Train pain: Bus boss says Amtrak could doom Starlight

Kuttner and David New created the Starlight Express. FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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."

Read more on: starlight express


I know a fair number of people who are Starlight Express regulars, and few of them are willing to take Amtrak. Though I'm a fan of Amtrak, it's a rough relationship. It's almost never on time�maybe one in four trips that I take get me there within an hour of the scheduled arrival�the frequent stops slow down the trip, the customer service is atrocious, and they almost always substitute a bus for the Charlottesville -> DC leg, negating much of the point of taking a train to NYC or Boston or wherever.

These are the things that aren't likely to change with the promise of expanded service. These are the things that Starlight Express does better than Amtrak. I agree with Meredith Richards--I think that this is a rising tide that will lift all boats.

Would these owners contemplate making runs to some Nor-Va destinations on a regular basis? So many Nor-Va and D.C. spots; (Potomac Mills, Tyson's Corner, Alexandria etc. etc.) are so painful to drive into and make a return trip all on the same day that I nearly never go to them; although I would like to. I have made four trips in 15 years to Potomac Mills; dealing with the drive just isn't worth a frivolous shopping trip and I love Alexandria and it's convenient metro stop into D.C., but again the same story...driving, parking, gas, vehicular wear-and-tear, aggravation. An affordable bus ride would be great!!

Ack! I know everyone sees that on the surface the idea of this rail service is the bomb but honestly, look anywhere that a metro stop has gone in, anywhere that commuter rail stations were established in N. Va and all that you see for miles around is sprawl, sprawl, sprawl and wretched over-developmemt.
Charlottesville will become a bedroom community of DC and it will kill the character of this lovely city. Any "green" savings for which the train might be accountable will be entirely cancelled out by the clear-cutting of vast stands of trees to plunk down housing for people in N. Va sick and tired of grueling commutes as it is who would opt to live here and train it up to DC 3-5 days a week. Our infrastructure cannot handle the influx, nor can our already dubious water supply.
And FWIW a study on NPR revealed that a bus is a vastly more minimized environmental footprint than is a train--so let's push for a bus service to DC!

There is little reason why there shouldn't be public transportation service from Charlottesville to Richmond, DC, and points south. A town this size should be able to supply enough customers to sustain such options.

Oh wait, this option already exists and it is called Greyhound. The problem with Greyhound is that it is associated with cheap (read "low class") travel and in the south, that just won't fly. This is exemplified by the above post which comments on the "atrocious" "customer service" (as if having a driver simply isn't enough for some people).

Up north, towns one quarter the size of Charlottesville have frequent, reliable public transportation service and plenty of riders. As long as people look down on public transportation or rue the fact that it requires mingling with strangers, Charlottesville will have few options and this ridiculous debate will continue.

If the starlight express had a truly viable business model, it wouldn't be so fragile in the face of some competition.

OneTrickPony?: the above mention of "atrocious customer service" was actually in reference to Amtrak, not Greyhound. And the customer service by the Amtrak folks is pretty awful. That includes the people who run the station, who are in charge of the trains and who answer the phone if you need to call for help with tickets or to get a question answered.

As to the business model for Starlight Express; they created the business based on the currently available transportation methods for getting to New York City. If the landscape changes then the business may not be as profitable and they might choose to close it; but, it doesn't mean it's not a viable business for the market they put it in when they started.

One has to ask the people who insist that Amtrak customer service is "atrocious" if they are regular riders? Like any other public intensive business, I am sure there are Amtrak employees who could use some lessons regarding how they deal with people. My experience has been, for the most part, that Amtrak people are as courteous and helpful as any other group whose job it is to listen to people complain about perceived problems.


I never said that the complaint was about Greyhound, but that the attitude exemplified that of a pampered traveler. Mass transit isn't for those that expect much more than being delivered from point A to point B.

If the starlight express isn't truly serving the mass transit market, then they shouldn't have anything to worry about. Maybe they could increase their luxury service at the same time as their prices?

"and we don't get one dollar of subsidy from the government" Umm ok... because you built and now maintain the roads your buses travel on.

1. If Amtrack service is so lousy and Starlight can provide better service for the same price, people will choose Starlight.
2. This debate is somewhat misplaced, since high-speed rail, French-style, could transport people from New York to Miami, a distance of 1300 miles, in 6 or 7 hours or less, depending on the number of stops the train makes. The French hold the world speed record for steel-wheel trains of slightly over 357 miles per hour. (The same could be done on the Pacific coast of the United States: the distance between San Diego and Seattle is also 1300 miles). The reduction in pollution from highway traffic and airplanes could be considerable. A 7-hour train ride from New York to Miami would be competitive with air travel, considering the time it takes to travel to and from airports, wait in line and recover luggage. It would also be much more comfortable, given the greater amenities available on trains -- a child's playroom, such as some European countries already have, etc. The point that this would make for more urban sprawl around Charlottesville is well-taken, however, unless basic political reforms are put in to discourage urban sprawl. This actually can be done.

I don't know if this person has ever used Cville's portion of the Greyhound Line within this state? I Have! The problem is not the buses, co-commuters or even customer service it's the lousy schedules and where Greyhound stops on it's journey north. Many of the VA town stops are at unidentified street points (NO DEPOTS)in the oldest and yes most run-down or derelict sections of our towns; where local bus lines and cabs no longer operate and is not pedestrian friendly to any other part of the town; (crossing highways and/or major interchanges). It's o.k. if you just go from Cville to NYC but try getting out any stop within Virginia. Even the D.C. Greyhound Station is a good long desolate hike from the Union Station-Amtrack/Metro stop. Not a great walk at night, which I have done.

Would these owners contemplate making runs to some Nor-Va destinations on a regular basis? So many Nor-Va and D.C. spots; (Potomac Mills, Tyson’s Corner, Alexandria etc. etc.) are so painful to drive into and make a return trip all on the same day that I nearly never go to them; although I would like to. I have made four trips in 15 years to Potomac Mills; dealing with the drive just isn’t worth a frivolous shopping trip and I love Alexandria and it’s convenient metro stop into D.C., but again the same story”Šdriving, parking, gas, vehicular wear-and-tear, aggravation. An affordable bus ride would be great!!


Oh, I'm sorry, forgot you all are politically correct, green, shop local,I need no possessions,(except for the one's I buy in NYC), hipster clones.

it seems the same folks who tout mass transit to get all the gas guzzling cars off the roads are the same ones who don't like mass transit if it comes to their cozy little town. Mass transit might mean mass people. Who would have ever thought of that? We only want to go to the big cities for culture and come back. We certainly don't want any of THEM coming HERE.

This certainly developed into an enlightening discussion and debate about transportation options in Charlottesville.

Kuttner is a little loose with his claim of no subsidy -- as has been pointed out. It would be great if as a private rail operator (be it freight, passenger, commuter) I could put my equipment on someone else's railroad, pay only for road use diesel, and run my trains whenever and where ever I wanted.

I believe that any extensions of commuter type services to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, and eventually Roanoke and Bristol, will work to Kuttner's advantage. When the new Amtrak service comes to Lynchburg he should use his fleet to extend connecting service to Roanoke and Bristol and when Amtrak is extended to those cities he should consider offering connecting service from Greensboro to Lynchburg and from Lynchburg to Richmond. Lots of opportunities to pivot off whatever Amtrak and VADOT do. My hunch is that Kuttner knows this and is just playing the reporter for all he can get. "You gotta stay flexible -- success is a moving target (DMS)."

Yeah, uh the hypothecation of fuel taxes are not a subsidy from the government to the buses to use the roads, but a cost of the gas used to pay for the roads. And those tolls all up and down the NJT etc are not cheaper for a bus...

"And those tolls all up and down the NJT etc are not cheaper for a bus”Š"

But a lot cheaper than laying and maintaing a railroad... even when the road use tax on diesel fuel is factored in. The auto, highway. aviation and maritime industries have had a subsidized ride for a long time. A single/simple example is the Boing 707 which is generally acknowledged to have been the final straw to break the back of private passenger rail service/along with mail contracts taken from the railroads and given to the airlines. The 707 was the commercial adaptation of an aircraft designed for the military (KC135 tanker -- in which I have spent some time). And guess who paid to train "Sully" (and provide thousands of hours of stick time)and many of his fellow commercial pilots (and if you guessed the airlines please go sit in the back of the airplane...)?

Read all about the cost of fixing up I-81 vs. upgrading the rail:
We could do the whole country for what it cost to bail out two banks.

I never said that the complaint was about Greyhound, but that the attitude exemplified that of a pampered traveler. Mass transit isn’t for those that expect much more than being delivered from point A to point B.

Uh. No. The phrase "pampered traveler" is not one that you'd apply to me. When traveling any real distance, I don't fly, I don't take the bus, I don't drive: I take Amtrak. When I say that the customer service is terrible, what I mean is that when the train stops on the tracks and does not move for six hours, nobody can explain why that is so, nobody apologizes, and when it gets moving again, there's no explanation of what happened. When you arrive at your destination hours too late for the reason you were going there in the first place, there's no point in requesting a refund or a voucher or something, because the employees are apparently not empowered to do anything about it, and it's clearly the norm. And, as I said, you'll just about always end up being given a bus for the Charlottesville -> DC route, even if you have paid extra for the straight-through train option, rather than choosing the bus to DC, train north option. (A pretty useless option for somebody who is, say, on crutches and has luggage, and thus can't navigate Union Station in DC.) If you telephone them to order your tickets and ask basic questions ("How often does this train leave Boston on time?" or "Is there a dining car?" or "Are you going to substitute a bus?"), you'll be given answers that are simple, straightforward, and not at all true. That's what I mean by lousy customer service.

I want to be "delivered from point A to point B," but I want it to happen at a particular time via a particular method of transit, in this case train. When that doesn't happen, I expect somebody to at least tell me that it's a) going to happen, if they can anticipate it, b) when it is happening, what sort of delay that we can anticipate or c) explain after the fact what has happened. If that "attitude makes me a "pampered traveler," then Amtrak is destined to fail in this country. Or there's the alternate explanation, which is that you're being an apologist for a badly-run business. You pick.

Someone just did apply that phrase to you.

Apparently you bought a train ticket and then sat in the train for 6 hours without moving and will still not use any other travel service? What is wrong with this picture? I guess "pampered" maybe isn't the correct adjective. "Foolish" comes more to mind.

Relying on rail for travel is risky. It's not like traveling on roads or in the air. When someone makes a mistake and the rail is impassible, you are not going to move. Full stop. Accidents on the rails are usually catastrophic, which means that the people that manage the rails are much more careful than your typical bus driver.

Whether or not you "want" or "expect" your travel to happen "at a particular time" is irrelevant. When a rail line is backed up, there is no alternative to staying still, and discussing this with the people that man the ticket windows at your destination is not going to alter this immutable fact.

Whether or not there is a "dining car" for your non-pampered travels also seems irrelevant to the question of mass transit for Charlottesville.

The fact is that this state has not dealt effectively with the issue of transportation and mass transit for decades, for whatever reason. The meadowbrook parkway and western bypass debates and delays are excellent micro examples of this macro trend.

The question of whether a 19th century transportation alternative (rail travel) could be effectively and reliably offered to Charlottesville in the 21st century is one that should have been settled long, long ago.

Whether or not a couple of guys running an exclusive bus line to NYC on weekends might take a hit is the main topic of this article and is a perfect example of how private interests can interfere with the public good. To the tens of thousands of people that could benefit from extended rail service, the question of whether or not the starlight express can adapt to a more competitive economic environment is an extremely insignificant one.

If people want less sprawl they need to quit reproducing. People need houses. Make more people, and you will have to build more houses. It's quite cut and dry in the big picture.

I am with Waldo on this one. Still waiting to meet the Amtrak worker that deserves to remain employed. I suspect most of them are DMV rejects. Went to NYC for Xmas and decided against Amtrak due to wildly inaccurate schedules, apathetic staff and microwave hamburgers for just under a million bucks.

Do not need to be pampered, but I expect a bit more than the same treatment that cattle receives.

The frustrating part is that the views are great, the seats big and plenty of ability to get up and walk a bit to stretch. It would be huge, if they could just be able to fire the civil servant rejects that were transferred out of every other place in government.

I am with Waldo on this one. Still waiting to meet the Amtrak worker that deserves to remain employed. I suspect most of them are DMV rejects. Went to NYC for Xmas and decided against Amtrak due to wildly inaccurate schedules, apathetic staff and microwave hamburgers for just under a million bucks.

Do not need to be pampered, but I expect a bit more than the same treatment that cattle receives.

The frustrating part is that the views are great, the seats big and plenty of ability to get up and walk a bit to stretch. It would be huge, if they could just be able to fire the civil servant rejects that were transferred out of every other place in government.

Rather than the Starlight bus trying to compete with a rail service, how about having the bus select a new route where there is no rail service. For example, a bus route to Norfolk and Richmond would be just such a service, and it could connect with extant rail services along the way. This would benefit everyone including the private operator of the buses.

Danpri: As long as Amtrak management (board) caves into the unions we are going to have those type people in the system (and they have their management equivalent). Amtrak has a lot of great employees (the majority) but it is the rotten apples that bring down the whole barrel(or something like that). When you have a few conductors and LSAs knocking down cash receips, employees clocking in at Amtrak then walking thru the terminal to draw a "second check" elsewhere and management that does not want to grow the system (eg, repairable locomotives and revenue cars sitting in the weeds at Ivey, Beech Grove, etc, Sunset to Florida, etc) it is amazing that anyone wants to do a fair days work. Most do, however, and that is the only reason Amtrak operates at all. If we could only get rid of the dead weight, outdated work rules and politicos and set some quantifiable productivity and performance goals we would be amazing and the Congress would be much more willing to invest(yes)in a winner.

I tried to use Amtrak for commuting to DC. The official schedule worked for me, but they were late, often by hours. Most trains were filthy as well.

To the commenter who claimed a Miami -> NYC run would beat air travel. Only in fairy land where the rails and beds are completely replaced and road crossings changed. Also the security lines will get longer for rail if it becomes popular. Finally, most rail stations have lousy access.

Oliver and David and I have crossed paths before and, although we are "competitors", I wish them the best. The Cville to NYC bus line would probably die with the arrival of the train and that is something we have spoken about before privately. On the other hand, a commuter line to NOVa could work. Our businesses do not receive government subsidies or support. In fact we often find ourselves competing with transit agencies, schools, and other governmental agencies that our taxes support. The issue of road taxes is a red herring which diverts the attention away from the idea of government-assisted private enterprise filling the need for cost efficient, environmentally friendly bus travel. It is the price pressure that diminishes the options. Very simply put it is expensive to run a bus line. I know because I operate two commuter round-trips a day, five and four days a week, from our Richmond office to NOVa. We operate a 43 passenger and a 51 passenger. The buses offer limited table seating, cold bottled water, bathrooms, 110v electricity, Wi-Fi, on-board entertainment, emergency snacks and even defibrillators. This costs $325,000 per bus per year on average in order to maintain a base profit. That works out to about $7 per seat per bus for a one-way trip. The problem is that the empty seats (or 1/2 of the empty seats at $14), must be paid for in order to keep it going. The price is what it is. In Richmond, we can get that, in Charlottesville we cannot without direct support or some other balancing incentive. Oliver and David have dreamed up, launched and operated their business alone, paid for everything out of pocket, and operated for years at marginal profit. They are both proven, successful entrepreneurs and they will likely need subsidies to keep or alter their line if the train comes in. I personally think the government should step up. In closing, below my signature you will find some interesting information on "green" travel from the American Bus Association. More information can obtained from

Good Luck Oliver and David.

Warmest regards to everyone else.

Dan Goff, GM
A Goff Bus / A Goff Limo

WHEN YOU GO motorcoach, you go green. That’s what this information is all about. Expensive, future technologies to fight climate change aren’t years and billions of dollars away. They’re right here today.
Whether running on various blends of ultra-low sulfur or biodiesel fuel, motorcoaches are part of America’s energy solution.
The best example of environmental stewardship that applies to all motorcoaches on the roads today is their superior passenger fuel efficiency compared to other transportation sectors.
Motorcoaches currently provide 184 passenger miles per gallon (MPG), more than double the second most fuel-efficient sector, commuter rail at 86 passenger MPG. Transit buses achieve 32 passenger MPG, domestic air carriers achieve 42 passenger MPG, and single-passenger automobiles achieve 28 passenger MPG.
The motorcoach industry accounts for 631,000,000 passenger trips annually in the United States and Canada. Each full motorcoach has the potential of removing 55 autos from the highway. That’s millions of cars not driven annually, saving fuel, cutting emissions, reducing congestion.

almost nobody will commute to DC on a train. its 3 hours each way, assuming its on time. thats like saying you'll commute from wilmington DE to NYC. i would hate to see sprawl, but it wont come from a 3 hour train to DC. just a wacky liberal scare tactic, and Im a liberal. A train to reston or dulles area might create some sprawl, but the train that drops you off in downtown DC wont build one house.

Three hours today -- two hours in five years...

In North Carolina their DOT has cut almost an hour from the Raleigh to Charlotte service (and are about to add a third daily frequency) thru track and signal improvements. Speed had remained at the standard passenger maximum in this area of 79MPH. They also estimate that another 15 - 20 minutes can be removed using tilt type equipment (such as the Talgo trains used between Portland-Seattle and Vancouver). Ultimate goal is 110 MPH. They call this incrementalism. If North Carolina can do this surely we can match it.

Back in 1971 at the inception of Amtrak I had high hopes for the new railroad. Existing roads wanted no part of passenger service because it had become a consistent money loser. Although Amtrak is not a gov't agency it quickly became a ward of the gov't needing subsidies every year and pretty soon sank to just about substandard everything.
One of Amtrak's major shortcomings is that it does not own most of the rails it travels on and is thus subject to the operating whims of the host r.r. This is why there are unexplained 6 hr. delays, host dispatchers have given priority to their own freight trains. Amtrak does own the former lines from DC to Boston and here the service is generally good. I'm curious to see what Congress does in the future for Amtrak with the emphasis on energy conservation and reduction of clogged highways.


Thousands of commuters spend 2 to 3 hours every day in their cars commuting from Washington to Fredericksburg, Warrenton, Culpeper, Orange, Charlottesville, and many other places. I've personally spent upwards of 4 hours just to get from one side of Washington to the other during rush periods.

Have you ever been on I95 near Washington between 3 and 8 P.M. on a weekday? There is often a virtual standstill on the interstate, and it can easily take 1 1/2 hours to get just from Quantico to the WIlson Bridge. Have you seen what has happened to Rt. 3 near Fredericksburg? Have you seen how that sprawl is already creeping along Rt. 3 towards Culpeper? None of that is locally generated, those are homes for commuters. That's more than an hours drive in the absolute best of circumstances and far longer in reality, especially during the rush hours.

Do you honestly think the same thing wouldn't happen to Charlottesville if people could spend the same or slightly longer amount of time that it takes to get home there sitting, maybe napping, or reading on a train? That's even more inviting to people who can work 4 days or telecommute part time.

Amazing how divorced from reality this thread is. Consider this:

1. Given the current dire economic outlook, I highly doubt that the Commonwealth will commit to subsidize the rail lines (i.e. prolonged support of a money-losing activity.) The SWVa senator holding up the legislation is doing the rest of the Senate a favor. I expect the Richards initiative to be quietly buried.

2. The main message here is that a private venture will be coerced into leaving the market by a state entity. I think that is a shame. Not only should the state defer to private business, but the State will be destroying value. If Starlight makes, for example, a $100,000 annual profit, the business is worth approximately $500,000 (5xprofits) to the owners (thus increasing the state net worth and tax base), and the State gets part of the take in the form of sales taxes and income taxes. If the rail line puts Starlight out of business, Virginia residents are $500,000 poorer in wealth, missing out on tax revenue, and spending $1,900,000 a year in subsidies. This is not only bad economics, but also sends the wrong message to other potential entrepreneurs.

3. The road subsidy conversation is hilarious. Starlight receives an incremental subsidy of $0 - the roads would be there without Starlight, and there is no real incremental cost to them using the roads (at least none greater than the fuel tax they pay.) In defense of the subsidy folks, yes, your argument would be true if the roads were to be built for Starlight, but that's not the case.

4. I am a rail buff, enjoy riding the rails in Europe, and really enjoy my view of the Cville Amtrak station from my office, but I think we all need to face reality: there is not a viable passenger rail business model in the US outside of the Northeast Corridor. Many, many different approaches have been tried since Amtrak was started 38 years ago, and none have succeeded. (And if it COULD be done profitably, someone would have done it by now.) It is time to "put the shovel down and stop digging the hole deeper."

Lately, Amtrak's best argument has been waving the flag for their marginally better environmental impact, but that's a thin argument that is really just asking for subsidies from the environmental lobby. That is, an increase in the Amtrak budget would likely come from funds otherwise spent on other environmental causes.

5. I can't believe anyone still tries to convince people through scare tactics. It rarely works long term, and it is always symbolic of a weak argument. (Think GW Bush saying we need to be in Iraq, because if not, we'd have to fight Al-Qaeda here.) So, I recommend the person trying to argue against Amtrak to DC because of likely DC sprawl either get on board one of the non-fear-centric arguments, or seek counselling for rampant paranoia.


FWIW, I love the Starlight Express. It's a great way to get to NYC. You can put in a full day's work, catch the bus at 5:30 p.m., and be in the heart of Manhattan by midnight. There's enough legroom for an NBA player, and the electrical outlets and wifi make it easy to pass the time.

Customer service is outstanding: When you call or email them, you know you'll be in touch with an intelligent, well-informed person.

Long may they prosper!


This article and your response exemplifies a particular type of short-term thinking which seem to plague rail debates. Let me go through your points one by one:

1) You assume rail loses money over the long term, thus will never be funded. Even if this were true (and it is not true for the Charlottesville-DC segment of the Cardinal/Crescent) what would that prove? Do state highway departments make money? Do the state agencies involved in regulating airports and airline travel make money? Amazing. For our entire history transportation infractructure has been built as a public good. I wasn't aware their purpose was to directly make profits. That's news to me.

2) I cannot believe anyone would seriously arguing that the financial troubles that Starlight *might* face competing with a train would in any sense constitute an argument against expanding train service. It just boggles my mind, but what else should I expect from a boosterist, navel-gazing rag like the Hook? Guess what, if Mr. Kuttner is priced out of business by a more desirable or efficient train service, he'll sink his money elsewhere and pay taxes on profit from some other business venture. He seems to himself be in favor of the train, so he's obviously not too concerned. Expanding Amtrak service will also surely create revenue in terms of additional track repair contractors that will work on the VA section of the track, etc. That knife cuts both ways.

3) What on earth? The point is that roads need to be continually MAINTAINED. You'd be surprised how expensive this is. And yes, each individual user of a road does add to the collective expense of maintaining that road, especially in the case of heavy vehicles like semis and buses. It's why I-81 is always getting paved but Old Lynchburg road never is. The more traffic on the roads, the more cost to maintaining them. It's really absolutely no different from a train except for some reason we've decided to subsidize road repair and not track maintenance. I suggest you read the current issue of the Washington Monthly online which goes into this far better than I ever could.

4) Are you joking? "Many" approaches have been tried? Who, what, when where? The one approach I've seen is to steadily decrease Amtrak service to absurd levels and then act shocked that the enterprise loses money. The one approach I've seen in the last 30 years is called "let it rot". Just because something hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it can't happen given a slight amount of political will. There is nothing inherent about the US which makes rail unfeasible. For most of our history we had a rail system which was the envy of the world. I'll bet we will again.

5) Scare tactics? Who exactly is using scare tactics? Apparently, according to the Hook, we should be shaking in our boots about the loss of Starlight. The big, bad government bogeyman coming to kill small business. There's your scare tactics.

I'm not sure I understand your argument. If these hypothetical DC commuters are riding a train, how will they be adding to road traffic?

"2. The main message here is that a private venture will be coerced into leaving the market by a state entity. I think that is a shame. Not only should the state defer to private business, but the State will be destroying value."

Timmy, is not this how the private railroads were forced out of the passenger business? 1. Govt highway programs/intervention to include the interstate system. 2. Heavy subsidies/intervention for the aviation industry (to include aircraft R&D, pilot training, airports,etc). 3. Removing all mail from the railroads and giving it to help the airlines?

As far as your outside the NEC business model goes, you are right in that it is designed to fail (but, by whom?). In most long distance routes there is only one daily train in each direction (e.g., Crescent below Charlottesville) and some operate less than daily (Cardinal west of Charlottesville).

Years ago I had a chance to do some passenger rail route performance modeling. Generally speaking it was found that three daily trains (in each direction) was the beginning of decent route performance (ridership and revenue alike). This offered nine daily trip options as opposed to one with a single train and four with two trains. A variation was four daily trains with all trains stopping at major en route communities and either three or two stopping at minor enroute communities (this allowed fewer total stops per train -- thus decreasing travel times -- while at the same time permitting more communities to have some service -- although perhaps only two train per day). These studies also found that station O&M costs were only marginally affected by the number of daily trains and in most cases the same was true for station staffing.

Unfortunately, Amtrak has never had the resources to operate much more than a skeletal system and one daily train. My Amtrak analogy is a manufacturing plant that operates only one shift per day and is closed on weekends. Plant manager friends tell me that they like it best when operating three shifts per day and overtime on weekends and point to things like the property taxes and most building maintenance costs (e.g., roof replacement) being the same regardless of how many shifts they operate.

If you are paying attention to the stimulus bill, and I expect that most are, Amtrak and high speed rail are about to get the first significant investment (in this country) even. It will be interesting to see what happens. Hopefully, we will invest the HSR in just a few of the identified corridors so that we can have some real results. If we try to spread it out over all 12 (and 25 plus states) I fear that the impact will be too diluted and it will be hard to see any real results. Fortunately, I guess, only a few corridors are far enough along in their planning so as to be able to meet the shovel ready requirements (in fact, I am wondering how they are going to be able to spend it all). Given that it will take around a minimum of three years to complete any significant construction, new equipment build, etc., I guess that we are talking around five years before we should be seeing the results in terms of ridership figures, revenues, etc. So, let's quit playing trains, go on about our business and plan to meet back here in five years to see what Amtrak's FY 2013 results look like. My guess is that we should see a nice spike about then.

Now, gotta go start packing for my first of three planned trips this year to Germany and surrounding countries -- and right there with my passport is my DB BahnCard 50. Aufweidersehen!

Notably, and contrary to the operator's claims, the Starlight Express receives enormous government subsidies.

Namely, the free use of the government-funded roads -- with the corresponding wear and tear. (Forget the "gas tax pays for it" nonsense; it just plain doesn't. All local roads and around half of state roads are paid for from other sources.)

Amtrak does not have free use of the railroads. It has to pay for access as well as paying for fuel. Hence the greater visibility of the "subsidies". Grant Amtrak free access to the freight tracks (which are "there already", just like the roads) and the situation might be comparable.

As for bogus environmental claims, whether a train or a bus is more environmentally sound depends solely on how many people are riding. If you're only filling up one or two buses a day, then yes a bus is more sound. If you're filling up a dozen buses, a train is more environmentally sound. The people planning a Charlotteville-DC train have hopefully got evidence that they are going to get more business than just the Starlight Experss business.

In order to get that business, they're going to have to run more reliable trains. This means track upgrades to prevent delays due to bad track and due to freight interference. Some of the most crucial upgrades are already going in for VRE's benefit (in the trackage from DC through Manassas). Among the worst causes of delay are tracks from DC through Alexandria -- improvements there will cause startling levels of improvement for all the trains. But there will also have to be some upgrades on the main trackage from Lynchburg through Charlottesville to DC. Probably not a lot of upgrades -- Norfolk Southern keeps that track fast for intermodal trains and has been upgrading it for them, and it mainly needs some more passing sidings.

Those in Charlottesville, getting only the often-delayed Crescent and Cardinal trains, may not realize that in the Northeast Corridor Amtrak is usually on time. The planned train is an extension of a NEC commuter trip. Amtrak is not going to want a NEC commuter trip to be delayed by trouble in Virginia; they're already having that problem on the Richmond/Newport News runs -- so either the route to Charlottesville will be kept on time, or it will be suspended until it can be. Hopefully the former.

Freight and passenger service are not mutually exclusive. I used to ride a passenger/freight train to Tidewater quite frequently. Transportation models can be changed. Right now, there are many advocates for intermodal freight transportation using rail and roads and a hub system. The postal service currently uses an air/road system with hubs.
If the Kuttner bus business is still non-stop to NYC, I don't if anyone will opt to take a train out of Charlottesville to NYC with stops along the way when they have the convenience and ease of the Starlight. I get the impression, train or no train, Janis Jacquith will continue to use the Starlight for whatever purpose she is using it now
and so will the rest of its customers. People usually draw false conclusions when they speculate about human behavior. Just wait and see.
For those who are always complaing about sprawl, I remember when Charlottesville had 25,000 people and Albemarle had 30,000. That was when the US have fewer than 100 million people. Now the city has 40,000 people and the county supposedly has 93,000 people and the US have over 300 million people. Where do you think people are going to live when we get over 450 million? I agree with Dave when he said "If people want less sprawl they need to quit reproducing. People need houses. Make more people, and you will have to build more houses. It’s quite cut and dry in the big picture" Add to that, prohibit immigration. These arguments are reminiscent those put forth in Paul Erlich's book The population Bomb written in 1968.

Digital "methods"...ah yes, making a crap photo into a Photoshop dreamworld. Digital "methods" are precisely the same as film...if you know how to take a photograph. Polaroid though was destined to fail since the bulk of digital point and shoot folks can see their results just like the lure of the Polaroid. 35 slide film will live on for a good while yet IMHO.

The students from the era of technology are going to be in for a rude shock when their old photos cannot be readable or their "trusty" hard drive explodes. That's why I still depend on slide film for long term keepers like family stuff.