Bristol remains key to passenger rail expansion

Historic Bristol Station may soon be the site of Amtrak service. Photo by A.J. Kaufman

By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently took over efforts to expand passenger rail service to Bristol. The agency is in the midst of a multi-year process to identify, review and potentially fund various new passenger rail corridors.

Currently, Amtrak only extends passenger service from the nation’s capital to Roanoke, via Charlottesville and Lynchburg. A second train was added to the Roanoke route last year.

A study from the same year estimated it would cost more than a half-billion dollars – adjusted for 2030 inflation levels — to bring service from New River Valley to Bristol.

Virginia’s Director of Rail and Public Transportation Jennifer DeBruhl discussed the possible Bristol route during a recent call about railroading issues in the region. At the time, the Commonwealth awaited word from FRA on a corridor program for Washington D.C. across Southwest Virginia into Tennessee, commencing at Bristol. At a Dec. 9 press conference alongside U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith announced that federal funds were awarded to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

“This $500,000 grant by the Federal Railroad Administration is great news,” Griffith commented. “The proposed corridor would extend rail service to Bristol, which would provide more transportation options for those living in Southwest Virginia and those traveling to the area.”

Meanwhile across the state line, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) was tasked with finding the most sensible potential corridors. Released last July, their study found, “intercity passenger rail service could help increase connectivity and facilitate tourism and other economic development initiatives in Tennessee.”

Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, has worked for many years on this idea, along with many others.

She serves on the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, has participated in a press conference with Tennessee legislators, and has been asked by Kaine and Warner to bring community leaders to the table for conversations about trains coming to and through Bristol.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided funding for the Corridor Identification and Development Program.

With Tennessee’s lone rail service located across the state in Memphis, there’s a clear void between East Tennessee and Atlanta.

“The success of this effort lies partly with not just dead-ending in Bristol, but connectivity further south and southwest of here,” Rhinehart told the Business Journal. “We are kind of in that sweet spot… We are the next logical point for Virginia to build out passenger rail opportunities for all Virginians. We feel like Bristol is the point to connect and open up Tennessee into a lot of the Northeast Corridor opportunities.”

Another appeal is diminishing congestion and decreasing delays on Interstate 81 for truck and car travel. This can provide families with a more convenient opportunity to travel to Washington D.C., New York City, and can lead to essential growth in Southwest Virginia. It’s also important for business.

“This added mode of transportation is essential to growth in Southwest Virginia. It’s important when businesses are looking to locate here,” Rhinehart explained. “It’s something that has garnered more local and regional support than a lot of things that are discussed. It’s one of those things, as a chamber that serves across that state line, it was a good fit for us to help lead that conversation, since we serve both sides; we have relationships with both sets of federal legislators; and the work that we do with government relations and advocacy makes us a good fit to work with both states as well.”

Another important positive is historic Bristol Station. Rhinehart believes only minimal upgrades would be needed for the restored downtown station to meet passenger rail standards.

Tennessee officials from TACIR, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the FRA convened in Bristol last summer for a town hall hosted by the Bristol Chamber to discuss the possibility of extending service. At that meeting, Volunteer State representatives said they are considering a Chattanooga to Bristol route as one of three primary options. This is outranked by a proposed Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta route. The Bristol to Chattanooga was equally ranked as Tier 2, along with a Memphis to Nashville corridor.

For fiscal year 2023, Amtrak Virginia served a record 1.26 million passengers, about 35% higher than their previous record.

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