Margaret Herr, a 20-year-old sculpture student at Virginia Commonwealth University, has taken Amtrak from Richmond’s Main Street Station to her family’s home in Baltimore about five times in the past year.
On her return trip to Richmond, when the train hits the Staples Mill station in Henrico County, she always starts getting ready to disembark, though in the back of her mind she knows better.
“I always think it’s going to be five or 10 minutes to here, but it always takes longer than that,” said Herr, who came back from spring break this month and got off at the Main Street Station.
The roughly 8-mile trip between the two stations took about 25 minutes on that day, in large part because trains have to slow down as they enter CSX’s Acca switching yard, the railroad company’s biggest yard in Virginia.
About 18 passenger trains and 50 freight trains, carrying everything from orange juice and chicken feed to paper and molten sulfur, pass through Acca’s tangle of track daily, according to CSX.
The yard, which runs roughly 2 miles from Dumbarton Road to Westwood Avenue and is wedged between Interstates 195 and 64, has been regarded as an East Coast rail bottleneck for decades, say Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation officials.
“You just crawl through Acca,” said Jeremy Latimer, rail programs administrator for the department.
But a $132 million reconfiguration of the yard that started in November and is scheduled to be finished in the spring of 2018, along with other related projects, aims to change that.
“Acca yard’s original main line configuration was that the main lines went straight down the middle of the yard and that made for extremely slow going, including Amtrak trains,” said Peter Burrus, the chief of rail at the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation who worked at CSX for 25 years.
“By creating this bypass, they can get around Acca yard much faster, without the other freight involvement.”
The state will contribute $117 million of the price tag, which also will include double tracking along 10 miles of railroad between Carson and Reams near Petersburg; and three new “crossovers,” which allow trains to switch between tracks at Westover Hills, Walmsley and Colonial Heights.
The state also negotiated with CSX for two additional round-trip passenger trains to operate between Norfolk and Richmond and one additional train between Lynchburg and Washington.
“What the state of Virginia gains out of that is the additional public transportation capacity to serve its citizens. What CSX gains out of that is additional capacity to be able to handle that additional transportation option for the citizens of Virginia,” Burrus said.
“So just like when a country road changes from a two-lane country blacktop to a four-lane divided highway, to deal with that capacity as population shifts happen, that’s how we’re responding,” he said.
CSX is paying $15 million.
“CSX appreciates the importance of reliable, on-time passenger rail service, and we’re proud to partner with Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation in efforts to improve that service in and around Richmond,” the company said in a statement.
“The Acca yard bypass and new crossovers farther south will allow us to coordinate passenger and freight-train movements in a way that improves fluidity on our network and reduces congestion.”
Tedd Hensley, the CSX terminal manager in charge of Acca, said trains currently must reduce speed to about 25 mph when they go through the yard.
When the project is finished, that speed should increase to 40 mph.
During construction, workers will move Acca’s main lines from the center of the yard to the western edge, putting down a concrete bed, new rails and steel ties, which will last longer and provide a smoother ride, instead of wood.
A hillside near the southern edge of the yard will have to be partially cut away to clear a path. Trees will come down. Dozens of new crossovers and turnouts and power lines will have to be shifted. Light and signal upgrades also are part of the package.
“It’s a Cadillac compared to what’s going on here now,” said Hensley, referring to the upgrades. “Maybe even a Porsche.”
The reworking of the yard will cost CSX roughly 16,000 feet of track capacity until 2018, though it will be worth the trouble, Hensley said. “You don’t have main lines going through the middle of your yard. It’s a bad design,” he said. “It just became a mess. ... You’re going to have a yard that’s a lot more productive so it will process cars faster.”
Danny Plaugher, executive director of the nonprofit Virginians for High Speed Rail, called Acca a “major congestion point” and the project is a step in the right direction as efforts to expand rail transportation options progress.
“It’s certainly an incremental project, but one that is long overdue,” Plaugher said. “It’s going to have a lot of benefits for the trains running south and east. It’s going to add a lot of capacity and increase reliability.”
The improvements also will not foreclose any options for a future high-speed rail link between Washington and Richmond, currently the subject of an environmental study but also a project that at present has no federal funding attached for construction, Latimer said.
“We are alleviating bottlenecks and improving capacity today, but we’re having to coordinate with the federal government on that. ... We have to be careful that we don’t predetermine outcomes of the studies for high-speed rail,” he said. “We have to coordinate it with the federal government, and they are supportive of interim improvements because they’ve recognized this is a corridor that needs improvement.”