The Magic Bullet

An energized economy! A rejuvenated city! A 90-minute commute to D.C.! Why the supercharged dream of high-speed rail through Richmond may be just that — a dream.

For decades after it was built in 1901, Richmond's Main Street Station was a brown-bricked monument to classy, efficient rail service. From 1925 to the 1950s, the famed Orange Blossom Special passenger train, among other crack express trains, raced from the Shockoe Bottom station to Florida at speeds approaching 100 mph. For years, the station, with its beige interior and Corinthian columns, bustled with downtown activity.

As passenger rail declined a half century ago, so did the French Renaissance-style facility, although it enjoyed a minor comeback in 2004. Amtrak began operating a few trains a week downtown to supplement the blocky building off Staples Mill Road that's been the region's primary rail depot since the 1970s.

Suddenly, Main Street Station is the belle of the ball again. With the Obama administration putting together a war chest of as much as $13 billion — and possibly much more — to jump-start high-speed passenger rail across the nation, Richmond and Main Street Station are getting lots of attention. The local business community has jumped on Obama's plans with a vengeance — despite the big, unanswered questions about the viability, fundability and cost-effectiveness of the plans and whether the rail improvements will be high-speed at all.

Plans are afoot to seek about $1.5 billion in federal money to upgrade passenger service between the Richmond-Petersburg area and Union Station in Washington. Advocates say the improvements will cut an hour off the two and a half hour trip and offer reliable, timely service that will generate something like $10 billion in economic development, not to mention creating 100,000 jobs along the 100-mile route. Main Street Station would play a key role in the revival, perhaps adding parking, a regional bus terminal and various new restaurants and shops to serve rail travelers.

That, at least, is the bright future in which many Richmond movers and shakers want to believe. High-speed rail, regardless of whether it's accurately defined, is bandied about as a panacea for the economic woes of the area, which have seen the demise of such big local companies as Circuit City, Qimonda and LandAmerica, pushing the unemployment rate to more than 7 percent, the highest in decades.

When Highwoods Properties pulled the plug on its controversial Shockoe Bottom ballpark project last month, Mayor Dwight Jones consoled Richmonders in a news release by pointing to the upcoming “game changer” for the city's economic problems, particularly downtown: high-speed rail.

And when the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce announced it was cutting a staff position and suspending a work force development initiative in favor of a more regional approach, it reassured members by promising better times ahead with high-speed rail. “It's a great idea,” the chamber's chief executive and president, Kim Scheeler, told a breakfast meeting of the group at Willow Oaks Country Club on July 9. “It's the kind of thing that can be transformational for our community.”

Yet big questions remain about upgrading rail service. How much will it really cost? What kind of service are local politicians, planners and business executives really talking about? And, perhaps most importantly, is using billions of tax dollars to build a so-called high-speed rail corridor the best use of public money?

The $1.5 billion that the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation intends to seek by an October deadline includes such improvements as adding a third track to CSX Corp.'s double-track route to Washington, straightening tracks, upgrading signals and switches and providing tracks to bypass CSX's notoriously congested Acca Yard just west of the interchange of interstates 64 and 95 in Richmond.

A pressing problem is that CSX owns the rail lines from Richmond to Washington, and the freight-only company is interested foremost in making money and serving its shareholders, not pushing Amtrak or regional passenger rail. CSX's predecessor companies used to run passenger trains, including the Orange Blossom Special, the Champion and the George Washington, but got out of the passenger business four decades ago. These days, CSX holds passenger service in such little regard that it's not uncommon for the company to sidetrack Amtrak passenger trains to let freight trains pass. CSX did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Virginia has been designated one of 11 potential high-speed rail corridors nationally. If Virginia secures federal funds, travel time to Washington could be cut by one hour to 90 minutes, says Charles M. Badger, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The 16 Amtrak trains running north and south each day likely would have a better on-time performance with the improvements, perhaps as much as 90 percent, says Daniel Plaugher, executive director of Virginians For High Speed Rail, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Reliability is key for Richmond-area business executives who need to be in Washington at a specific time and can't afford to risk late Amtrak trains or traffic jams on Interstate 95. Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero says that Amtrak hasn't evaluated the $1.5 billion proposal, but has “no reason to believe it is not accurate.”

There's one crucial point, however, that high-speed rail proponents would rather fudge: What qualifies as high-speed rail? The top speed allowed on passenger trains running from Richmond to Washington is 79 miles per hour, a limit set in the 1940s after some spectacular and fatal train wrecks. If the $1.5 billion is approved and improvements are made, the speed limit would go up to 90 mph, and even then only for short periods.

There seems to be confusion over what truly qualifies as high speed. Plaugher says that 90 mph is within the definition of high speed. Romero of Amtrak, however, says that by Amtrak's definition, the minimum speed for high-speed trains is 110 mph. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration says that the category of “emerging” high-speed rail, the lowest rung of high speed, offers top speeds of 90 mph to 110 mph.

Only Amtrak's Acela Metroliner express trains on the Washington to Boston electrified route achieve more than 110 mph for brief periods during their trips. Amtrak's Acela can go faster than 150 mph but tracks are too antiquated for it to do so. The only truly high-speed trains are in France and Japan, most notably the Japanese bullet trains, which exceed speeds of 200 mph.

A century ago, trains speeds of 100 mph or more scarcely would have raised eyebrows. In 1905 a Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive reached 127 mph in Ada, Ohio.  The Atlantic Coast Line's Champion passenger streamliner from Richmond to Florida routinely beat 100 mph in the 1930s and 1940s, as did western expresses operated by the Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. The U.S. speed record of 187 mph was set in 1967 by an experimental New York Central locomotive equipped with a pair of jet engines on its roof.

Even bananas went fast. In the early- and mid-20th century, Illinois Central operated a regular freight from the docks of New Orleans that hauled the tasty yellow fruit to the streets of Chicago at speeds better than 100 mph, according to Classic Trains magazine.

If Richmonders want true high-speed rail, however, then we're talking about an entirely different bunch of bananas. For one thing, the cost is likely to be much more than the $1.5 billion being sought for basic upgrades. Any such project would take years of work and would be politically complex.

By one estimate, bringing high-speed rail to a Richmond-Washington route would cost at least $4 billion. In addition to the $1.5 billion in federal funds that state, regional and local officials hope to get, another $1.5 billion would be needed to electrify the route. Officials say that's because diesel locomotives, such as the General Electric P-42s that Amtrak routinely uses, can't handle speeds much faster than 100 mph.

The owner or operator of the route would have to make certain the new track is dedicated and closed off. It would involve shutting down scores of road crossings from Richmond to Quantico and beyond, according to federal transportation guidelines, because running high-speed trains where automobiles cross tracks is simply too dangerous. Cars could easily get crushed by such fast trains just as warning bells ring and crossing gates start to close. There are no official estimates for how much it would cost to close those crossings and reroute traffic.

Lastly, a new bridge would have to built across the Potomac in Washington because the current rail bridge is decades old, isn't electrified and handles lots of slower freight trains. Badger of the state rail department estimates a new bridge for passenger rail would cost at least another $1 billion. How long it would take to build the bridge and who would fund it are open questions. Expanding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which carries I-95 between Virginia and Maryland, took seven years and cost more than $2.5 billion.

“High-speed rail is incremental,” says Jim Ukrop, chairman of First Market Bank and a longtime rail proponent. The strategy is for Richmond to get a toehold with available money now and hope for what could be as much as $58 billion later, Ukrop says. That much money, to be paid out over six years, is being bandied about in Congress as the second step in Obama's plan to create high-speed rail corridors and boost the economy with a huge infrastructure improvement program.

The funding has its own ironies. One is that many of the backers of rail improvements in Richmond, especially those in the business community, tend to be rock-ribbed Republicans sworn against higher taxes and government spending. While attacking Obama for deficit spending, they're pushing federal money for high-speed rail. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, a conservative who is Republican minority whip, has taken the schizophrenic position of opposing Obama's stimulus package that included rail spending while simultaneously backing high-speed rail publicly.

Another hurdle is that future proposals to pay for rail improvements would require states to provide 20 percent of the money. That would be a tall order in the Virginia General Assembly, which is so averse to putting money into public improvements that it can barely maintain the state's highway system.

So far, Virginia legislators have been getting a free ride because the initial Obama plans don't require state money. But others, such as the $58 billion package being considered by Congress, would. The General Assembly has kept up $23 million for enhancing rail in a fund put together by former Gov. Mark Warner. But that's a pittance compared with the needs of higher-speed rail.

Any such trains would be operated by Amtrak, founded in the 1970s to take over passenger rail service after for-profit rail companies abandoned it. Amtrak has long been the bastard child of Congress and has been racked by a lack of funds and bad management, says Rush Loving, a railroad writer and former Fortune magazine editor who headed the business section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the 1960s.

“Amtrak has got to change its ways,” says Loving, who lives in Baltimore. In Trains magazine in March, Loving writes that since its inception in 1971 Amtrak never had much support from Congress, has provided highly uneven service and has never had much of an on-time reputation. The Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush tried to kill off Amtrak by denying it funding. And Amtrak has had its share of leadership problems, Loving writes. One of its early chairmen, for example, had a problem with alcohol and would regularly shut himself off in a room in an Amtrak club car and wait until the train crew whisked him away.

Amtrak also had its share of effective leaders who made an effort to learn and solve problems. “Richmond has a good, strong effort going to improve rail and the market is there,” says Loving, a native Richmonder.

If the project goes forward, Amtrak will have to undergo a massive equipment upgrade. Coach cars, many decades old, often leak rainwater and toilets sometimes don't work. Obama has earmarked $1.3 billion specifically to help Amtrak get more modern gear, but much more is needed. “Amtrak is actively developing plans for our next generation of passenger rail equipment to meet the demands of both replacement of existing units and service expansion,” Amtrak spokeswoman Romero says.

Because the Richmond-Washington route isn't electrified, Amtrak must operate diesel locomotives and then change over to electric engines at Union Station. The requirement automatically slows any service from Richmond to points north of the nation's capital.

Changing locomotives may not be that big of a deal time-wise, says Ross Capon, president and chief executive of the National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington. “Amtrak can do it in 10 minutes on one of their Vermont routes,” he says.

Loving also doesn't necessarily see the need for a true high-speed rail link between Richmond and Washington that would be electrified and dedicated. “Speeds up to 120 mph don't gain all that much,” he says, compared with the high-speed trains such as France's TGV, which averages 180 mph.

If higher-speed rail comes, will it be worth the cost and effort? While there seems to be little question of its value in huge, congested metro areas such as New York or Los Angeles, the issue becomes fuzzier in smaller markets or if long distances are involved.

Proponents such as Plaugher maintain that faster rail service to Washington would have obvious benefits such as taking two million cars a year off highways, saving 12 million gallons of fuel annually and keeping 85,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, limiting greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Railroad companies agree that expanding rail lines is definitely a green option. Norfolk Southern, for example, is in the midst of major expansion plans to haul freight more efficiently, says Rob Chapman, a company spokesman. One project, costing $150 million, would raise mountain tunnel clearances and update signals to improve service from the Port of Hampton Roads to the Midwest. Another multibillion-dollar project would add tracks along Virginia's Interstate 81 to improve freight service from the Northeast to New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn. That project could take one million trucks off the road each year, reducing congestion and pollution.

Yet some people question whether high-speed rail is worth the investment. Jonathan Gifford, associate dean for research at the George Mason University School of Public Policy, says that while improving rail service between Richmond and Washington is a worthy goal, the real cost of high-speed rail is “a lot higher than reported.”

“I love riding the train, and I love high-speed rail,” Gifford says. “As a matter of public policy, that's a different story.” Namely, it's difficult to justify spending billions of dollars on rail lines in Virginia for a limited number of users when improving the highway system, especially in places such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, would affect millions of people.

“There is sort of this silver-bullet phenomenon: If we could only have high-speed rail it would solve all of our problems,” Gifford says. “To invest billions of dollars in high-speed rail to D.C. is a very expensive undertaking when we don't even have money to pay for our highway system.”

A report last year by the neoconservative Cato Institute argues that high-speed rail will actually take few automobiles off the road, use public money to compete with commercial airlines and reduce pollution and greenhouse gasses by the tiny amount of 1.5 percent or less. Existing high-speed rail projects, notably in Denver and Seattle, are running as much as 100 percent more than cost projections. California, in the throes of a huge budget crisis, has estimated costs of $33 billion to $37 billion for a high-speed rail project, which “poses serious risks for taxpayers,” the Cato report says.

One notable positive development of the efforts to improve rail service in Richmond is that it's united disparate and quarrelsome groups like few other projects. Officials from counties and cities in the region seem to agree that all would benefit if fast and reliable rail service to points north, the Hampton Roads area and to such Southern business centers as Atlanta, and Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., could be enhanced.

“There are businesses in Northern Virginia that would much rather move here and deal with the better quality of life in Richmond than with the craziness up there,” says Scheeler of the Richmond chamber.

Despite the idea's popularity municipal officials haven't really had time yet to study how they might deal with better rail service because Obama only sprung the possibility on the public a few months ago. Tammy Hawley, a Richmond city spokeswoman, says that while Mayor Dwight Jones has said that “we must carefully position ourselves for imminent high-speed rail opportunities,” she acknowledges that the administration isn't clear exactly what high-speed rail means, and that the city hasn't done any independent studies to determine the cost and impact of high-speed trains.

Nor is it certain that Richmond will win the necessary initial federal funding of $1.5 billion. An answer is due by Nov. 16. Richmond has plenty of competition. California, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas and Buffalo are among metro areas fighting for the $8 billion Obama has already won and up to $5 billion more that may be approved soon.

If Virginia gets its total application, it would represent about 11 percent of all funds now available for higher-speed rail nationally. The Huffington Post reports that California and the Midwest have an edge because their high-speed rail proposals are the furthest along and would serve the most people.

Richmond just might win markedly better passenger service to Washington. But it probably won't be high-speed rail. S


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