When it comes to Amtrak’s passenger rail, Virginians have been side-tracked for years. But that’s been slowly changing and, now, better service seems to be building a full head of steam.
This is great news, because unlike travelers headed north on Amtrak’s usually efficient Northeast corridor of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, people heading south previously had little choice but to take their cars and brave the horrible Interstate 95 traffic.
On-time rates used to be 50 percent on Amtrak, making the only reliable rail travel available on Virginia Railway Express, a commuter line that operates from the District to Fredericksburg and Manassas.
Now Amtrak says it is 90 percent on time in the Old Dominion and is adding trains. Riders are noticing.
A fairly new train from Lynchburg to Washington has been a major success. The route, partly financed by the state of Virginia, has seen service up 14.1 percent to 185,000, Amtrak reports.
Another popular route, Newport News to Washington, saw ridership up 11.9 percent to 624,000. Another daily train from Norfolk was resumed for the first time in 35 years last fall.
Richmond boasts of several early morning trains that are slowly making rail more of a primary choice than just an alternative.
One leaves Richmond’s Staples Mill Road station at 6 a.m. and arrives at Union Station at 8:15 a.m. — in good time to get in a full day of work in the District. Wireless Internet service in many cars allows travelers to be productive on their trips.
This really isn’t all that new, actually. It’s been building slowly for years. The Brookings Institution released a report in March showing that from 1997 to 2012, Richmond-area passenger traffic grew 59.6 percent to 427,087. Noting that most growth nationally is in the short-range, 400-mile trip category, Brookings declared “American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance.”
“There’s no question of the steady improvement over the past five or six years,” George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond, told me for an article on this topic I reported recently for Richmond’s Style Weekly.
Besides more trains, including a new daily run to Norfolk, Hoffer says that CSX, which controls the tracks to D.C., is managing its freight traffic better and has added a third line from Washington to near Quantico, allowing fast-moving trains to bypass slower ones.
That advantage is already hurting the aviation industry. Hoffer says that by his calculations, the ratio of air to rail passengers has been cut roughly in half in favor of rail over the past five years. At Richmond International Airport, there used to be about 12 air passengers for every one who took the train. Now it is six air passengers for every rail rider, he says.
Airlines have been cutting flights out of Richmond’s airport, and its surly Transportation Security Administration guards don’t help.
Although it’s been overlooked for years, passenger rail could finally start changing the lives of Virginia’s travelers for the better.