Choo-ching! New Amtrak service smashes ridership goals
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."
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.