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Bristol Rail Passenger Study
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Summary of Bristol Rail Passenger Study
By Paul A. Wilson

The second phase of the Bristol Rail Passenger Study, to be finalized this spring, examines the operational and financial feasibility of twice daily service connecting Bristol, on the Tennessee line, with Richmond and Washington. Traveling northeast from Bristol via Roanoke to Lynchburg, the trains would split into two legs bound for Washington and Richmond. See map below. Most of the routing would use existing trackage owned by Norfolk Southern. In a computer model, the study's authors showed that the two daily round trips would be compatible with NS's freight traffic, even with anticipated increases due to the Conrail acquisition. Capacity will be tight on the Pulaski District, the line that connects with the Roanoke to Bluefield line at Walton. The study, therefore, recommends the extension of three sidings and the construction of a completely new siding at Rural Retreat to accommodate the passenger trains. As part of its STB filing, NS has already identified these improvements as necessary for augmented freight service it intends to run in the "I-81 corridor." The Pulaski District work is priced at about $ 5 million. If NS funds this work on its own, presumably the state money could be available for work elsewhere.

In addition to this $5 million capital expenditure, the study identifies a $3.6 million connecting track that must be built on the south bank of the James in Richmond. This new trackage would link NS's Richmond District with CSXT's ex-SAL Bellwood Sub and permit access to Main St. Station. Another $353,000 would fund pocket tracks, signals and other terminal trackage in Richmond, Lynchburg and Bristol. The study also recommends spending $1.1 million for such basics as station platforms, lighting and parking areas. Localities will pick up the tab any station improvements beyond this minimum level. Bristol trains would also take advantage of station renovation schemes already planned for Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Richmond (Main Street).

On the operations side, the service is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $24 million per year. Included in this figure are train crews, rolling stock leases and trackage access fees paid to NS. Based on an average figure of $10.50 per train mile, the access fees would amount to $5.5 million each year, subject to negotiation. Based on a tariff of $0.22 per mile, the operating deficit for the first year would be roughly $12 million. With projected steady ridership increases, this deficit would decline and drop to zero by the twelfth year of the service. The state assumes that Amtrak will not be involved, except as a potential contract operator. The state will likely establish its own rail authority to manage and market the service.

The study tentatively recommends the lease of Diesel Multiple Units, similar to the Adtranz Flexliner. These operate in linked sets of three and would facilitate the splitting and joining operation in Lynchburg. On the other hand, this sort of equipment has yet to be modified to meet U.S. safety or handicapped accessibility standards. Pennsylvania DOT is in the process of buying these DMUs, so perhaps the kinks will be worked out by the time Virginia is ready to commit. It remains to be seen whether these units can deliver reliable service superior to locomotive hauled consists. The study considers "tilt" technology to be crucial due to the many curves on the routes. A version of the Adtranz vehicles can be modified to use "tilt" mode.

 Pending consideration of the plan and approval by the General Assembly, the trains could begin rolling by 2001. Three years is the minimum start-up time.


Graphics and text © 1998 by Paul A. Wilson