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Virginia becoming a model for intercity train service, observers say

Virginia becoming a model for intercity train service, observers say

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The first Amtrak train out of Roanoke prepares to embark from the downtown platform on Oct. 31, 2017.

Amtrak trains in Virginia carried nearly a million passengers last year, a record in the state’s decade-long rail program.

Virginia’s pledge to invest $3.7 billion in rail over the next decade promises even more growth for the passenger railroad and places including the Roanoke and New River valleys. With new routes and faster and more efficient service, the number of Amtrak trains operating in Virginia is expected to double by 2030.

Virginia is turning into a model for intercity train service, observers and railroad officials say.

The state exemplifies Amtrak’s growth strategy of focusing on adding short-haul trips that compete with car rides and flights in dense urban corridors, they say.

“This really is the perfect example of what we think America needs more of,” said Stephen Gardner, senior executive vice president and chief operating and commercial officer for Amtrak. “We will be connecting a whole number of cities in Virginia to the major population centers in the Northeast.”

In recent years, Amtrak has been beefing up short-distance service across the country, advancing its vision to connect major metropolitan areas in regions undergoing significant growth and where there is little to no rail service, while fulfilling Americans’ growing desire for cost-efficient and more environmentally friendly travel options.

In the past fiscal year, Amtrak added a new state-supported service in Western Massachusetts, adjusted San Joaquins’ schedules in California’s Central Valley to be more convenient for weekend travelers and added a Northeast Regional train in Norfolk.

The company is pitching routes from Nashville to Atlanta, and Memphis to Chicago, and advocating to revive the New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, route that was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina.

In the Midwest, plans call for more trains on the popular 90-mile line between Chicago and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And projections for the West Coast include more trains between Los Angeles and San Diego, and between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, two routes where demand for passenger service is growing.

The company also is exploring opportunities in the southern United States, including growing metropolitan areas in Florida, North Carolina and Texas that are not served by Amtrak. In Virginia and North Carolina, a Richmond-Raleigh route is in sight for the area now served by an Amtrak long-distance train that suffers from chronic delays.

“There is an inevitability that intercity short-haul passenger rail is going to have to grow in America,” Amtrak chief executive Richard Anderson told reporters in November, during a discussion about ridership and financial projections for 2020.

Congestion in metropolitan areas is going to increase as the population grows, Anderson said, and high-quality, efficient train service is the only way to make inroads in reducing carbon emissions.

Expansion such as that in Virginia is critical for Amtrak to remain relevant. The only way to grow both ridership and revenue, Anderson said, is by adding customers and providing more opportunities for them to travel.

That means increasing the 32.5 million passengers the railroad carried in fiscal 2019, a record year with notable growth in the Northeast Corridor and state-supported lines.

“We are going to advocate strenuously with our state partners to figure out a new methodology for us to be able serve that 300-mile short-haul market,” Anderson said.

State-funded routes are among the highest performing for Amtrak, and ridership on them grew by more than 10% in the past decade, the railroad said.

Virginia, one of 18 states that sponsor Amtrak service, has some of the best-performing routes, officials said. Combined ridership for the four routes connecting Richmond and other major cities to Washington and the Northeast grew to 971,415 in 2019, from 844,698 the previous year — a 15% increase. That’s well above the average 2.4% increase among all state-supported lines and the 2.5% growth of Amtrak’s entire network.

“In just the 10 years since 2009, ridership has more than doubled on our Virginia corridors,” Anderson told members of Congress at a Nov. 13 hearing. “What these and our other very successful state-supported corridors have in common is that they offer multiple daily frequencies with trip times that are competitive with driving and flying.”

The prospect of hourly service between Washington and Richmond within the decade is another example of Amtrak’s vision to connect major metropolitan areas within a few hundred miles of each other.

Regular daily Amtrak service connecting the two capitals has the potential to significantly reduce traffic congestion in the Interstate 95 corridor, Gardner said.

“We can help address the growing population and congestion in the Commonwealth, and we can expand opportunity by creating better mobility for the citizens of Virginia,” Gardner said.

Transportation officials and advocates have called Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s $3.7 billion rail plan a “game changer” for the Commonwealth and a potential solution to the nightmarish congestion in the District of Columbia-to-Richmond corridor and other traffic chokepoints in the state.

“Virginians keep telling us by using Amtrak and their money to buy the tickets that they want this type of transportation mode,” said Daniel Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, which lobbies the state for more rail investments.

Northam’s plan, announced last month, follows a decade of investments in rail by the state and the implementation of policies that prioritize intercity train service. In 2011, Virginia became one of a few states to create a dedicated funding source for rail projects. The Virginia Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund gets 0.005% of the state’s retail sales and use tax, which equals about $50 million to $60 million annually.

The new plan is a bold effort to transform rail travel in Virginia, said Trip Pollard, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who has worked on rail policy and other transportation issues in the state for more than 20 years.

“Virginia has become a national leader in rail policy and projects,” Pollard said. “Virginia has increasingly recognized the need to invest in passenger and freight rail in light of the many benefits rail offers, including curbing pollution, reducing congestion and improving economic competitiveness.”

Early efforts to expand Amtrak service were met with skepticism, Pollard said. The first state-sponsored train to Lynchburg a decade ago was criticized by those who said few would ride the train from the Centraal Virginia city to the nation’s capital. But service to Lynchburg was so successful that trains on the route are running near capacity and revenue comes close to surpassing operating costs, officials said. Amtrak has since extended the serve to Norfolk and Roanoke.

A New River Valley coalition is pushing for its extension to Christiansburg. So far, the state has agreed to pay $350,000 for a study to identify the necessary rail infrastructure. The town has bought land for a future station near its aquatics center.

A coalition of business, environmental and transit advocacy groups is pushing for an east-west rail line to connect the Hampton Roads region to Roanoke. Virginians for High Speed Rail says such a route would give those traveling between the beach towns and the Blue Ridge Mountains a faster trip than today’s, which requires a ride to D.C. and a transfer to go back southeast to Virginia Beach. It can take 14 hours, with a layover at Union Station.

Northam’s plan means the new route is more likely to happen. Virginia will acquire from CSX the 186 miles of tracks on the Buckingham Branch Line between Doswell and Clifton Forge, which would allow a future east-west route. The state will buy tracks, build new ones and become part owner of the right of way of hundreds of miles of tracks owned by CSX, including the entire D.C.-to-Richmond route. The state also plans to build a $1.9 billion rail bridge next to the Long Bridge, the 115-year rail bridge over the Potomac River.

Virginia transportation officials say the improvements will be paid for with federal, state and regional funds. Amtrak intends to invest $944 million in the program, officials said.

Increasing train service in the state makes sense, both for reducing traffic congestion and from an economic standpoint, officials and transportation experts say. A recent state study of the I-95 corridor estimates that it would cost $12.5 billion to build one additional travel lane in each direction for 50 miles in the corridor.

“And the day that we finish it is just as congested as the day that we started,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said. “So we are really trying to find a way to transform how we move people and goods along this corridor.”

Rail is one of the solutions, she said. And Amtrak officials say the company is ready to be part of it.

“This investment is all about creating the kind of capacity and service in markets where we can make a real difference,” Gardner said.

Staff writer Jeff Sturgeon contributed information to this story.

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