Choo-ching! New Amtrak service smashes ridership goals

news-dcunionstationRichards hopes a second train would allow a longer day-trip to Washington whose opulent Union Station, stands next to the U.S. Capitol.

Meredith Richards always thought Central Virginia harbored pent-up rail demand. But the former Charlottesville City Councilor admits to a pleasant surprise when Amtrak revealed figures showing that the new daily passenger train service she spearheaded has topped its annual ridership goal–- with half a year left to go.

Amtrak had predicted annual ridership of 51,000 people on the Virginia extension of its "Northeast Regional" train. But by March–- just six months after the October 1 launch–- it had served 55,025 passengers. And by generating over $2.8 million in revenue, the service has also exceeded the annual goal of $2.6 million.

"It's amazing," says Richards, who heads an advocacy group called the Piedmont Rail Coalition. "People are ready to get out of their cars and onto trains."

Ridership on the Lynchburg-to-Boston service appears so strong, says one state official, that this part of a three-year pilot program actually stands a chance of turning a profit. Not too shabby for a service launched with a gubernatorial promise of up to $2.9 million a year in state subsidy.

Citing a new report from Amtrak, State Department of Rail and Public Transportation spokesperson Jennifer Pickett notes that monthly ridership has averaged  9,171–- with March, the strongest month with the most recent available numbers, at 11,365.

Pickett also notes that the new train's on-time performance of over 79 percent tops the statewide average of 52 percent, and that Amtrak ridership across Virginia has climbed 28 percent since a year ago. A trip to Washington typically costs $22 and takes 2.5 hours each way, while the New York fare is $58 for a 6.5-hour ride.

Charlottesville-based Richards believes such continued rail success could bolster her group's quest to add a second new train in the U.S. 29/Interstate 66 corridor–- perhaps one leaving Charlottesville's Union Station earlier than the current scheduled departure of 8:52am on weekdays (11:13am on weekends). She claims the train removes cars from those highways while providing "a more sane way" to reach Washington and New York City.

However, not everyone feels the joy.

"Just say no," says Charlottesville-based author Jenny Gardiner. "Charlottesville will become a bedroom community of D.C., and it will kill the character of this lovely city."

news-amtrak-passengersThere's even talk of making the three-day-a-week Cardinal train go daily.

Gardiner suggests that rail service will create suburban sprawl and, as she puts it, "the clear-cutting of vast stands of trees to plunk down housing for people in Northern Virginia sick and tired of grueling commutes."

While Richards concedes that Washington is the top destination of Virginia passengers, she doesn't share the dire outlook.

"One more train isn't going to create a bedroom community," says Richards. "I certainly don't favor hourly commuter service."

Recently, Richards helped win passage of a General Assembly bill to study how other states dedicate a fund to bolster rail transportation, and the new ridership numbers encourage her to keep pushing for more passenger service.

"We're providing a very good model for state-supported passenger rail," says Richards. "What we're proving is that if you're providing convenient, comfortable, and reliable service, people will ride."

–updated 6:21am Friday, May 21 with fare/schedule information.


Word on the street is the city gave Gabe and Ali 30 days to git er paved. I have seen somethings happening since but still wonder what is true and whatnot. Anyone else hear anything? I personally like the pot holes. It reminds me of Costa Rica. Where else can you get a free massage on your way to work in the morning?

This is great news! Our nation's highways and airports will only become more clogged over time. If people realize the value of rail transportation, it will improve with time (high-speed, on-time, etc.).

For the record, carrying passengers is virtually never "profitable" when all costs are taken into consideration. Highways are heavily subsidized by government (despite taxes); airlines are indirectly subsidized by the government through the FAA, Air Traffic Control, and TSA (Congress authorized $72B over 5 years last year).

The fact that this train is nearly paying for itself is truly amazing. Virginia, use your promised money to extend this service elsewhere in the state!

Now we just need train service up and down 81..I would pay top dollar to ride a train instead of sharing the road with all the trucks! And it would a great way for in-state students to travel around the state--from NOVA to SW VA!

I've ridden this train ~5 times in the past six months. The train south beats the heck out of any possible route from DC. It takes less time and is much less stressful, and even the fare (~$20 in advance) is similar to the cost in gas alone ($10-15).

The problem I have with this route is there's no morning northbound service. The train leaves CVS at 11am. Who can sue this other than tourists and people with the occasional flight out of Reagan?

If it's busting ridership goals now, imagine if Amtrak added a route departing at 6:30am or 7am.

A five hour rail commute is difficult to imagine, at least in enough numbers to generate the quotes attributed to Jenny Gardiner who, by the way, is an author of a book about living with a parrot. It's difficult to imagine that she has much insight into rail, or road, transportation because of her book.

FYI: American subsidies to car travel is generally estimated at $295 billion annually. Dollar spending on road construction and repair in 2004 was $145 billion without including things like parking, street lights, signs, or the subsidies going to oil and gas companies. Since then, of course, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing car manufacturers and stimulus dollars put a minimum $28 billion into highways while only $8 billion went for mass transit and $400 million for bike-ped.

I guess I am exactly the commuter that Jenny G fears. I live in Cville (in the city, not the sprawling burbs that we already have strung out along the main highways), and leave pre-dawn for my job in downtown DC, returning at night. There aren't many of us, and the Amtrak service is of no use to us (people with straight jobs generally need to arrive at them in the morning, not just as lunch time is rolling around, and we generally need to stay at them up until the official start time of Happy Hour, not waltz out to catch a 4 pm train). I have a hard time understanding the logic of someone who assumes that continued suburban sprawl in our currently horribly planned county (there is no more poorly planned urban area in America than Albemarle -- Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas, LA, NOVA, and even Lynchburg included) along the main road routes will accelerate if a non-car commuter option is provided, with its terminus being in downtown Cville. Anyway, it takes a special kind of lunatic to endure a 3-hour commute, and most people couldn't handle it. Getting a commuter train to DC would just make life easier for those of us who are already suffering the shlepp, greatly reduce our car emissions and gas consumption, and take a little pressue off the disaster of a cow path that is Route 29. It won't cause the already cancerous sprawl in the north county and Greene to speed up, but instead my create an incentive for people to avoid looking for housing just north of our traffic light hell.

I decided to take the Regional last week to Baltimore for a business meeting rather than drive it. It took the same amount of time, probably less because there was no traffic. I've heard rumors that these trains are often late but mine was on time and arrived a few minutes early. It was perhaps the least stressful trip I've taken in a long time. I would really love to see an afternoon train going North too though. The morning trains are the only options right now (unless you want to commute via bus to Union Station in DC). Bring it on Amtrak!


revenue is not profit.....Maybe you should think after you read....?

Geez Carter, could they have made it any easier for you?

"Ridership on the Lynchburg-to-Boston service appears so strong, says one state official, that this part of a three-year pilot program actually stands a chance of turning a profit. Not too shabby for a service launched with a gubernatorial promise of up to $2.9 million a year in state subsidy."

Amtrak runs a deficit of over a billion dollars each year. Virtually all of
Amtrak’s 44 or so routes lose money but the long-distance routes lose the most.9
According to the DOT IG, ââ?¬Å?in 2009, long-distance trains cumulatively incurred
operating losses of more than $600 million (excluding interest and depreciation).”10
By his calculation, eliminating long-distance service will reduce operating losses by
about $300 million, far too little to make Amtrak profitable. In congressional
testimony, the DOT IG stated that long distance trains accounted for only 15% of total
intercity rail ridership and that 77% of long-distance train passengers traveled along
only portions of the routes, not end-to-end trips. Trips mostly ranged from 500-700
miles, slightly longer than corridor trips.11 The IG estimated that Amtrak could realize
ââ?¬Å?annual operating savings of between $75 million and $158 million, and an additional
$79 million in planned annual capital expenditures that could be avoided” by
eliminating the highly-subsidized sleeper class service from its long-distance trains.12
Sleeper class service includes a sleeping room and prepaid meals in the train’s dining
car; coach class passengers on long-distance trains sleep in their seats on overnight


the article clearly said: "that this part of a three-year pilot program actually stands a chance of turning a profit."

That's the reading part that was being referred to. I'd guess that it is close, but not making a profit yet.

As for whiney "I don't like trademark law and whine to the Hook" Parrot author lady... give it up... until the businesses that are now locating in Reston and Herndon start choosing Culpepper instead, C'ville won't be a bedroom town of the NY-PHILLY-BALT-WASH megalopolis...

Thank you, cookieJar and speedbump.

Does it pay for itself? Or is it in the red?

Well, maybe if you had read the article, then you might have some idea ....

Ms. Gardiner would like to have been asked for her current opinion (which differs very little from the one expressed 5 years ago) because her writing reflects a perpetual self-revisionist at work, one whose writings belie her actual deeds. Very few who have been involved with the Rail Coalition will forget how nastily she treats those with whom she disagrees, no matter how little she understands about the facts. And by the way, she is one of those Northern Virginia folks who, coincidentally, fled the 'burbs outside D.C. to relocate to Albemarle County. She should stick to serving up the fictional literary tripe she calls "writing."

I've ridden the train north both to NYC and to Baltimore. Having driven both trips several time as well, the option of the train has been a really nice alternative. Yes, once it was late arriving/departing. I survived. And I did so w/o paying a bunch for gas, was dropped off in the middle of the cities, etc., etc....
Yes, we should have a much better rail system. The ideal of revitalizing towns like Detroit with rail manufacturing seems to make some sense, no?

Build it, and they will come.

I've been living in Charlottesville for 40 years, and I don't think Amtrak has anything to do with the fact that Charlottesville is gradually stretching northward. Why?

Because when we moved here 40 years-ago, from K-Mart northward was just trees. In 40 years things haven't changed THAT much. I mean, 40 years! We're not talking about 4 years.

Albemarle County/Charlottesville had 2 high schools 40 years ago. Now it has just 4. It's not like Charlottesville is full of skyscrapers. In 40 years, the city's population has only increased about 18,000 people.

I wouldn't say that "where the Target in C-Ville is is pretty much where Northern VA begins now." No offense intended. I mean, people in northern VA don't think of Charlottesville, Virginia as part of northern VA. :)

I added some fare and schedule information to the story this morning.--hawes spencer

Train good.

Dear Carter,
The national railroad system is a public ammenity that we pay to support by taxes, just as we pay to support the automobile as a means of transportation both by construction and maintenance of roads with public money and now by buying the failing automobile companies. Does the constrtuction of roads make a profit? We taxpayers also subsidize the airlines by maintaining at taxpayer expense airports all across the country and the infrastructure for air navigation. So your question about whether it makes money or not seems a little off base. Why does a public ammenity have to make a profit? If your concern is about deficit spending, I think we would save a lot more by withdrawing from the several wars that are bankrupting us in Asia and let the Asians deal with their regional problems while we tend to our own knitting. Beyond that, other developped countries, like all of Europe, have excellent interurban rail service that is clean, comfortable and well run. Amtrack has been starved for funding for years, ever since the private railways, that initially enjoyed huge land grants and other direct government (taxpayer) aid, dumped the passenger service in favor of the easy money hauling coal, grain, and other bulk freight. The fact of the matter is that the combined interests of big oil and its allies have done everything possible to keep this contry dependent on private transportation based on automobiles and oil products, including buying up and closing many interurban light rail systems that were flourishing during the first half of the 20th century.
The United States, a country that stretches across an entire continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, should be a world leader in rail technology, as we once were. Instead of buying our locomotives from foreign countries we should be making them here, putting people to work in the idle automobile factories we taxpayers now own. This country should have all electric high speed inter urban light rail from coast to coast, just like Europe and much of Asia. If this was a national priority, and if we could afford it, we would not have such high unemployment. We can't afford to do it because we have bankrupted ourselves fighting hopeless wars in Asia that will last for ever, and create generations of maimed and injured vetrans, to be cared for at public expense through the VA.
So if you are going to ask if the railroads are making money or not, you might as well ask if the war in Afghanistan is making money or not. I guess it makes plenty of money for the "contractors" like Halliburton who now do for a profit what soldiers used to do for duty, but what good does it do the taxpayer? I'd rather spend the tax dollars here on permanent infrastructure we all benefit from than on wars in Asia that are a windfall to the war profiteers and their friends on Wall St, but are bankrupting our country. So there you go, Carter. There's something for you to think about. Go ahead, call me a socialist, tell me I'm not patriotic, and that what we need is less government, then vote Republican and feel good about it, remembering that it was the Republican, conservative government of the last Republican president, George Bush, who created the largest beurocracy in the history of the United States, spent more money than any other administration in the history of the United States, got us into 2 wars in Asia, ran up greater deficits than any other president in history and presided over the largest economic catastrophy since Warren G Harding gave us the Great Depression... Go ahead, tell me supporting the national rail system is fiscally irresponsible, and that I should be more conservative, like George Bush and his gang.

I've never heard anyone link train service with sprawl. Usually, the opposite is the case. Automobile use leads to a dispersal of development, while rail use concentrates development around the station.

While I am still worried that regular rail service to/from DC will lead to commuter service, which would open up Charlottesville to massive sprawl and ultimately ruin our quaint little city, it would have been good to tap me for my current insight into it rather than digging up a quote from way back when!

I agree that it's great news. Keep it up, Charlottesville!

My husband uses the NE Regional to and from DC fairly often, and we've found that it's on time almost always. The long distance trains --Crescent and Cardinal--are often late, but not the NE Regional. I agree it would be great to have a daily afternoon train going north!

A few words from a former resident of Charlottesville (2003 - 2007) and a train supporter for ecological (carbon) reasons. Two things that make Charlottesville a nice place to live are jobs, if you can get them, and retiring to a less stressful, more healthful environment. You just advertise how much more the cost of living is and the narrower set of choices, compared to any large metropolitan area, say Philadelphia, PA where I now live (again).
I liked living in Charlottesville, but it takes lots of money relative to other areas. A few more trains coming in and going out of town aren't going to drive a population increase. If you add a major employer (Say Gap) to imitate J.Crew in Lynchburg, you have a net driver of population growth. Compared to the cost of living in San Francisco, getting a win like Gap to relocate headquarters to Charlottesville is a win for them and a win for your tax base. I hear there is a hospital campus in town that could use renovation and tenants. Just as in the Google saga of seeking a few good locales, get everyone in town to wear Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy, then send the video with a Dave Matthews Band tracking to Gap with your economic development team.

Hey Jenny the burbs are here if you haven't noticed during your time in Cville. How long have *you* been here anyway?

Personally I'd love to see commuter service (the current mode wouldn't really permit work commutes). Then there will be jobs for those of us FROM here who need a decent job but want to stay here. A good bit of the burbs around here stem from the disjuncture between the cost of living and the salaries employers need to pay in this area to find qualified people (a perennial "buyers market"). People have to move to Greene and Fluvanna because they can't afford to live closer. It would be wonderful to see feasible commutes to other areas that don't involve sitting behind a steering wheel. And to see local employers like UVA having to court applicants for a change.

Wow. Somebody needs to have his medicine levels checked. I know taking pictures can be time consuming, but, please, check with a qualified physician.

So Gardiner thinks that the people from northern virginia who are "sick and tired of grueling commutes" are going to move to Charlottesville, take the train and have a 6 HOUR ROUND TRIP COMMUTE. ok, that makes sense.

UVA has now become, "The University of Virginia-Northern Virginia"

Charlottesville will one day be a contiguous area starting in the cultural meccas known as Mananas and Centreville...

Where the Target in C-ville is pretty much where Northern VA begins now... Sad state....

Yes, train good. And we all know that Hawes is all over the train beat.

And, yes, trains can reduce sprawl if residences are built around stations, but I assume that most people commuting from C'ville to DC would still drive to the C'ville station.

I don't see commuting affecting C'ville area sprawl much. First, the real causes of sprawl in the area are growth of local institutions such as U.Va. and the Medical Center and the development of subdivisions. That's going to happen regardless.

Second, most commuters would probably commute once or twice a week to the DC area. People already do this in the area - Hook interviewee Dahlia Lithwick would be an example during Supreme Court sessions - but they usually drive. The train would make it more convenient.

I would like to see the train schedules make a day trip from DC to C'ville feasible. Most of the trains currently arrive in town at night and leave in the morning.

I can't imagine anyone daily, waiting for train (that is typically late), followed by riding a train for 2.5 hours only to do it again later that evening someone living in a "bedroom community".

..Maybe DC doesn't want to become a bedroom community of charlottesville. Why does the bedroom always have to be in charlottesville?