PHOTO: Fredericksburg station

Fredericksburg train station.

SAYING THAT improvements to Fredericksburg’s 110-year-old train station are overdue is a textbook example of understatement. A visit there is like stepping back in time—even charming in a way.

But let’s not take the luster off the welcome news that the station is in line for $5 million worth of upgrades thanks to a plan agreed upon by the city, CSX and Virginia Railway Express. The project will be paid for with state and federal funding, and the most important work is due to be completed in two to three years.

Is this when we say we’ll believe it when we see it? But a pox on pessimism, right? Even if the last time an overdue station repair project was announced was 2005, and the $2.6 million needed for the work had to be allocated over a five-year period, so the work didn’t get started until late 2010.

Part of the work undertaken back then was to repair the concrete that would periodically fall in chunks from the bridges that cross over Charles, Princess Anne, Caroline and Sophia streets. But the concrete continues to crumble, and drivers familiar with the situation will avoid waiting under a bridge for a stoplight to change.

Addressing that issue, hopefully for the long term, will be part of the new project. Work will also include extending the station’s platforms to accommodate longer VRE trains. A new stairway to the George Washington Regional Commission parking lot will help disperse passengers more efficiently and avoid what City Councilman Matt Kelly calls the “herding” of VRE commuters.

Elevator work, lighting and Americans with Disabilities Act improvements will be a boon to the station’s ease of use and help bring it into the 21st century. Word is that the drainage problems that leave perpetual puddles of water at the station will be addressed later on, but maybe some interim fix could help with that sooner than later.

If the project does indeed take care of the station’s chronic passenger communications issues, the new audio and video systems might bring an end to the traditional conversations with strangers that go something like this:

Stranger: “Do you know which side the train will come in on?”

You: “No, it’s a guessing game we play here. We won’t know until the train is nearly here and they announce it over the speaker. Except you can’t understand anything that’s said over the speaker, so it ends up being a mad dash down the stairs or ramp, under the platform, then back up the stairs or ramp to the other side.”

Stranger: “That’s terrible!”

You: “Welcome to the Fredericksburg train station.”

The station improvements will go hand-in-hand with a separate, just-announced $3.7 billion program to expand and improve rail transportation along the Washington–Richmond corridor and beyond. The plan would add five daily trains on the Fredericksburg VRE line, and four on the Manassas line.

More than half of that money, $1.9 billion, will pay for a new parallel span that will add a third track to the 115-year-old Long Bridge over the Potomac River. The antiquated bridge has long been a bottleneck for freight and passenger trains along the region’s north–south rail corridor—and a deal breaker for adding more trains. Unfortunately, the new bridge isn’t due for completion until at least 2027.

While federal subsidies, along with a robust contribution by CSX and whatever Amtrak and other sources can pony up are crucial to the plan’s success, steady and substantial ridership will be key to sustaining it. Ridership by those who would otherwise be in their cars on Interstate 95 is key to the plan’s goal of lessening congestion on the beleaguered interstate.

State acquisition of right-of-way from CSX along with renewal and expansion of track for passenger trains to points in Southside and western Virginia is another key part of the deal. Expansion of Virginia’s rail network ought to include connection considerations with rail service in neighboring states.

Also, any future congestion relief expanded freight rail service could provide to Virginia’s tractor–trailer-choked interstates and major highways would be good news as well.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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