More trains: Amtrak plans to dailify the Cardinal
Just a year after helping to launch a wildly popular twice-daily passenger rail service, Amtrak plans to more than double the frequency of its Cardinal train, a run that currently connects Charlottesville to Chicago or New York less than once a day. Under a new proposal just released the quasi-public passenger rail company, the Cardinal would leap from 6 passes through Charlottesville each week to 14.
"People don't even know about the Cardinal because it's just three days a week," says local rail promoter Meredith Richards. "To have a seven day a week afternoon train for Charlottesville is really big."
Under the proposed schedule, Charlottesville passengers would board the northbound train at 2:47pm and get to D.C. around 5:30pm with the final stop in New York's Penn Station at 9:36pm. Southbound, the train would originate at Penn Station at 6:45am and pull into Charlottesville at 1:55pm.
Westbound, Chicago awaits, but it's 22 hours (and hopefully a good night's sleep) away. More likely, Charlottesville passengers might wish to try their luck at the new casino three hours away at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs. The train makes beverage-lubricated travel safer than taking a car, and the station lies practically on the premises of the renowned resort.
In July, the Greenbrier unveiled its "Club Casino" with a star-studded event featuring actresses Brooke Shields and Jennifer Garner, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, and a singing performance by Lionel Ritchie. The state of West Virginia did its part by legalizing gambling.
The current price of a round-trip train ticket to the Greenbrier is $38, and $10 additional if reservations are made less than two weeks before traveling. For Washington and back, the fares are $58/$78; for New York, they're $160/$218.
For Amtrak, a bolstered Cardinal stems from a federal mandate to get some of its worst-performing long-distance lines in order, and the Cardinal has certainly earned its place on the "five worst" list by recovering just 35 percent of its costs and achieving just a 31 percent on-time rating in 2008. (More recently, the Cardinal's cost-recovery has fallen to 27 percent, but its on-time performance has leapt to 62 percent.)
In its Cardinal report, Amtrak even admits to a problem–- no joke!–- with coal dust getting tracked into the cabins from some of the West Virginia stations. So the rail company is promising to power-wash the passenger platforms at three of that state's stations.
Amtrak also notes that it's working with the host railroads–- including the Buckingham Branch, which provides the Cardinal's path between Clifton Forge and Orange–- to offer better timeliness. As for service, the revamped Cardinal plans to institute a new food menu with more regional and affordable selections.
Amtrak estimates that the twice-daily schedule will cause ridership to soar 96 percent, from 140,000 to 275,000 annually at an incremental cost of $2.1 million annually. The train will continue to offer a sleeper car, a diner car, and three coaches.
The federal mandate spurring the change is the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2008, and railfan Richards believes that Amtrak will follow through on its own recommendation, which calls for launching the additional runs in late 2011.
Last October, a state subsidy helped Amtrak bring one of its Northeast Regional trains though Charlottesville and as far south as Lynchburg. By March, the service had topped its annual passenger goals. By July, the train had doubled both its Virginia passenger and revenue goals, with $5.2 million in revenue from 103,351 passengers. The annual goal was $2.6 million from 51,000 passengers, and there are still months of first-year data yet to be reported.
The extended Northeast Regional service did, however, seem to play a role in a five percent drop for Virginia passengers riding the Cardinal as well as the whopping 50 percent drop for Virginians using the Crescent. On the plus side, however, Virginia's total use of Amtrak spiked 18 percent, and that tends to support Richards argument–- voiced in a recent article for UVA's Weldon Cooper Center–- that each new route contributes as a "feeder."
And even though she concedes that the new service might poach a little bit from the new Northeast Regional service, Richards believes an augmented Cardinal will pay off.
"We have an untapped market that's just going to continue to grow," says Richards.
–last updated 4:10pm Monday, October 4