Train pain: Bus boss says Amtrak could doom Starlight
One of the founders of the Starlight Express linking Charlottesville to New York says his popular bus service might be doomed by a planned daily Amtrak train that the governor would like to subsidize.
"If the Amtrak really gets successful, we'll almost certainly close our doors," says Oliver Kuttner. "We're marginally profitable now," Kuttner adds, "so if we lose 20 percent of our customers, it probably won't make sense to continue."
Launched in October 2004 with a single refurbished Trailways motorcoach as a weekend-only round-trip, the Starlight Express has grown to a fleet of five vehicles with a daily schedule (even showing how many seats are available) as well as additional stops in Lynchburg and Warrenton.
Tickets for the Starlight Express–- at $99 one-way and $179 round-trip–- are comparable to Amtrak's pricing, but the bus includes free beverages, snacks, and internet access. The founders even found a way to skip all rush hours (except Charlotteville's) by departing at 5:30pm to match Amtrak's average speed.
But just as the bus feels threatened by the train, the train has been threatened by a state senator upset that it doesn't reach his district. And not everyone thinks an every-morning vehicle toward D.C. is a good thing.
"On paper, sure, the commuter rail idea sounds great and green and groovy," says Charlottesville writer Jenny Gardiner. "Adding a daily rail service to Charlottesville would give DC-area residents the ability to live here and commute there, and they would come in droves."
Amtrak estimates that its planned service will have an initial ridership level of 33,100 passengers.
"We move 8,000 people," says Kuttner, "and we don't get one dollar of subsidy from the government."
The proposed Amtrak service, by contrast, would cost the state $1.9 million annually during the three years of a pilot program endorsed by the governor's office.
Rail supporters point out that motor vehicles travel on tax-subsidized roads–- which fossil-fueled vehicle supporters note are mostly funded by fuel taxes. Kuttner steers clear of the back-and-forth debate.
"If there really is a good rail service, we're happy to call it a day and do something else," says Kuttner. "I'm not sad about it."
For her part, Charlottesville's leading rail backer, former City Councilor Meredith Richards, says she's saddened to learn that the arrival of dependable daily train service might mean an end to the project founded by Kuttner and business partner David New.
"Transportation alternatives have a way of defying conventional wisdom," says Richards, pointing to the 14 states that have subsidized trains–- and then found ridership vastly exceeded projections. "I believe the new train could be a catalyst that induces more and more people to choose alternatives to driving or flying to New York, and thus amplifies the market for both services."
"I think they've done a great job," says Richards, noting that the Starlight Express already offers something that Amtrak won't: evening departure times. "I certainly would not counsel my friend, Oliver Kuttner, to hang up his driving boots just yet."
Kuttner says that for all the joys of moving travelers who might otherwise have hopped a plane to LaGuardia Airport, the tasks involved in running a bus company aren't all glamor and golden tickets.
"There are times," Kuttner says, "when I get up at one in the morning to fuel up or clean a toilet, so I won't really miss that."