When a three-year pilot project for a new daily train from Lynchburg to Washington D.C. was approved by state officials earlier this year, area rail activists celebrated. But when the departure schedule for the Amtrak train was announced in March , supporters quickly grew concerned that its long-term viability was already at risk.
Meredith Richards, Chairman of the Piedmont Rail Coalition, and Congressman Tom Perriello (D-5th) convened a regional summit on Thursday to discuss service improvements and whether Amtrak should be lobbied further for an earlier departure time.
The train was originally scheduled to leave Lynchburg at 5:05 a.m. and arrive at D.C.’s Union Station at 8:40 a.m. At the time, Amtrak officials said such a service would be targeted towards business travelers.
“The Lynchburg departure at 7:43 a.m. and Washington arrival at 11:20 a.m. will effectively eliminate day travel for business purposes,” wrote Perriello in a letter to Amtrak’s CEO. “The adopted schedule provides no means to demonstrate that there may be a substantial, untapped market in the US29 corridor.”
Perriello told participants at Thursday’s meeting that, in response to his letter, Amtrak said its customers along the corridor were more interested in consistent and reliable access to New York, Philadelphia and other cities in the northeast.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation has invested $43 million in infrastructure upgrades along the corridor, and will spend $10.6 million to subsidize the project over the next three years. Ridership is projected to be between 51,200 and 59,000 passengers annually.
Richards said there is no chance to revisit the schedule before it launches in October because there are not enough rail slots in the corridor. She said another issue is a bottleneck in Northern Virginia that restricts the amount of train traffic.
Steve Walker, a member of the Culpeper Board of Supervisors, said he felt the best way to make the new route successful is to embrace Amtrak’s strategy of targeting the train for tourists.
“We’d like to see this as more of a commuter line, but that’s not what they want,” Walker said.
Rex Hammond, the Chairman of the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, said continued efforts to alter the schedule would send the wrong message to Amtrak.
“We have to agree to emphasize the positive elements of the schedule,” Hammond said. “This new service will not serve everyone to the extent they’d like to be served.”
Albemarle County Supervisor David Slutzky said the train could reach its annual ridership goal of 59,000 with the tourism-friendly schedule, but that it could far surpass that amount if it provided a better option for defense contractors and other companies whose employees routinely do business in DC.
“I’m really worried that getting to DC at noon will put people back in their cars,” Slutzky said.
Another potential source of riders for the train are employees of the Charlottesville area’s growing defense sector around the Rivanna Station military base and the National Ground Intelligence Center . Eric Keathley, Senior Project Manager for defense contractor Batelle, said the defense sector of Charlottesville’s economy is going to grow, and that it could grow more quickly if there were other transportation options.
“If there was a reliable early train option to go up to DC, that’s something we would try to capitalize on,” Keathley said.
Perriello said that while he still continues to hope for an earlier schedule, he has come to accept that the service will proceed as planned for now.
“If this is the schedule we got, let’s do it and make the most of it,” Perriello said to the group.
The new passenger train service is expected to begin on October 1, 2009. Reservations can already be made via Amtrak’s website. A round-trip ticket on the new train is currently priced at $44 for a round-trip service to Union Station from Charlottesville.
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