By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 6, 2021
Just about everyone knows the alleged plight of Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels connecting New York Pennsylvania Station with the top of the southern end of the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey.
We have been told repeatedly the tunnels, first opened in the early years of the 20th Century to serve the new Pennsylvania Railroad landmark train station in New York City are deteriorating at a rapid pace and are in urgent need of repair. Also known as the Gateway Project, we have been told most of the free world will shut down if this vital path of Amtrak long distance/inter-regional and NEC trains as well as the primary user of the tunnels, New Jersey Transit commuter trains, is not kept open and nearly fully functioning. Amtrak bans freight trains from using the tunnels.
The project has dragged on for years with the states demanding the federal government provide billions of dollars in funding for the repairs and the federal government during the last administration wondering why the states – New Jersey and New York – were not willing to provide a greater, fairer share of the costs. The bottleneck seems to have been broken with the new Biden administration more willing to spend more federal dollars.
Apparently, the Republic will now be saved and weary commuters will be free to enter and depart New York City at will.
Just 225 miles to the south is Long Bridge, connecting the District of Columbia with Virginia. Long Bridge is a two-track railroad bridge with heritage going back to 1808. The current bridge was constructed in 1904 – well before the Hudson River tunnels – by a subsidiary of the once-might Pennsylvania Railroad and rehabbed in 1942-43. Through various mergers and government takeovers Long Bridge is now a possession of CSX.
Still two tracks, Long Bridge is currently operating at 98% capacity. No trains of any type can enter or leave the District of Columbia from the south without traveling over Long Bridge. The traffic mix includes CSX freight trains, Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains.
Long Bridge is the only direct connection from Washington to Virginia traveling down the former RF&P/now CSX main line. Every train in and out of Virginia and down into North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida on the CSX I-95 Line (former Atlantic Coast Line main line) goes over Long Bridge. The former RF&P between the now-gone Potomac Yard in Northern Virginia and Richmond once was considered one of the busiest pieces of track in the country. Even with the advent of precision scheduled railroading the line still sees a tremendous amount of freight traffic.
If Long Bridge failed or was taken out of commission and freight trains to and from the Northeast had to “take the long way around” there would be havoc in the industry. VRE would cease to operate. Amtrak’s Crescent, Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmetto, Carolinian, Auto Train and various Virginia state-supported trains to Roanoke, Norfolk, Newport News and Richmond could not operate.
If nothing is done to expand the capacity of Long Bridge there is no hope for additional Amtrak or new VRE trains or frequencies.
Help is on the way. Transportation Today News reported on Tuesday, April 5th:
“Joining Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced that the Commonwealth has finalized agreements with Amtrak, CSX, and Virginia Railway Express to invest in and expand rail travel between the Northeast and Southeast corridors.
“‘We have an unprecedented opportunity to build a 21st-century rail system in Virginia and along the entire East Coast,” said Governor Northam. “This historic initiative will help get people and goods where they need to go more efficiently, reduce congestion and pollution, and create a more inclusive economy. Together with our partners at Amtrak, CSX, and VRE, we are making critical investments that will fundamentally transform our transportation infrastructure, delivering long-term economic benefits for our workers and communities as we rebound from the pandemic and into the future.’
“Funded by the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 billion investment into the Long Bridge over the Potomac River, as well as the acquisition of 386 miles of railroad right-of-way and 223 miles of track from CSX, and the $1 billion in additional infrastructure improvements approved by Virginia would allow that state to expand Amtrak and VRE services and create a pathway for the separation of freight and passenger rail in Virginia while preserving future rail corridors.”
A new, parallel two-track bridge will be built beside Long Bridge. The original bridge will remain under the ownership of CSX and will exclusively host freight trains. The new bridge will handle Amtrak and VRE traffic.
Virginia already has new state-sponsored trains in its long range planning ready to go when the new Long Bridge offers additional capacity.
As talks and planning continues to create some joint operations between VRE and Maryland’s MARC commuter service for regional run-through commuter trains from Maryland through Washington Union Station and into Virginia, additional capacity on Long Bridge will help this effort to become reality.
Most likely the new Long Bridge will be completed before the upgrades to the Hudson River tunnels and the rest of the Gateway Project is completed in New York and New Jersey. Combined, the two projects will provide long term passenger train capacity for decades to come.