The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has moved an ambitious rail infrastructure project a major step forward by approving a Tier II Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Washington, D.C. to Richmond, Virginia, rail corridor. These passenger service and rail infrastructure improvements are more formally known as the Washington, D.C. to Richmond Southeast High Speed Rail Project, or DC2RVA.

This 123 mile-long railroad line is owned by CSX Transportation and hosts Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter trains. On its densest portions, it must accommodate 25 Amtrak trains, 34 VRE trains and 30 CSX freight trains each day. With freight, intercity passenger, and commuter operations sharing this corridor, it is hardly surprising that that the line is at or near capacity and operations are challenged. As the EIS notes, without investment there is little prospect of increasing passenger or commuter operations as population and associated demand grows.

A rail line’s capacity to accommodate trains depends very heavily on how many tracks are available. Trains can only pass each other on different tracks. An Amtrak train overtaking a slower-moving freight train must slow until the freight train can move onto another track to let the Amtrak train pass. If trains are moving in opposite directions, one needs to stop and wait on a “passing siding” if another main track is not available. Even though CSX voluntarily holds its freight trains out of Washington during morning and evening rush hours, the frequent VRE trains often conflict with Amtrak.

The infrastructure plan calls for adding a third track along much of the line. By expanding capacity on the line, more trains can be accommodated. Additionally, with the increased operational flexibility provided by a third track, while there may be more trains, they will encounter less congestion, resulting in faster and more reliable transit times. By straightening curves and upgrading track, Amtrak trains will be able to achieve speeds of up to 90 miles per hour, again improving the quality and reliability of service between the nation’s capital and the Commonwealth. Drivers on I-95, which roughly parallels the DC to Richmond rail corridor, will see benefits as well. With the opening of CSX’s new Virginia Avenue tunnel in Washington in December of 2016, CSX is now moving double stack intermodal trains from well north of Washington to as far south as Florida. Each double stack train can carry the equivalent of over 200 trucks, relieving I-95 of tremendous volumes of truck traffic. The DC to Richmond project will only increase this diversion of trucks to the rails.

The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to leverage the increased capacity to add as many as nine daily round trip trains to the corridor by 2025. All would use the corridor and the new track, but would extend well beyond the DC to Richmond corridor, expanding service to and from North Carolina and increasing service frequency on Amtrak’s current routes within Virginia.

As is typical with such major projects, the DC to Richmond rail corridor enhancements will move forward in gradual steps. The release of the Tier II Draft EIS represents the clearing of a major hurdle. The next step will be for the FRA to take public comments, issue the final EIS and then to issue its Record of Decision under the National Environmental Procedure Act. That action will clear the way for the federal and state funding needed to make the plan a reality, allow permitting, final designs and acquisition of limited rail right of way.

One great advantage of this plan as an infrastructure project is that it can be implemented in stages as funding becomes available. Unlike a tunnel or bridge, which must be fully completed before it can be used, the planned improved track alignments, additional tracks, and higher speeds can add incremental capacity and improve service with each step as it is completed.