Commuters on the Virginia Railway Express Fredericksburg Line can see that construction has begun on laying a third track over Franconia Hill, according to Fredericksburg.com. As hills go, it's not terribly high: 225 feet above sea level. Franconia Road is near the crest of the hill in Fairfax County, and the Capital Beltway passes along the side of the hill a mile farther north.
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