It has been almost six years since daily Amtrak service began between Lynchburg and Washington, and the woman who helped to establish the Northeast Regional train has called it a valuable transportation alternative.
“People just found out this train takes less time to get there at two hours and 26 minutes,” she said.
Prior to service beginning on Oct. 1, 2009, only Amtrak long-distance trains stopped in Charlottesville, one of them only three days a week. Richards said these trains were often late and seats were hard to get. Since then, the Northeast Regional has carried about 850,000 passengers in the first five years. Richards estimates the millionth passenger boarded sometime in July.
The high ridership comes despite initial disappointment when the schedule for the train was published with an arrival in Charlottesville at 8:52 a.m. and arrival at Union Station in Washington at 11:20 a.m. Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilor, had hoped for an earlier start time to allow people to commute to work in D.C.
“We were sure that that was going to neglect a huge part of the market, and it does,” Richards said. “But there are plenty of other riders than ones we expected.”
Software engineer Jeff Uphoff was a regular rider, choosing the service about once a month to travel to New York City on business.
“The departure time was perfect for my trips from Charlottesville,” said Uphoff, who has since moved to Richmond. “It allowed me to drop my kids off at school before catching the train.”
Passenger trains in Virginia travel on private rails and often have to wait to make way for the freight trains that take priority. Those delays were sometimes long and frustrating.
“My Baltimore and D.C. colleagues use it to come to the University of Virginia, but we can usually bank on lateness,” said Kathryn Laughon, adding that she likes taking the train when she can.
A report from Amtrak states that the train was on time 73 percent of the time in April, 68 percent of the time in May and 70 percent in June.
In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring states to fund regional service. The General Assembly later established a dedicated fund to pay for intercity rail. Richards said she doesn’t see funding going anyway in the near future.
Planning is underway for a second daily train that will be paid for with about $20 million from the Route 29 Solutions package negotiated in the spring of 2014.
Richards said Amtrak has to select a train that currently parks in Washington and dedicate it to the new service.
“The train that we’re using now used to be parked overnight in Washington and they started bringing it down to Lynchburg in the evenings and take it back up in the morning to meet a preexisting schedule,” Richards said. “And now they have to do that again.”
While the schedule for the second train is not yet set, Richards said she believes the new service will leave Charlottesville in the evening.
“It’s a very different kind of schedule and not what we were hoping for,” Richards said. “It’s still not the commuter schedule that we need and I have no idea how useful it will be.”
Additionally, the existing service will be extended to Roanoke beginning in 2017. That will require some track realignments, signal upgrades and refurbishment of an old train station.
There is no set date for when the second daily train will begin. Richards said she is considering a campaign to generate local support throughout the corridor.
“The first time around we spent several years organizing the corridor and we got 22 jurisdictions to join forces in the Piedmont Rail Coalition,” Richards said.
Another issue to be resolved is the future of the station on Charlottesville’s West Main Street.
“The Amtrak station is no longer adequate to serve the number of passengers,” Richards said. “The waiting area only holds 75 people for a train that serves daily between 200 and 300 people.”
Representatives from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation were not available for comment.