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Christiansburg bought land for the train depot - but can't use it

The push to bring a passenger train to the NRV has been spearheaded by a group of diverse stakeholders. Originally called the "NRV Passenger Rail" group, the group lobbied, conducted studies, and went to countless meetings with stakeholders. They worked to convince Richmond that a train stop would first and foremost be used. It will also alleviate some congestion on I-81, especially around graduations and game weekends; a problem Richmond seems stalled on tackling. It will also provide an economic boost to local businesses as the NRV becomes an easier place for a weekend trip. All in all, it's a great idea. Once Richmond was on board, things got more complicated. We find ourselves at a place where two steps forward mean one step back.

The vast majority of railways in America are owned by private companies. So while Amtrack is a quasi-public entity, the rails the trains take are leased for use from the rail owners. It's not feasible to lay miles of new track alongside I-81 to reach the closest station in Roanoke, so that means sitting down with the primary owner of tracks: Norfolk Southern. Since they own both the rails AND a train service for freight, it's in their interest to make sure that a passenger train isn't ever holding up a freight train, since there are few-to-no places for trains to pass one another.

Freight rails were also deregulated in the 1970s and 80s through a series of acts, ending in the Staggers Act. It has made freight movement in America one of the best networks in the world. Unfortunately one of the ways freight shipping is kept cheap is by using rails that aren't up to the standards of passengers' bums. The hum and sway of commuter tracks are replaced with bone-jarring bounces when moved to a freight line. So Norfolk Southern also needed to negotiate a way to pay for upgrades for certain parts of the track to get to the NRV, part of several points of mediation with the state. Now that the state government and Norfolk and Southern were talking money and leases, another issue crops up: the station. A local study showed that the depot would be best used if it were located in the Town of Christiansburg. It was based on survey results from residents as well as available tracks and locations with enough acreage to put in a station and parking, among other criteria. The problem is that in Virginia, the town has to pay for the depot itself. That was all well and good when the last locality to tackle it was City Norfolk (pop 244,601) in 2012, but the Town of Christiansburg couldn't alone bear the cost of the build and upkeep. So the stakeholders in the NRV Rail Group lobbied Richmond again to allow the creation of Rail Authorities so that small localities can pool resources to benefit from a station near them. The NRV Rail Authority will gather money from several groups who stand to benefit from the station, like Town of Blacksburg, City of Radford, Montgomery County, Virginia Tech, Radford University, and others) and oversee the building and maintenance of it.

In the meantime, in 2016 when 1.2 acres of suitable land right on the track next to the Christiansburg Aquatic Center became available, the Town of Christiansburg bought it outright for $160,000. Preliminary sketches of depot layouts were created and later the Town bought an adjoining 6.8 acres for $200,000. It's on the rail that leads out of town, so it's easy to see how the line will continue down to Bristol one day, where Richmond has said it will likely go. According to Mayor Mike Barber, "for now [the land] is a nice parking lot for the often-crowded Aquatic Center" So now we have a lease to use the rails to connect to Roanoke, a way to pay to build a station, and a lot of people anxious to see this happen.

EXCEPT Norfolk Southern has now agreed to the rail use and lease and it doesn't include the track that goes by the Aquatic Center. They've offered a track near the New River Valley Mall (soon to be the Uptown Christiansburg Mall), though it isn't clear exactly where. It may mean the seldom-used railroad by the bike path on Peppers Ferry will see passengers, or it could be elsewhere. But it leaves Christiansburg holding empty land and the New River Rail Authority trying to find out if the originally proposed track couldn't be added to the lease somehow and if not, will it be anyway later when Richmond buys the lease to get the line on to Bristol in a few years? In a speech on the subject of the lease agreement and rail investment in May 2021, Governor Northram indicated he wanted to trains up and moving from Christiansburg to DC by 2025.


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