Train gain: State funds daily link to DC, NYC
Christmas came early for longtime passenger rail booster Meredith Richards. All she wanted was a train to Washington; but beginning next fall, Charlottesville will get a daily round-trip to New York, thanks to a multi-million-dollar subsidy from the state.
"It's a minor miracle," says Richards. "This is an incredibly difficult budget year."
The state plans to spend $17 million for a three-year pilot program to cover the projected gap between ticket revenue and Amtrak's expenses in both the Piedmont corridor and a start-up in the I-95 corridor linking Richmond to D.C.
According to a report Amtrak issued in January, the new Piedmont route–- which would have its southern terminus in Lynchburg–- simply extends an existing service between D.C. and New York. And Amtrak envisions maintaining that train's full complement of four passenger coaches and one dining car.
The proposed schedule shows that Charlottesvillians could leave the Amtrak station on West Main Street at 6:13am, stop in America's capitol city at 8:40am, and arrive in the heart of New York City 40 minutes after noon.
"Isn't that amazing," says Richards. "You could be in New York for lunch."
Indeed, but you couldn't day-trip the Big Apple, as the southbound train would have already left 35 minutes earlier. Still, one could easily day-trip Washington, as the return leaves at 4:10pm (an hour earlier on Saturdays).
"The combination of the morning and evening trains," reads the Amtrak report, "would establish a good service pattern for business travel to and from Washington, D.C.–- a first for this region."
Already, Charlottesville has a smattering of passenger rail service, but it's all aboard often-tardy long-haul trains connecting New York to New Orleans–- the Crescent–- and with Chicago– the mostly-late Cardinal (though Amtrak reports that the Cardinal recently increased its on-time performance from 18 percent to 35 percent).
Just scoring tickets on all-reserved long-hauls is not easy for the impromptu traveller. And while ticket prices for the new service were not immediately released, the current undiscounted round-trip coach fare from Charlottesville is $56 for Washington and $157 for New York, according to Amtrak.com. By contrast, the cheapest short-notice plane ticket to New York's LaGuardia airport is $371 for a one-stop and $478 non-stop, according to GoCho.com.
This new deal boosts the number of passenger train stops in Charlottesville by about 70 percent, and that's just one reason why Richards, who got the news a few days ago at a Richmond rail conference, is so pleasantly stunned.
"It's unprecedented," says Richards. "This will be the first time Virginia has ever funded inter-city rail transporation."
All that remains to make the funding a reality is approval by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which meets December 17 to finalize the package put together by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Richards served two terms on City Council and must have learned something about grassroots organizing. She found that nearly every Central Virginia locality along the Piedmont corridor wanted more trains. So the group she launched, the Piedmont Rail Coalition, implored each locality talk up the idea and to pass official resolutions of support.
"We ended up with 22 resolutions," says Richards. "We made ourselves heard."
Even though the new rail link could begin next October, the work isn't over. Richards has long been claiming that Central Virginia has great pent-up demand, and this three-year test was based on Amtrak's estimate of 33,100 annual riders–- about 91 per day.
"Our next challenge," she says, "is to be sure that people ride that train."