Rollin' rollin? Pro-rail group gathers steam

The "Trojan Train," as it's derided by critics, could be coming to Charlottesville within two years if its chief local backer gets her way. In a press conference slated for Wednesday, June 22 (after the Hook's deadline), former City Councilor Meredith Richards plans to announce a new advocacy group to support weekday rail service between Charlottesville and Washington.

Richards, along with Commonwealth Transportation Board member Butch Davies, will announce that the new group, Charlottesville Citizens for Better Rail Alternatives, has launched a website,– and plans to persuade the state to fund the service and Northern Virginia-based Virginia Rail Express to operate it.

Richards says the service would need federal money to the tune of $2 million in capital improvements plus a state subsidy of up to $1.6 million per year.

"It's an alternative to existing driving," says Richards. "That's good for the environment and good for safe roads."

With a Congressional fight looming over how much to fund perennially struggling Amtrak, states all over the country are stepping up to fund rail services. Virginia Governor Mark Warner is such a rail advocate that his 2005 budget dedicates $23 million a year for rail improvements.

Yet some critics have blasted the Charlottesville proposal as an inducement to sprawl. In an April 7 essay penned for the Hook, Janis Jaquith branded the service the "Trojan Train" because of its potential to invite D.C. commuters to move to the Charlottesville area. "We should be very careful what we wish for," agreed J.A. Barker in a letter to the editor.

"This is not a high-speed service," Richards insists. "It's a two-and-a-half-hour ride."

Charlottesville 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, seats are often locked up months in advance. The VRE-operated service would require no reservations.

"You show up with your ticket," says Richards, "and you board the train."

Meredith Richards has staked her reputation on rail.

Currently, VRE serves passengers only as far as Manassas, but the line stretches to Charlottesville and beyond.