Plans, Trains, and Automobiles

The Belmont Bridge, coal's decline, and passenger train service from the Blue Ridge to The Beach.

Back in 2012, during planning discussions about replacing the Belmont Bridge, several people made compelling arguments that we no longer needed a bridge at all because train traffic beneath it - the reason for the bridge - would decline as demand for coal diminished. That's because the Buckingham Branch Railroad (BBR) line, which passes under the bridge, carries mostly empty coal cars westbound to the coalfields to keep traffic down along the CSX main line along the James River, which is the one all of the loaded coal trains use because it is more level and doesn't have to deal with Afton Mountain.

“If there are going to be fewer trains,” Brian Wimer, the Belmont resident who inspired Project Gait-way, a Belmont Bridge design competition, told C-Ville Weekly at the time, “why are we spending $14 million on a bridge to accommodate coal trains?”

Indeed, the winner of that design contest, spearheaded by UVA's School of Architecture, and judged by a jury made up of A-School faculty and Belmont residents was a design that called for removing the bridge and creating a pedestrian-centric layout tied to the Downtown Mall with an at-grade crossing over the tracks. The idea was that the no-bridge idea would better connect Belmont with the Downtown Mall, and since train traffic was declining, the bridge was obsolete.

There was just one problem: at the time, while domestic coal sales had indeed declined, due to low natural gas prices and demands for environmental controls on coals production, coal exports - to China and India, mostly - were soaring, from about 13.9 million tons in 2005 to 43.3 million tons in 2010. In fact, in 2012 CXS purchased a fleet of 7,000 new coal cars that began running on the BBR line to serve projected demand. At the time, Steve Powell, president of the Buckingham Branch Railroad, said that on a slow day three CSX trains might run through town and that on a busy day 10 trains might run. On average, he said, about seven trains a day passed through Charlottesville. Not what it was in the 1960s, perhaps, but still a steady stream of train traffic. And with 14,000 vehicle trips a day along that section of Avon Street, a major artery through town, we could expect some serious traffic tie-ups if there were an at-grade crossing. Powell also pointed out that there was a nationwide push to reduce the number of at-grade crossings due to safety concerns.

Flash forward to 2020. In August, City Council finally approved a mixture of local, state, and federal funding [$24 million in all] for the Belmont Bridge replacement project, which is expected to be completed in 2023 and include a variety of pedestrian enhancements. As for the coal business? It looks like those predicting its demise were right.

In a 2020 year-end financial report, CXS said it hauled 19.6 million tons of coal. That's 55% less than it hauled in 2010. CXS also said its revenues decreased by about 57% between 2010 and 2020. The company has lately been "parking" hundreds of locomotives in its fleet. Now the Biden Administration is putting pressure on China to abandon its own coal exports and the financing of coal projects around the world. While the coal export business is still a big business, it's a rapidly declining one with an uncertain future. Indeed, when the DTM pressed the BBR for a figure on how many trains passed under the bridge now, BBR spokesperson Julie Costello refused to give an exact figure, saying only that "it varies."

A recent unofficial survey by The DTM found that, while freight trains on the BB line still follow no set schedule, approximately 16 trains passed under the Belmont Bridge between February 24 and March 11. Some of those days saw no train traffic at all along the line.

So, then, the question returns: why build a $24 million bridge over railroad tracks that have a steeply declining number of trains running on them?

Well, here's where things get interesting. While the original reason for replacing the decaying bridge -- to accommodate CXS running empty coal cars along the BBR line -- may no longer justify building a new bridge, a plan to run additional passenger train service along the line for the first time in 30 years just might. It also could transform Charlottesville's downtown area.

Dubbed the Commonwealth Corridor, it’s part of a massive $3.7 billion passenger rail service expansion plan across Virginia announced by Gov. Ralph Northam at the end of 2019. Under the plan, Virginia is acquiring the Buckingham Branch Line from CSX and will launch an east-west passenger train route from Norfolk to Roanoke, which would include stops in Richmond, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg.

According to Daniel Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High-Speed Rail, the project is, well, still on track, despite the pandemic.

"I was told recently that the Department of Rail and Public Transportation has secured a consulting team to complete the study and advance the project," he told me. The overall effort was bolstered last March when the General Assembly created the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which will focus on making sure expanded passenger rail service in the state becomes a reality. As for the purchase of the BBR line, Plaugher says "the entire CSX deal is nearing completion and should be done soon."

Ironically, then, declining coal car traffic on the BBR line, and other lines across Virginia is one of the reasons why a passenger rail project like this is possible. Still, Plaugher says that working with CXS to accommodate coal car and freight hauling is built into the plan.

While Plaugher says he's not sure about the exact timetable for all this, an east-west passenger train route that passes through Charlottesville would be historic and could be a game-changer for the downtown and West Main Street areas. While Amtrak's Cardinal route provides east-west service from Charlottesville to Chicago, and north to DC and New York [but doesn't run on the BBR line], the last complete east-west passenger train in Virginia stopped running in 1973. And, says Plaugher, "aside from an occasional excursion train, the BBR line between Charlottesville and Richmond hasn't handled passengers in at least 30 years." Indeed, imagine universities and colleges in Roanoke, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, and Norfolk being connected by a single passenger train route. Imagine finally having direct service to and from Richmond and Virginia Beach. The route would also serve over 3 million people who live within 20 miles of a train station and could reducing driving by 37 million passenger miles. You can learn a lot about the potential benefits of the new route here.

Of course, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the viability of this project, at least in the short term. According to a joint report by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Virginians for High-Speed Rail ["Virginia's Passenger Trains: What's Next? Regional Rail Post-Pandemic"], while train ridership in Virginia grew 107% between 2009 and 2019, ridership from March to September 2020 was down 80% compared to the same time in 2019. The average ridership in 2019 was 84,000 passengers per month, but in April 2020 there were only 3,300 passengers. The good news is those numbers shot up pretty fast, to 22,000 passengers in September 2020, but the report said that it could take "at least seven months" before ridership levels return to normal.

Plaugher says he's "very confident" that ridership will bounce back post-pandemic, but predicts it could take "a year or two" to return to normal.

Of course, one of the reasons that east-west passenger rail service across Virginia came to a halt all those years ago, and was never started up again, was because of declining ridership. So what has changed to make these routes practically viable now?

Plaugher points to the ridership growth pre-pandemic, and to Virginia's commitment to expanding passenger rail service.

"In Virginia, we have an actual east-west connection vision, blue ridge to the beach," he says," and we are one of the few states now with dedicated funding for passenger rail."

As for the Belmont Bridge replacement project, it's still reasonable to wonder about its usefulness, or if the city could have developed a more visionary project for the space between Belmont and the Downtown Mall. While passenger rail service is likely to replace those empty coal cars on the BBR line, what kind of ridership demand will there really be and how often will those trains run? The Cardinal runs just two times a day, three days a week, and those trains are headed to big cities like Chicago, DC, and New York. In the near future, could there be multiple days during the week when no trains at all pass under the new Belmont Bridge? In that case, let's at least hope it looks nice.