Monday, February 01, 2010

VRE express train coming; high-speed rail improvements to begin

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VRE express train coming; high-speed rail improvements to begin | Railway Track & Structures

A new express train on the Fredericksburg, Va., line is one way Virginia Railway Express Board Chair Paul Milde says the commuter railroad is working to fix the region's transportation problems, according to Inside NoVA.com. An 11-mile stretch of tracks to be built thanks to federal stimulus money from Powell's Creek near Dumfries into Stafford County will aid future VRE express trains, the agency says, and will spur the growth of passenger rail service in the state.

The new 5 a.m. train will begin in July, run 15 minutes earlier than the first train currently scheduled on the Fredericksburg line and will get riders to Washington 35 minutes sooner than any other train the rail agency operates, said Milde.

Plans for the express train come after Virginia was awarded $75 million in stimulus money for high-speed rail improvements to the Powell's Creek area, where crews will build a third set of tracks between Dumfries and Arkendale in Stafford County.

"The Powell's Creek project was our first 'shovel ready' project and as soon as we get the money in hand we will be able to begin construction," said Department of Rail and Public Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Pickett.

Last year, Virginia also applied for an additional $1.8 billion in stimulus money for overall high-speed rail improvements, and the addition of a third set of tracks from Washington to Petersburg. The move would have extended high-speed rail service from the Amtrak Northeast Corridor. But the money was denied, with major federal rail funding going instead to states including North Carolina and Florida.

Improving the rail corridor along Interstate 95 remains a priority for the state, and there will be more opportunities for federal funding for that project over the next five years that Virginia will apply for once the Federal Rail Administration sets its grant application guidelines, said Pickett.

For local rail commuters, VRE still has plans to extend its Manassas line to Gainesville at a time when Manassas trains are experiencing record ridership growth.

VRE expects to sign a contract next month to complete an environmental study for the Gainesville extension.

Milde, who took over as board chair following Arlington's Christopher Zimmerman, comes at a contentious time at the rail agency. Last year, the VRE voted to award a $58-million operations contract to Keolis Rail Services of America, a French company that has never operated a rail system in the U.S. The move was a surprise to Amtrak officials, since that agency has been tasked with operating and maintaining VRE's trains since service began in 1992. When the announcement was made, VRE officials said Amtrak employees who currently work on VRE's trains would be able to work for Keolis.

"We made this decision as a board because we think Keolis will do a better job serving our riders. At last report, we heard there are definitely Amtrak people coming over to Keolis. There's no reason not to since they get to keep the same pay scale and benefits. It's a daytime job and they get to come home every night, and they know the route," said Milde.

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