New River Valley group seeks train service

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In the 1960s, a half dozen passenger trains passed through the New River Valley daily, but none have made the trip in recent decades. That situation could change if a group called New River Valley Rail 2020 achieves its goal.

With Amtrak trains scheduled to arrive in Roanoke in 2017, the group hopes the commonwealth will support service to the New River Valley, which includes the city of Radford and the counties of Montgomery (including the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg), Floyd, Pulaski and Giles.

The first phase of construction enabling passenger rail service to Roanoke is underway. Amtrak service there will be an extension of the successful Northeast regional train already serving Lynchburg. It will provide a same-seat trip from Roanoke to Lynchburg, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities up to Boston.  

Driving the push for passenger rail service is the region’s growth and its large number of college students. “There are over 100,000 people in Montgomery County,” says Ray Smoot, co-chair of the steering committee, who is a retired chief executive of the Virginia Tech Foundation. “It’s one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.” In the last census, Montgomery became the most populated Virginia county west of Albemarle County.

Smoot also notes that the region has the highest college student per-capita rate in the state. “There are approximately 30,000 students at Virginia Tech and approximately 10,000 at Radford,” he says. “We estimate that about 70 percent of those students live within 30 miles of the Northeast corridor between here and New York or Boston.”

Currently many students drive to and from school on Interstate 81. “There is so much congestion on that road,” Smoot says. “It’s a real challenge for them. Amtrak would be an alternative means of transportation.”

The railroad infrastructure, owned by Norfolk Southern Corp., is currently in place in the New River Valley. “The tough part is already done,” Smoot says. “The railroad will have to determine what kind of improvements will be needed to re-establish passenger service. We will need one or two station facilities to board the trains.”

A planning committee, made up of senior officials from the region along with Radford University and Virginia Tech, has gained support from Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both Democrats), U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th District), state Sens. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) and Ben Chafin (R-Lebanon) and Delegates Joseph Yost (R-Pearisburg), Nick Rush (R-Christiansburg) and Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke).

“We have had good bipartisan support from elected officials,” Smoot says.

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