The news last week that the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corp. agreed to improve rail infrastructure needed to bring passenger rail into Roanoke was welcomed by local leaders.
"I'm certainly pleased to hear this," said Ed Morgan, mayor of Abingdon, Va., whose Town Council on Monday approved a resolution supporting the move to bring passenger rail to Southwest Virginia. "I think it's very definitely a [step] in the right direction."
The agreement announced by Gov. Bob McDonnell Thursday includes the track additions and realignments between Lynchburg and Roanoke needed to extend Amtrak service to the Star City. It also includes signal upgrades, clearance adjustments and a platform and train servicing facility in downtown Roanoke, according to the statement from the governor's office.
"Intercity passenger rail service is central to the commonwealth's economic growth, vitality and competitiveness in the region," McDonnell said in the statement.
Thelma Drake, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said in a phone interview Thursday that Bristol is in the state's rail plan, but it's in the long-term plan.
"It's in the back of everyone's mind," she said, adding that during her four years as director, she's been hearing about Bristol's interest in passenger rail.
Roanoke officials have long anticipated the arrival of a passenger train and for the past two years, the city's residents have been able to get on a bus to drive to Lynchburg and catch the Amtrak there.
Drake said that's what Bristol should focus on.
"Riding the bus shows what demand there is," she said, adding that it is currently possible to catch a bus from Bristol to Lynchburg to get on a train.
She said Virginia officials have worked with Tennessee in the past, because to successfully extend the line there would need to be more riders, but the process is currently at a standstill. She also said there's a single line that currently comes into Bristol, which could prove problematic when moving freight and people.
"Coming to Roanoke is certainly the next step," Drake said. "It's an incremental process. Part of that is showing ridership, showing demand."
Bristol will be ready when the time comes, said Bristol, Va., Mayor Guy Odum.
"We have a train station that very quickly we could use as a boarding station," he said. "It would take very little time and we'd be on board."
Odum said local groups are sending resolutions of support to this session of the General Assembly in both Tennessee and Virginia to encourage legislators to see the benefit of bringing rail to and through Bristol.
Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Michelle Dolan said she thinks getting Atlanta on board would help get a train through Bristol and into Tennessee.
"There's a lot of people that are excited about getting rail into Bristol," she said. "I think it would make most economic sense if we could get Atlanta to commit ... to have Bristol as a stop on the way to Atlanta instead of as a dead-end location."
Odum said city leaders are looking at different rail possibilities and how to facilitate bringing rail to the region.
"We want to do like Roanoke did and establish a bus service," Odum said. "It would have to be a joint effort to show Amtrak there is ridership to bring the service."
Morgan said there is a need to move quickly.
"We need to pressure McDonnell and all our legislators to rapidly move forward and continue rail service down here," he said. "It needs to move rapidly beyond Roanoke and serve the rest of us in Southwest Virginia."
Copyright 2014 - Bristol Herald Courier, Va.