On either road, you don't get much feeling of altitude, although from the Beltway and the Metro Blue Line that parallels it part of the way, you can see across the valley created by Cameron Run to the tall apartment buildings on Duke Street in Alexandria.
Franconia Hill is not very steep and not very high, but for freight trains, it's a five-mile slog in either direction. The summit is the highest point on the railroad between Washington and Richmond, and trains heading south are 119 feet higher up when they reach the top than they were at Alexandria. Trains heading north gain 130 feet of altitude between Lorton and the crest of the hill.
Although most passenger trains can take the grade in stride, a heavy mile-long freight train can lose speed all the way up the hill, possibly delaying trains behind it. That's why the Commonwealth of Virginia almost nine years ago funded several major improvements to add track capacity on the line. The second bridge at Quantico was one of the important pieces, and the third track over Franconia Hill is the final project from that appropriation.
When it's finished, not only will there be an extra track for passenger trains to pass slower freight trains on the hill, but there will be three tracks all the way from Springfield to the Potomac River--about 12 miles.
The Commonwealth would like to add 11 more miles of third track in the near future: between Powell's Creek in Prince William County and Arkendale Road in Stafford. That's the longest stretch on the VRE Fredericksburg Line where a third track could be added without requiring a major bridge to be constructed. It would take advantage of the new Quantico Creek bridge, which has only one track on it but was built wide enough for two.
Virginia hopes to get federal funding for this work because it represents a step toward 90-mph passenger-train service--short of the 110 mph that the Obama administration has defined as the threshold for high-speed rail, but still an important improvement on a busy line, used not just by VRE but also by Amtrak trains to and from Richmond, Newport News, Florida and Charlotte, N.C.
Any future high-speed rail service between Washington and the South is expected to use the route through Fredericksburg, so capacity improvements are essential to bringing faster ground transportation to the region. A lot of states are competing for the $8 billion in federal assistance for high-speed-rail projects, and the money may be spread thin, but Virginia should stand a good chance of winning a federal grant for this project.
Still, those 11 miles of triple track and the third track being constructed over Franconia Hill are necessary but only modest steps toward reliable, fast and frequent passenger train service in the Southeast. To serve Virginia--and the rest of the United States--will require a lot more investment. But we may get there. As the Highway Age wanes, we seem to be getting serious about ushering in the second Railway Age.