Eyes On Richmond - Thelma Drake
On Friday, Thelma Drake, the Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit spoke about the opportunities and challenges of expanding and modernizing railways in the Commonwealth as part of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Eyes on Richmond speaker series. Craig Carper reports.
Thelma Drake says expansion of the state’s rail system is an essential part of fighting congestion on the state’s aging and overloaded roadways.
Drake: We all have come to the conclusion that we just can’t build enough lane miles to deal with our peak times. Railroads move a ton of freight on one gallon of gas 431 miles. So it shows you how much more economical it is, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly to be able to do that.
One of Drake’s long-term projects is preparing the Commonwealth’s railways for high-speed service, which in the U.S. is quantified as speeds of 90-110 miles per hour, compared with a top speed of 79 for conventional rail.
Drake: We have three key high-speed rail, or higher speed rail, corridors in Virginia that are currently in the works. One is Washington to Richmond Main Street Station, Richmond Main Street Station to Hampton Roads, and Richmond Main Street Station to Raleigh.
However, Drake says that these projects have significant hurdles to clear before high-speed service becomes a reality, and estimates that securing the required 1.8 billion in funding and completing construction will take at least 20 years.
Drake: Our goal is always to go through Main Street Station; currently it is a chokepoint. The Norfolk train will come up by going through Petersburg and then into Staples Mill with the goal of going into Main Street Station. But right now, until those improvements are done, it adds an hour of time to the Norfolk train, which would cause people not to ride the train. All the studies have already been done. If you add an extra hour to a route, the train wouldn’t be successful if it came up that way. But that's a long-term goal; but again we need federal funding to be able to partner the cost of the Richmond area improvements are about 600 million dollars.
One of the things that’s been a tragedy across Virginia is that when rail tracks were unused, say there were two lines of track; the railroads would take up the second track if they weren’t using it for tax purposes and for maintenance purposes, so for money reasons they actually took up track which is very, very painful to me. One of the things that we’re looking at today is how do we create a rail bank? And how do we encourage that that not happen anymore? All of us know transportation doesn't pay for itself; to build this infrastructure takes federal, state, local contributions in order to do that and there are a lot of people, not a lot, actually, there's very few people when I speak, that will stand up and say we can't do that, it's too expensive, and my answer back is the quote from Ronald Reagan, which is 'we're planting a tree that we know we'll never sit under, but our children's children and their grandchildren will.'
Drake listed a host of other projects the Department of Rail and Public Transit has on their wish list, should funds become available, including conventional rail service from Lynchburg to Richmond and Roanoke to Lynchburg and a third daily train from Newport News to Richmond.
She also hailed some recent successes including the one-year anniversary of Virginia’s first state-owned train, which runs from Lynchburg to D.C. and stops in Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas and Alexandria along the way. Passengers can continue service on the same train as far as Boston. Drake proudly notes that this is possibly the only rail service in the country to be making a profit at the moment. She’s also pleased with the recent expansion of service from Richmond to D.C. There are now hourly trains along that route from 5 to 9am.
Thelma Drake served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1996 to 2005 and in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2005-2009. She was appointed by Governor Bob McDonnell as the Director of the Department of Rail and Public Transit in January of this year.
Craig Carper, WCVE News, Richmond