Student service: Wahoos eyed as rail users

On Saturday, August 20, tens of thousands of UVA students poured into town with their tens of thousands of cars for the start of the fall semester, as usual, clogging Charlottesville's the streets.

But there's hope for next year. It's possible that by August 2006, the Virginia Railway Express will have implemented a weekday rail service that runs from Charlottesville to Washington, D.C., with a stop in Manassas and possible stops in Orange and Culpeper.

Since thousands of UVA students hail from the nation's capital and its surrounding suburbs, former City Councilor Meredith Richards is confident that students will be prime ticket-buyers.

"This service would eliminate the need for parents to make two roundtrip drives down to Charlottesville to pick their kids up for holidays and weekend visits," Richard says. "Kids won't have to worry about bumming a ride from a friend anymore, and the station's an easy walk from UVA."

University student Leah Nylen points out that, in addition to convenience, costs will determine if students will ride the train.

"Expense is always factor," says Nylen. "If it's cheaper than the cost of gas, then I'd consider it."

Richards says she has "absolutely no idea" how much VRE will charge. "It's too early a stage," she says. "This is all still just a concept."

And it will remain one until funding is granted by the General Assembly. The train's advocacy group, Charlottesville Citizens for Better Rail Alternatives, plans to approach the state with its budget request within the next six months.

Yet even if the funds are granted, the trains get rolling, and the tickets are affordable, some students may still be hesitant to jump on board.

"I'm very dependant on my car," says student Jennifer Marshall. "I take it everywhere in Charlottesville. And trains are notorious for not running on schedule."

But Marshall's not a first-year, and first-year students are the ones who aren't allowed to have cars on Grounds.

"This would probably be a real boon for first-years," says UVA spokesperson Carol Wood.

Amtrak currently offers two trains a day from Charlottesville to D.C., but few students take advantage of the service, since reservations are required.

Unlike Amtrak, the new service would require no reservations, a boon for spur-of-the-moment trips that appeal to students.

"It'd be so easy to get up to Washington, just to visit or see a play," notes Wood.

It's exactly along those lines that Richards is thinking.

"Easy transportation is hard to come across," says Richards. "I'm sure there'll be a fair amount of advertising directed at students."

Perhaps such advertising should start early.

"I've never considered taking a train to school before," says student Marshall. "But I wouldn't be surprised if a new system appealed to first-years."

VRE already serves passengers as far as Manassas, but the new rails stretch to Charlottesville and southward.