Meredith’s vision: trains to D.C…. and beyond

Lynchburg could thank its lucky stars that, about 20 years ago, CSX decided to abandon its Charlottesville rail yard. Without that old yard (now home to Lexis/Nexis and a moldering coal tower), there's no longer any place in Charlottesville to turn a train around. Ergo, Lynchburg may find itself tossed into a new rail link to D.C.

"This is a great and ambitious step," said Kevin Page at a meeting today at the Boar's Head Inn. "It's a thing we've never embarked on before."

Page, a man whose office doles out millions each year to improve rail lines, revealed today that the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is working with Amtrak officials to create, by June, a proposal for a regular D.C.-to-Lynchburg train service.

Today, Central Virginia travelers now have just one or two Amtrak trains to Washington each day, and because they're long hauls connecting New York to Chicago and New Orleans, they're frequently late. Moreover, Amtrak– a perennially money-losing creation of the federal government– isn't eager to sell tickets for a short leg of such a long journey, so just getting a seat can be tricky.

Page, however, has some tricks – or at least a money pot – up his sleeve. As the rail chief for the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, he has played a key role in doling out dollars. His pot grew in 2005 after then-governor Mark Warner signed a bill dedicating $23 million annually to rail infrastructure.

Still, Page envisions that local leaders will have to explore "creative funding mechanisms." That notion seems to warm the heart of Commonwealth Transportation Board member Butch Davies, just one of many key officials present for today's meeting. Davies urged the approximately five dozen attendees to follow the lead of the governor and General Assembly, which created transit authorities in Tidewater and Dulles, and create a transit corridor along Route 29 with "significant taxing authority."

If that kind of talk unsettles the general populace, which typically chafes at new taxes, the folks in this room found themselves chafed by new roads, not to mention the fact that annual auto miles are expanding much faster than the population. They see rail as an escape from gridlock.

"This is something we could do if we had the will," said Albemarle supervisor David Slutzky. He was one of today's speakers at the meeting convened by a group called CvilleRail.org which hopes to create a new coalition to push rail in the Piedmont.

Although speaker after speaker, including the man in charge of building a rail passenger network in North Carolina urged a high-speed link through Virginia to Washington, at least one of the invited honchos smelled a rat.

"Charlottesville is not the southernmost city in Virginia," harrumphed Amherst County Administrator Rodney Taylor, who blasted this confab as "a Cville-centric effort to get transit between Charlottesville and Washington."

Slutzky urged calm: "We need this to be corridor-wide."

Indeed, long before the four-hour meeting began, organizer Meredith Richards said the same thing, that getting rail all the way down past Danville to Greensboro and Charlotte is essential to creating a viable rail network. Today's meeting eventually became a brainstorming session as the invitees were sent away in small groups to devise strategies for garnering public support and funding.

State rail man Page said that the entire Route 29/I-66 corridor offers promise as a viable passenger rail corridor– with D.C.-to-Charlottesville as the "strongest" leg. In addition to working with Amtrak to propose that new service, his Department is also pushing additional passenger service between D.C. and Richmond and all the way to Newport News.

As Richards pointed out in her clarion call at today's event, "the limited frequency and capacity of Amtrak service in this region does not meet the needs of many potential travelers who would choose a rail alternative if it were conveniently and reliably available."

Anyone who's ever ridden Amtrak's "Cardinal" could speak about that.

Typically two, three, sometimes four hours late, the Chicago-to-New York train suffers from the fact that it's dependent on the largesse of the Buckingham Branch and CSX, the freight railroads on whose tracks it rolls.

One of today's speakers noted that because the freight rail business is booming, that success, ironically, has been rough on passenger rail. Freight trains now stretch up to 10,000 feet– nearly two miles– in length, so they're harder to pass than ever.

State rail chief Page noted today that Cardinal delays should be dramatically reduced by recent completion of three new sidings west of Charlottesville that will allow the Cardinal to zip past slower freights.

This reporter got a positive jolt last December by riding the Cardinal to New York City. The thing arrived more than an hour early– about five and a half hours for what was billed as a nearly seven-hour trip. (The secret is that the long-haul train doesn't pick up passengers north of Philly, so it's not messing up schedules if it's making good time.)

Thanks to Richards, Page, and CSX, which decided to leave downtown Charlottesville, Lynchburg could find itself earning a seat at the conductor's table. Hopefully, they won't be complaining about it.

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5:55am Friday update: You can also read how the Lynchburg News & Advance and how the Charlottesville Daily Progress covered this story . (We each went in somewhat different directions.)

9 comments

People who support increased rail service for Charlottesville should make a point to take at least one train trip in 2008 to show their willingness to travel by rail. Politicians as well as business people take notice of statistics.

Amtrak need to sign agreements with the track owners that see major penalties paid if Amtrak's trains are held up. Of course it shoudl work both ways - the track owners should bonuses for on time trains.

"Thanks to Richards, Page, and CSX, which decided to leave downtown Charlottesville, Lynchburg could find itself earning a seat at the conductor's table."

Yes, this story had a slightly different take in Lynchburg. Actually, officials in Lynchburg AND Roanoke have been seated at "the conductor's table" far longer than Meredith Richard's organization has been in existence. A little sour grapes over the proposal for a demonstration project between Roanoke and Richmond seemed to be the jump start for Richard's organization, so it is no wonder that leaders here might be a little skeptical (i.e. Rodney Taylor).
By the way, even if CSX had not chosen to leave, they still would have had a difficult time with a north-south turnaround, as CSX interchanges with NS in Orange as opposed to Charlottesville and NS has no wye in Charlottesville.

The original proposal had 2 routes, but not 2 options. The routes were Bristol-Richmond and Bristol-DC, both through Lynchburg; there were no turnarounds, but the N-S and E-W rail lines interchange in Lynchburg. The single route was just a demonstration project and the success of TDX plan was based on the 2 routes, and not the demo project alone.

Check out the website http://cvillerail.org/

Actually, the original proposal I read in the papers had two options, I believe: 1)Abingdon - Lynchburg - D.C. and 2) Abingdon - Lynchburg - Richmond. Because of heavy lobbying by a State Senator and money concerns, one route was chosen, the one to Richmond. No mention of turnarounds was in the press, just that it was felt there would be a greater passenger demand for east-west than north-south. CvilleRail.org can clarify if I'm mistaken.

Cville Eye- On that website under Cvillerail news, 3rd article down- The article references the TDX program that was started years ago and Richards was originally one of the proponents of TDX. At least she is beginning to recognize the need for multi-regional cooperation to get this going. Sen. Wampler of Bristol was the person who really got the issue of more passenger rail outside of the "Golden Crescent" into the public eye (and the legislation for it).

I probably should have mentioned this article I did three years ago when Wampler unveiled his vision: http://www.readthehook.com/stories/2004/12/23/newsRailToFailBristolSenat...

Thanks for the link, Mr. Spencer. I think that may have been the article I read that left my impressions of the western rail issue. I hope the people involved in the decision-making will devote more of their time discussing the merits of the issues and less time discussing the people involved. Maybe somebody will get increased rail opportunities.