Two Unions? VRE could serve Charlottesville-D.C. by 2007

NEWS- Two Unions? VRE could serve Charlottesville-D.C. by 2007

The state's top railroad official is handing Charlottesville citizens a gift a Bristol senator recently denied them: official sanction for a train to Washington.

It won't be the much-discussed TransDominion Express, but according to a new report released last week to the General Assembly, a new round-trip train service could connect Union Station on West Main Street to the Union Station beside the Capitol within two years.

The new weekday-only service would be operated by Virgina Railway Express, the fast-growing Northern Virginia-based commuter company. VRE could make the Charlottesville trains possible by extending its train to Manassas.

"That's good news," says Michael Testerman, president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons. "See, now, they can be creative when they want to."

Testerman lauds the fact that the new Charlottesville service would not only utilize existing equipment and rails, but it would also tap into federal and state mass-transit funds. "We've been trying to get that all along," Testerman says.

Rail fans have long complained that theirs is the only major transportation system without a permanent public funding source– other than irregular cash infusions for always-struggling Amtrak. Governor Mark Warner took a step toward bridging the funding gap when he announced that his 2005 budget will dedicate $23 million a year for passenger and freight rail improvements.

The Charlottesville link– currently unnamed– would shuttle passengers to D.C. in the morning and back at night in about two and a half hours, according to the report.

Currently, Charlottesville travelers have just one or two Amtrak trains to get to Washington each day, and because those trains– the Cardinal and the Crescent– reserve many seats for long-haul passengers and book up months in advance, seats for short-hopping Charlottesvillians can be tough to find. And the ride takes nearly three hours.

"I believe we could fill at least one car a day with just the present demand that's been unfulfilled," says Meredith Richards. In a December 23 article in The Hook, this former Charlottesville City Councilor and longtime rail supporter went public with her fears that the state's long-touted TransDominion Express, or TDX, a network of new trains, would be derailed by William Wampler, the powerful Bristol-based state senator.

Richards says that Wampler, a majority party member of the Senate Finance Committee, used an October meeting in Lynchburg to override the state's director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Karen Rae. Wampler substituted Bristol-to-Richmond for the Roanoke-to-D.C. pilot program that Rae had earlier endorsed. Richards worries that launching such a high-visibility demonstration project in such a low-population part of the state could doom the entire project.

Richards revealed that she and other north-of-Lynchburg members of the TDX steering committee were not invited for the October surprise.

The new Charlottesville-D.C. link– under study for several months, according to various sources– emerged in Rae's report to the General Assembly just two days after Richards held a press conference denouncing the Wampler plan.

The VRE extension to Charlottesville would cost $3.1 million for a year of service, according to Rae's report, while the TDX Bristol-to-Richmond demonstration would cost $28 million and require 10 hours on the rail, a trip a car can make in just 6.5 hours, according to the report.

While Richards hails the VRE extension to Charlottesville, she finds a little irony in the piecemeal approach.

"Isn't it odd," says Richards, "that a rail program that was proposed as a network will start out from the bottom going up and from the top going down– with a big gap in the middle?"

For now, Lynchburg-to-Charlottesville is that gap, but the key lobbyist for the TDX, Barbara Hartley, says she expects the TDX to eventually fill the gap. While acknowledging Richards' view that the Charlottesville-to-D.C. holds the promise of the most traffic, Hartley says the Bristol route of the TDX holds the promise of economic development for southwestern Virginia.

"In the future, we see the TDX moving up through Charlottesville," says Hartley. "But there are never any done deals when walking into the General Assembly."

PILOT ERROR? Meredith Richards (left) has called the pilot program of the TDX a "serious mistake," but Barbara Hartley, the lobbyist and staffer for the TDX showed up at Richards' January 10 Amtrak Station press conference to defend the pilot program. "We are confident," said Hartley, "we will be able to complete the service once we have a successful demonstration."