Amtrak’s midday train to Roanoke entered the station for the first time Monday before a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.
With two Amtrak trains now serving the city daily, one transportation official predicted that local ridership will at least double to 10,000 monthly trips within a few years.
For indication of the current level of ridership, with one train in service, April data is instructive. During that month, a combined 2,859 passengers left Roanoke on the single, daily outbound Amtrak train and 2,782 riders arrived in Roanoke on the daily incoming train, according to spokeswoman Gerica Goodman with the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. That’s more than 5,600 total trips, counting each leg.
Monday afternoon, Amtrak began operation of Roanoke’s long-sought second daily train, with convenient daytime service. The second train arrives in Roanoke at 1 p.m. and departs at 4:30 p.m. The head of the state authority told a crowd of people who witnessed its arrival what to expect.
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“If you double the frequency, you will more than double the ridership,” DJ Stadtler said.
Off stage, Stadtler said it will take a couple of years — certainly fewer than five — for the doubling to occur, given national trends.
“That’s what the passenger industry in North America has seen,” he said.
Folks in the regional tourist trade like the sound of that.
“It is our intent to keep both of these trains full of visitors coming to Virginia,” said Landon Howard, president of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Jeff Mann, an Amtrak senior executive, reminded the crowd that the the service extension to Roanoke, which occurred in 2017, is part of one of Amtrak’s most successful ventures.
“This will add to that,” he said.
City officials plan to establish an Amtrak waiting room in a building adjacent to the platform, but not until 2026. There is no ticket booth, either. Amtrak sells tickets online.
Rail service has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels. The train service connecting Roanoke and Washington, D.C., known as Route 46, posted a ridership of 19,605 total trips in April or about 600 more than in April 2019.
Norfolk Southern, which owns the track used by Amtrak, also endorsed the project. Jackie Corletto, the company’s assistant vice president of strategic planning, said the railroad is “thrilled” by Amtrak’s results and sees the partnership as a model for how to launch and operate intercity passenger rail. It was done in a way that meets the needs of both freight shipping and passenger travel, she said.
Mass transit is a force for change in downtown. As rail advocates spoke into a public address system, heavy equipment noisily tore down the last of the former Valley Metro bus station across the street from the gathering. A new bus station is under construction on a nearby lot.