Expanding Amtrak: State to spend $93 million to emulate our train
In an effort to give another city what Lynchburg and Charlottesville have already shown to be wildly popular, the state recently approved a $93 million outlay to upgrade private train tracks to enable a daily roundtrip train to run between Norfolk and Richmond. The expenditure, approved June 16 by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, would bolster a vast market for the northeast rail corridor, the busiest passenger rail line in America.
"The rationale was that it would provide infrastructure improvements to expand Amtrak passenger service to an under-served market in South Hampton Roads," says ardent rail-pusher, Meredith Richards, who notes a market of over 1.5 million citizens whose only Amtrak service currently lies in Newport News, across the mouth of the James River for much of that population.
Richards, a former Charlottesville City Councilor, says the General Assembly believes so strongly in augmenting Tidewater's Amtrak access that it exempted the usual 30 percent funding match by the host railroad–- in this case Norfolk Southern–- with a project-specific budget amendment. Richards notes that the same 2010 amendment guarantees up to $6 million in state funding for the two new "Northeast Regional" train extensions: the one based in Lynchburg that serves Charlottesville (and which handily smashed ridership expectations) and a new Richmond-to-DC daily set to launch in July.
So when can Charlottesvillians ride the rails to Norfolk? They'll have to upgrade the rails to Richmond first.
"The question of rail from Charlottesville to Richmond is one I hear often," says Richards, "but I confess that I do not have strong hopes for this in the immediate future."
A reporter recently found a 1959 advertisement in the Daily Progress touting a midweek special that gave Charlottesville ladies the chance to make a round-trip excursion to Richmond for $3.90. But the state has yet to even study the prospect of upgrading the low-speed freight rails that currently move freight–- not passengers–- between the two cities.
"It would be a win-win for the region," says Richards, who believes that daily rail service could strengthen the regional economy and encourage residential growth around the stations in neighboring towns, as well as in Albemarle County's designated growth areas.
If a study were to be done, Richards hopes that it would include analysis of stations in Staunton, Waynesboro, Crozet, and Gordonsville to fully understand the region.
As for Norfolk, despite the $93 million capital expenditure, the new line has not yet been guaranteed an operating subsidy, something it will need to launch. As for the Charlottesville success story, technically the Lynchburg extension of a “Northeast Regional” train, it may not end up using its guaranteed subsidy if ridership continues so strong. Amtrak had predicted ridership of 51,000 people annually. But by March– just six months after the October 1 launch– it had served 55,025 passengers.