» An expanding rail network in Virginia serves more customers and demonstrates that the public will come when new and better train service is offered.
Despite the significant opposition to investment in intercity rail from Republican governors in states from Ohio to Florida, Virginia’s GOP leadership has taken a considerably different course. In office since January 2010, Bob McDonnell has presided over a significant expansion in Amtrak routes — and more is expected by the end of this year. In the meantime, the state’s population has gobbled up the service offered, seeing very significant increases in ridership, offering considerable evidence that Americans are perfectly willing to take the train — if the right routes are provided.
Amtrak service to the state capital at Richmond and points further south via services such as the Carolinian, Palmetto, and Silver Meteor/Silver Star has been offered for decades, as has a line to Newport News, which serves as an extension of the Northeast Regional route that serves cities as far north as Boston.
But in 2009, thanks to an agreement between Amtrak and the State of Virginia (under former Democratic governor Tim Kaine), new service was opened between Washington and Lynchburg, via Culpepper and Charlottesville, offering rail to the western sections of the state. Later this year, another route will be opened, adding Amtrak services to Norfolk as part of the Virginia intercity rail mix. Though the project, which cost $115 million in line upgrades, will provide only one daily round trip to Washington (in four and a half hours), two more are planned if the state can secure an additional $75 million for the purpose. Federal rail grants, which are now impossible to get because of a deadlock on transportation funding in Washington, would be very helpful.
As seen in the chart below, Amtrak ridership has increased steadily over the past three years on many major state-supported Amtrak routes. The Keystone Corridor, a route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg that I profiled in 2009, has continued to see major gains in ridership, increasing its monthly ridership in May from about 100,000 to more than 120,000. Much of that improvement is likely due to increased service frequencies and faster trains introduced as part of a capital investment partnership between the State of Pennsylvania and Amtrak.
In terms of percentage change in ridership, however, routes like the Keystone are expanding ridership only about as quickly as the system as a whole, or about 20% since 2009. As shown in the chart below, other routes have seen far higher increases in ridership, notably in Virginia and North Carolina. Since 2009, trains to Newport News have increased their passenger counts by more than 60% and those running to and through North Carolina (the Carolinian and Piedmont) by almost 80%. Since 2010, the first year for which data is available, Amtrak trains to Lynchburg have increased their ridership by more than 60% as well. Investments in improved Amtrak services appear to be producing beneficial results.
Though the Amtrak trains to Norfolk will start off with very limited service, the service seems likely to be popular in a state with such a record of late. Norfolk’s new light rail line — the Tide — stops at the future rail station, and it has seen higher ridership than estimated. Its 4,800 daily users far exceed initial predictions of 2,900 a day. With a lengthening of that route into Virginia Beach now being considered, access to Amtrak service will be even more convenient to thousands more.
In addition to the planned increase in service frequency, Virginia hopes to invest further in its intercity rail portfolio. It has already spent $370 million on the upgrade of the line between Richmond and Washington, and it hopes to extend the spur to Newport News further south to serve that city’s downtown. But the biggest proposal on the books is a significant improvement in service further south, into North Carolina, as part of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Project. Tolls on I-95 have been mentioned to help pay for that project (though they have seen significant opposition from some), and indeed some source of funding is necessary if the project is to be under construction within a year, as is technically possible.
But without additional federal funding, the likelihood of real rail improvement projects actually being implemented is limited at best.
Image at top: Map of planned Norfolk-Richmond rail services, from Virginia DRPT