VRE third track expected to open this month

An Amtrak train passes through the Spotsylvania VRE station on its way to Fredericksburg.

UNLIKE their neighbors in area counties, Fredericksburg officials are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to plans to build another set of tracks through the region for higher-speed rail service.

In fact, City Council members plan to look into the local impact of the 123-mile Richmond-to-Washington segment of the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail line. They want to meet with state and regional agencies early next year in hopes that if and when the multibillion-dollar project is done, the city will benefit from the infrastructure improvements.

This is a strikingly different, but sound, approach on a project that’s caused controversy along the East Coast’s mainline. Fredericksburg has a long history as a railroad town, and officials understand its economic value.

In recent months, the boards of supervisors in Spotsylvania, Stafford and Caroline counties have all opposed an eastern bypass route of Fredericksburg after residents along the proposed route kicked up a fuss. Property owners don’t want the cloud of a potential railroad line impacting the value of their property, and county officials agreed with them. The bypass would be disruptive to thousands of residents.

So if the Federal Railroad Administration, which makes the final decision, takes the path of least resistance, that would put expansion of the rail system along the CSX tracks—right through historic downtown Fredericksburg.

Now, part of City Council members’ more relaxed approach may come from doubts about whether this set of tracks will be built in our lifetime. Who knows whether the much-studied D.C.-to-Florida project will be included in the federal infrastructure spending package talked about during the presidential campaign?

Still, if it happens, the plan here calls for spending nearly $500 million for a third rail line, a new bridge over the Rappahannock River and improvements to the confusing station platform in the city, replacement of deteriorating rail bridges over four nearby streets, and more parking along the CSX-owned right of way.

The Fredericksburg station has a less-than-stellar reputation because Amtrak riders never know which set of tracks the train will arrive on and they often have to race underneath the platform and up the other side to climb aboard passenger cars.

Virginia Railway Express commuters could also benefit from an extended platform that would allow more riders to board longer trains.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation this month put its preliminary blessing on the additional tracks running through Fredericksburg, saying they fit into the city’s comprehensive plan.

At this point, Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw says she and council members want more details about the project and what properties would be affected. Among the historic buildings near the tracks are, of course, the 1910 train depot and the former gas plant on Charles Street. The line passes through Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

“We want to be part of the process,” Greenlaw says, “We really are not ready to take a position until we gather this information.” She said they haven’t heard objections from city residents so far.

One other much-desired change on the CSX line is closer to fruition—the end of storage of hazardous materials tanker cars on siding tracks near Mayfield. For years, residents have wanted the tankers carrying ethanol, liquefied petroleum, gas and chlorine moved away from them.

Randy Marcus, Virginia vice president of CSX, told city officials that construction of a new siding will be done by the end of the year. However, it won’t be operational until January or February when new signals are installed.

Councilman Chuck Frye said the work can’t be completed soon enough: “It’s got to be safety first. We’ve got to protect our residents.”

Fredericksburg, the region and Virginia clearly benefit from such rail improvements—small and large scale. We hope high-speed rail can be done so that long-standing problems at the city station can be addressed while adding track capacity to support passenger and freight growth on the congested CSX corridor.

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