Southeast Corridor rail milestone advances prospects for faster trains

Environmental documents have been signed to advance a planned railroad shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond, state and federal officials said Thursday, boosting prospects for faster trains between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

North Carolina, Virginia and the Federal Railroad Administration approved the final environmental impact study for the Raleigh-to-Richmond leg of a rail route known as the Southeast Corridor.

“Without a strong passenger rail system, the Southeast’s growth will be choked by congestion for a very long time,” Anthony Foxx, the U.S. transportation secretary and former Charlotte mayor, said in a news release. “I urge everyone involved to continue pushing this effort forward. High-speed rail in this region is not a luxury but a necessity.”

North Carolina’s DOT has mapped a route for trains that would run as fast as 110 miles per hour between the two state capitals. It would cut 35 miles off the current Amtrak path, which curves through Selma and Rocky Mount, and trim an estimated 75 minutes from the travel time for trips from North Carolina to Washington and the Northeast.

The plan calls for eliminating every level-grade rail crossing along the line – closing some and building dozens of bridges to carry automobiles over or under the tracks. The route would follow the old CSX “S” line, which serves some freight customers in North Carolina but has been abandoned farther north and in southern Virginia. Curves in the track would be straightened to allow faster train speeds.

But it won’t happen soon, because DOT still needs an estimated $4 billion to buy the land, lay tracks and build roads, bridges and stations. Rather than wait indefinitely for full funding, Virginia and North Carolina officials say they will look for options to start out with less speedy, less expensive train service.

The environmental impact statement, a key project milestone, lays out the detailed route from downtown Raleigh – starting with a new rail bridge over Capital Boulevard between Peace Street and Wade Avenue – and Petersburg, Va., where it would join the current Amtrak route to Richmond. After the next step called a record of decision, expected by the end of 2015, NCDOT will have authority to begin working on the rail line.

“This is a significant step toward making high performing rail in the Southeast Corridor a reality,” Gov. Pat McCrory said in a news release. “Rail is a critical component of our 25-Year Transportation Vision that will improve connectivity throughout the state and strengthen our economy.”

North Carolina and Virginia have shared $691 million in federal funds, awarded by the Obama Administration, to develop the Southeast Corridor from Charlotte to Washington, D.C. Virginia’s effort is focused on adding a third track between Richmond and Arlington, Va., to eliminate freight train congestion that is blamed for frequent Amtrak delays, and to allow Amtrak speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.

In July, Foxx announced that the U.S. DOT had launched a $1 million Southeast Corridor planning effort that will include South Carolina and Georgia. He said he hoped to make substantial progress on the rail line before his tenure in Obama’s Cabinet ends in early 2017.

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier