” Plaugher said. “The best part is that this is really just the beginning. There are five more round-trip trains scheduled for 2030 and five more after those in our long-term plans. The future where two Virginia communities are connected by the passenger rail is close.
Amtrak is also restarting the Newport News train from Washington this month which was suspended earlier this year due to staffing issues.