NEWS- Meredith's vision: Daily trains to D.C... and beyond
Lynchburg can 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 becoming part of a new rail link to D.C.
"This is a great and ambitious step," said Kevin Page at a meeting Thursday, November 15 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 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.
Central Virginia travelers currently 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 the Boar's Head meeting. Davies urged the approximately five dozen attendees to follow the lead of the governor and General Assembly, which created transit authorities with "significant taxing authority" in Tidewater and Dulles, and create a transit corridor along Route 29.
If that kind of talk unsettles the general populace, which typically chafes at new taxes, the folks out in Ednam found themselves chafed by the prospect of new roads, not to mention the fact that annual auto miles are escalating 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 the 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 the 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: extending rail past Danville to Greensboro and Charlotte is essential to creating a viable rail network. Thursday'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 the meeting, "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 CSX and the Buckingham Branch, the freight railroads on whose tracks it rolls.
One of the speakers noted that the freight rail business is booming, and 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 Thursday 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 delaying schedules if it's making good time.)
Richards says that Amtrak officials say they can launch the service relatively quickly.
"I interpret 'relatively quickly' as a couple of years," says Richards. "Fourteen states have entered into these intra-state partnerships. These are areas where ridership is just exploding all over the country."
The initial Lynchburg-to-D.C. service train will come through "probably just once a day, but we're not gonna stop there. We want to take it all the way to North Carolina," she says.
Thanks to Richards and Page (and CSX, when the company decided to flee downtown Charlottesville and abandoned the engine turntable), Lynchburg could find itself earning a seat at the conductor's table. Hopefully, they won't be complaining about it.
Most of this story appeared online within a few hours of the meeting.