Rails and Roads

Americans spend a lot of energy and time moving ourselves and our goods around. The way things are now, we end up using a lot of petroleum (a limited resource), creating a lot of air pollution, and covering a lot of ground with ugly, lifeless pavement.

www.CountryWhispers.com has the thought that what's mainly wrong with society today is that too many Dirt Roads have been paved.

Are there alternatives to driving in the Potomac Highlands? Yes! We provide some useful links at the bottom of this page.

Corridor H Highway

Stewards of the Potomac Highlands started out as a grass-roots effort to prevent the destruction of our mountains by challenging the construction of the Corridor H highway through West Virginia. We have a separate Corridor H page with all the gory details.

December 2015 Commuter Update

Better area-wide commuter trains  to ease the clogged Northern Virginia roads are inching westward!  Under study is a VRE extension from Manassas to Gainesville and Haymarket, VA. vre-ghx.org

Meanwhile, as of late 2015, W.Va. and Maryland are still in a tussle over who’s responsible for the West Virginia portion of MARC commuter trains in Maryland and Harpers Ferry.   MARC has arranged for two buses to get later train riders home to W.Va. from Brunswick, MD  eptawv.com

January 2013: What's the Plan?

As re-elected President Obama pushes ahead with plans to raise the national rail network to higher speeds and more efficiency, Chuck Riecks, chair of WV Friends of the Cardinal (Amtrak’s train through White Sulphur, Charleston and Huntington) has been leading the citizens’ push for statewide rail planning.

“Energy efficient transportation of people and goods has to be done; we’re in the business of economic development,” says Riecks, the retired Army chaplain. Congress has voted to invest billions of tax dollars in highways and airports for years, neglecting intercity trains and public transit. This has steered business and the public toward energy-guzzling transport modes. Buses and trains (plus walking and bicycling) are the most energy efficient ways for people to move. Intermodal systems of trains and short-haul trucks are the best way to move freight. “So we’re seeking a re-alignment of emphasis within WVDOT among transportation modes,” says Riecks.

But unlike some countries where railroad tracks are nationally owned, commercial railroads in the US own nearly all the tracks outside the Northeast (DC to NYC) Corridor, which is owned by Amtrak. Passenger trains are less profitable for commercial railroads, which began bailing out of hauling people right after WW II. Amtrak was left to deal with all the problems of cranky people and stopped-up toilets. Despite Cato Institute cries for Amtrak’s abolition, people continued to ride and bug Congress to keep the trains running, and both Republicans and Democrats kept it alive.

With rising gas prices, more and more people choose to ride trains and buses. For business and personal trips of under 1000 miles, the trains are competitive with airlines, with less hassle.

Long distance trains, such as the Cardinal and Capitol Ltd. which go through West Virginia, help hold the national network together by linking east and midwest.

Maryland has declared that West Virginia needs to help pay for MARC commuter trains from DC to Martinsburg--trains that could easily be extended over to Berkeley Springs via Hancock, Md. to serve tourism and hospital patronage. MARC parking lots are also filling up with northern Virginians avoiding the daily traffic jams. A market for transit is developing between Morgantown, southeastern Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh.

Often the station facilities are inadequate and it’s hard to make connections between trains and transit. To improve the transportation network requires cooperation between commercial railroads, freight shippers, major employers, schools and colleges, military bases, public railroads, road planners, bus companies, towns, tourism officials, and passengers. State rail planning would get everybody in the same room, including those from adjoining states, says Riecks.

Congress has required state rail planning before it grants money for rail projects. This planning is the responsibility of the WVDOT Rail Authority, currently focused only on running the South Branch Railroad in Hardy, Grant and Hampshire County. Rail advocates are pressing the authority to broaden its focus. (WVDOT could stand to do the same at the top of the line, where Paul A. Maddox heads both the DOT and the Highway Division.)

The Rail Authority has said it will hold eight planning hearings around West Virginia; by mid-December 2012 they’d scheduled only Lewisburg and Huntington. A website for the state rail plan, as of Dec.10, the date of the first hearing, had almost nothing on it, but check back: www.westvirginiarailplan.com

The Friends of the Cardinal meets bi-monthly to discuss and take action on what they can do to improve the passenger rail service in WV, and you can connect with them on Facebook.

Friends of the Cardinal, an all-volunteer citizens advocacy group, is affiliated with the National Association of Railroad Passengers which has been pushing for a national network of long distance, regional and commuter trains linked to buses, car parking areas, and airports.

Private-Public Rail Cooperation In VA

Mike Testerman of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons reports that commercial railroads are realizing they have public support as energy efficient movers of both people and freight. Instead of continually resisting more passenger trains on their already-busy tracks, they’ve begun designs to accommodate them in safety and efficiency, using the “steel interstate” concept of separating rails from road crossings, and having double tracks on every main line.

Norfolk Southern is moving to set up all stations on sidings where passenger trains can pull over and board people, while freight trains continue running on the main tracks. In December 2012, the Virginia DOT cooperated with NS and CSX Railroads to bring tracks up to 79 mile per hour condition to launch a new regional train connecting Norfolk to the Northeast Corridor.

In Roanoke, instead of using the historic station which is now a museum, NS is helping set up a new rail passenger station next to the intermodal bus terminal. Of course all these improvements cost money, including long-delayed large investments of tax dollars. But if the U.S. is to serve its citizens in the 21st century, it will need energy efficient railroads like Europe, Japan, China and even parts of Africa and Asia have already been building. The responsibilities of federal, state, local government, commercial railroads, Amtrak, and private owners of stations will need to be sorted out. But at least the wheels have begun to roll.

Chicken Grease Powers Trains

Here’s an innovation for industrial recycling worth crowing about! Tyson Foods and Syntroleum have partnered 50-50 in a company called Dynamic Fuels, to run a Louisiana refinery which makes biodiesel fuel from animal fats and greases from poultry plants. Norfolk Southern uses the fuel to run trains, including the Amtrak Crescent, and finds it’s actually cleaner and more efficient than petroleum oil. Shipping issues complicate plans to use the oil in more places, according to Trains Magazine, July 2012. But hey, Moorefield WV already has the South Branch Valley Railroad in the backyard of its poultry plants, so maybe it could be tried here too. Cockadoodle doo!

WVa. DOH Bullies Neighbors

The State of West Virginia has reinforced its bullying reputation, which it built by encouraging coal companies to tear down mountains in southern West Virginia. Neglecting bridges and safety repairs around the state, WVDOT tears through forests and farms. building large four-lane roads to the lines of neighboring states--such as Corridor H to near Strasburg VA, and Route 9 to Charles Town. The WVDOH Bully then dares Maryland and Virginia: “Here’s our traffic; whatcha gonna do now?” Maryland and Virginia have enough traffic and do not wish to become access ways for West Virginia.

With better planning, including bus and train transit in congested areas, all the states can benefit from better commerce with less traffic and pollution. In fact, West Virginia’s greatest asset is its relatively undeveloped natural beauty. Access to it needs to be planned so this resource is not destroyed.

Public Transporation in the Potomac Highlands

Amtrak's Cardinal and Capitol Limited, plus MARC commuter trains and a few local bus lines run through our area.

Amtrak's web site has schedule and fare information.

The Potomac Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) runs buses between Petersburg, Moorefield, Wardensville, Yellow Spring WV and Winchecher VA. Email: pvta@mountain.net, Phone: 304-257-1414

The Eastern Panhandle Trainsit Authority (PANTRAM) provides bus service within the City of Martinsburg and between Martinsburg and othfer locations in Jefferson County and Berkeley County, including Charles Town, Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown and Inwood.

MARC commuter trains run from Martinsburg WV through Maryland to Washingon DC.

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter trains run to Washingon DC from the Manassas and Frederickburg, Virginia areas.

Just For Fun: Tourist Trains

The Potomac Eagle runs vintage trains through the spectacular Trough gorge near Romney, WV. See potomac highland civil war era farms, bald eagle nests, and more.

The WV DOT State Rail Authority, among other functions, maintains a comprehensive inventory of rail lines within the state, assists with the establishment of short line and tourist railroad operations and promotes increased rail tourism development, and "rail-banks" abandoned rail lines that may be used again if future conditions make it economically feasible and encourages the interim use of these banked lines as trails for public recreation.

ShenandoahValleyNetwork.org has an analysis of the unneeded roads in neighboring Virginia (including I-81 overkill.)

Here's a page that has some road links on Morgan county, WV, and traffic calming.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project is a diverse, nationwide coalition working to ensure safer communities and smarter transportation choices that enhance the economy, improve public health, promote social equity, and protect the environment.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has been informing Amtrak passengers on the latest battle in Congress, which may result--finally--in adequate funding for Amtak, or its demise.

The Virginia Association of Railway Patrons is the rail passenger advocate group for both Virginia and West Virginia and has basic information about trains in our area.

Find out about the latest Virginia rail passenger political news at VARP chair Steve Dunham's web site.

The West Virginia Trails Coalition is a nonprofit group of individuals, trail groups, businesses, agencies, foundations and institutions dedicated to developing local, regional and statewide trails. It is developing a statewide trail plan and helping trail groups with networking, mapping, training and volunteer programs. It stresses the value of trails for health, economic development, education, environment, and alternative transport.

Older Updates

January 2010: I-81 Planning
States Seek Truck-Rail Funding

A coalition of states is seeking $300 million in federal stimulus funds to improve rail lines and intermodal terminals in an effort to reduce truck traffic on congested Interstate 81, Virginia's transportation chief said in October 2009.

According to the Philadelphia Bulletin, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer told state officials at a conference on I-81 that moving more freight by rail is needed to reduce congestion on the 855-mile highway that runs north to south through six states.

The proposed federal grant would provide $2.1 billion to improve intermodal terminals where freight is transferred between trucks and rail cars. The improvements could reduce the number of trucks on I-81 by 15%, according to VDOT's documents. Trucks are now 23 percent of the traffic on Virginia's 325 miles of the I-81. Other states joining to ask for the terminal improvements are New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, though I-81 does not run through the latter three states.

This is a good start. But we wonder where West Virginia officials are? And is removing 15% of the trucks an ambitious enough goal? What about adding parallel track which could accommodate more freight and possible passenger service? This would take more trucks and cars off I-81, saving land from being gobbled by additional highway lanes; it would save fuel and pollution.

You can see the full citizen Steel Interstate I-81 proposal, which gained the support of many Virginia local governments, at RailSolution.org.

I-81 and Rail: Stop, Look & Listen

When six state DOTs, heavily dominated by trucking and paving industries, get together, citizens had best keep their headlights focused. The six DOTs met in November, right after the election, and signed a MOU (Memorandum Of Understanding) on how to plan the proposed expansion of I-81.

Two years ago, Rail Solutions led a campaign of citizens, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), and officials of Shenandoah Valley towns likely to be run over by a proposed eight to 10 lane expansion of I-81. They defeated a proposal by the consultant Star Solutions, and managed to get a study which will include rail. But the study is 18 months overdue, and any good deed can be undone, which is why Thomas Jefferson advised eternal vigilance when it comes to government.

The I-81 sneakiness comes in the form of freight statistics. Since 40% of I-81 traffic is trucks, well-planned rail can absorb some of this freight. But, in the opinion of rail planners, Norfolk Southern, the commercial railroad that parallels I-81, has underestimated its own ability to gather this freight. If the six state DOTs along I-81 do not use an open citizen process that questions NS statistics, the resulting set of assumptions that will again lead to an eight-lane I-81. Rail Solutions is backing an alternative plan that will widen or revise certain safety bottlenecks along I-81 and work with Norfolk Southern to build additional rail capacity alongside the interstate. Citizens of NY, PA, MD, WV and TN should contact their governors and ask them to again open the process to citizens and NGOS. Virginia Gov. Kaine's transportation secretary, in particular, has been criticized by rail advocates for disregarding citizen stakeholders and towing the company line for road contractors and the freight RRs.

Keep an eye our for additional developments at Rail Solutions and the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons (VARP).

Proposed MARC Train Service Cut (2009)

Due to rising costs, Maryland's MARC commuter train is considering cutting the later of two commuter daily trains from Martinsburg to DC, ending instead at Brunswick. U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) announced that she has written a letter to Maryland asking them to retain the service, and the Martinsburg/Berkeley West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has done the same. They want to see the train go even farther west of Martinsburg, to Hancock WV, to serve Berkeley Springs and the surrounding VA/MD/PA area.

West Virginia helps pay to maintain the stations in Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg, but hasn't been involved in running the train. Rail passenger advocates are thinking about asking West Virginia's state government to do more, via the WV DOT Rail Maintenance Authority (WVMRA). WVRMA has concentrated on running short line railroads. It owns the South Branch Railroad that benefits the poultry industry in Moorefield, and to a lesser extent, tourism with the Potomac Eagle scenic railroad. But now, with the energy crunch, it could be more involved in working with freight railroads and promoting commuter and intercity passenger trains. Other states sponsor their own passenger trains, with help from federal grants, that connect and coordinate with Amtrak. Talk to your state legislator and ask them to engage the WV Rail Maintenance Authority in better passenger service for the Eastern Panhandle.

Purple Line: Royal Ride To Beat Maryland Traffic?

People move to the Potomac Highlands from the DC and Baltimore metro areas to escape traffic, ugliness. and crime. They perhaps do not realize that people moving can bring these things out to the country with them. Wouldn't it be great if more of the countryside could be left as country, while metropolitan areas get to be better places to live and visit? One group pushing transportation infrastructure to build prosperous, sustainable, and livable urban and suburban communities is Coalition for Smarter Growth. In addition to more express buses to get people to work faster, a project they've endorsed is the Purple Line. This would be a Metro subway line with hike and bike trails in Maryland, paralleling the northeastern Beltway, connecting New Carrollton with College Park, Takoma Park, and Bethesda.

Related websites include Purple Line Now! and Greater Greater Washington.

January 2008: I-81 Rail Solutions Chugging Along Slowly But Surely

After two years of citizens advocating that the obvious solution to the congestion on I-81- is to put some of the 40% truck traffic on trains, railroad companies and government have gotten down to some serious proposals. Norfolk Southern, whose tracks parallel I-81, has come up with the idea of an enhanced rail corridor all the way from Harrisburg, PA, through Knoxville, KY (where I-81 ends), all the way to Memphis, TN. They would work on scattered sections at a time. However, the citizens group Rail Solution wants a program where the I-81 section, all 600 miles, is built as a pilot project so the public can see how many trucks are taken off the road. Also, they want to make sure the railroad's method of operation appeals to the small truckers which are the bulk of I-81's traffic.

At the same time, CSX Transportation has unveiled a proposal for a streamlined north-south rail corridor between DC and Florida with capacity for both freight and 110-mile-per hour passenger freight trains. They propose to finance this with government help by way of tax breaks for rail expansion. The public benefits are obvious: faster and more energy efficient shipping for business, and taking a lot of cars and trucks off the road. Details available at RailSolution.org.

January 2007: I-81 Expansion Halted for Rail Study, Safety Improvements

With more than 1,300 volunteers organizing, coming to hearings, writing letters, and donating money during 2006, the Rail Solutions citizen group managed to stop a damaging 10-lane expansion of I-81 in its tracks. In October 2006, the Commonwealth Transportation Board ordered further study of a rail alternative. Norfolk Southern, the railroad paralleling I-81, has said it is willing to get involved in helping take some of those trucks off the road and onto the rails. Alerted by Rail Solutions, mayors of the towns and communities in the Shenandoah Valley pushed the state General Assembly for a bill to study alternatives.

Studies by the Virginia Department of Transportation show that 37 percent of I-81 currently needs one additional lane and the entire highway will need additional capacity by 2035. Instead of agreeing to a toll road addition of 8-10 lanes as proposed by the contractor conglomerate Star Solutions, VDOT will begin a program of adding truck climbing lanes and extending on-off ramps at dangerous I-81 bottlenecks within two years, VDOT says. A study on rail improvements, in consultation with Norfolk Southern, is to begin next summer. Rail Solutions plans to monitor the process to make sure the momentum does not erode. During the battle it came to light that the proposed contractors for the project design had not been investigated for financial instability or conflicts of interests.

To jump on the bandwagon (or train) visit RailSolution.org.

I-81 Rail: A Steel Interstate Alternative to the East Coast Truck Bypass

How will freight be shipped along the eastern U.S. for the next century? I-81 was designed for 15 per cent truck traffic, but heavy trucks now regularly exceed a treacherous 35 per cent. Worse, the growth rate of truck traffic is astounding. Vehicle counts in Rockbridge County increased 139 to 220 per cent in just four years between 1997 and 2001.

Two proposals would turn I-81 into a toll road with 6 or 8 lanes for $1.8 or $7.8 billion (three times VDOT's annual budget). The cheaper alternative depends on paving much of the current 325 miles of green median to build two lanes down the middle exclusively for cars. Tolls would be $10 for cars, and $30-90 for trucks.

Should we trade the safety and serenity of a green median for concrete barriers? How will emergency services, hazardous-materials services, and law-enforcement have access to lanes enclosed by miles of barriers? Imagine the frustration of navigating construction delays and the resulting accidents for at least eight years.

By contrast, Norfolk-Southern estimates $2.4 billion would up-grade the railroad paralleling I-81 from Harrisburg to Knoxville. Maintenance needs drop 5 cents per truck mile when loads switch to rail.

According to Norfolk-Southern figures, 40 per cent of freight between New York City and Chicago travels on the rails, 80 per cent from Chicago to Los Angeles goes by rail, but only 5 per cent in the east-coast corridor is carried on trains.

Rail freight involves less air pollution trapped in the Shenandoah Valley, fewer greenhouse gases, less cost, less land, fewer businesses condemned for pavement, fewer toxic spills, less fuel, less frustration and time lost in construction delays, fewer trucks clogging local roads evading tolls, healthier children, more free-spending tourists, support for (rather than caps on) industrial growth, more days when our beautiful mountains are actually visible, and better highway access for emergency and law-enforcement crews.

Tennessee's Department of Transportation is actively pursuing an upgraded rail approach to divert truck traffic to rail along the I-81 and I-40 corridors. Twenty-two Virginia counties, cities and towns have signed resolutions calling for serious study of a rail alternative to the proposed destructive widening of Interstate 81.

A group called Rail Solution supports upgrading the existing Nor-folk Southern rail line that parallels I-81 to a modern, straightened double-track. They also advocate removing at-grade crossings for safety and better train speeds. There are potential environmental impacts from running an extra 20+ daily trains through Shepherdstown. Perhaps a re-routing of the rail line would be advisable where it crosses the Potomac, if rail is to move 2-5 million truck shipments annually.

Action: RAIL Solution has people involved in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia, and is seeking concerned citizens in Maryland and West Virginia. Info: RailSolution.org