Va. Gives Intercity Rail Service Trial Run

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

Virginia launches its first state-funded intercity passenger train Thursday from Lynchburg to Washington, a move that will enhance mass-transit options for Northern Virginia commuters and people across the state.

"This is very big and something that is coming after 2 1/2 years of solid hard work," Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said Wednesday, when the train made an inaugural run. "There is incredible enthusiasm for the kind of mobility this new service has to offer."

The new service is part of a $17.2 million, three-year pilot program the state is running, and fully funding, to determine whether enhanced rail service is viable in Virginia. The pilot program will offer two trains, one from Richmond and one from Lynchburg, that will travel to Union Station and then on to Boston. Service between the Virginia terminuses and Washington will include stops at some Virginia Railway Express stations; service between Washington and Boston will include stops in Philadelphia and New York.

However, the train set to run from Richmond will not launch until Dec. 15 because the necessary infrastructure improvements -- about $78 million worth -- are not complete, said Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. She noted that $43 million in improvements were completed so that the Lynchburg service could begin.

"This is a pilot project. It is the beginning of something, not the end of something," said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We are going to see this grow."

The Lynchburg-based train is scheduled to leave at 7:38 a.m. and to stop in Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas, Burke Centre and Alexandria before arriving at Union Station shortly after 11 a.m.

Ticket prices will fluctuate, but current one-way fares from Lynchburg to Washington range from $38 to $74.

VRE riders can also use the service by paying a $10 "step-up" fee, as they do when they ride Amtrak-operated trains. VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said the commuter rail service sells about 16,000 tickets a day and about 2,300 step-up tickets a month.

State rail officials said they expect 51,000 passengers a year to ride the Lynchburg-based train, with about 70 percent coming from the Lynchburg and Charlottesville area. State and rail officials said the service will boost the local economy, especially in the Lynchburg corridor, and will pave the way for other mass-transit projects.

Transportation officials said they think the pilot program will be a success.

Once complete, however, Virginia will have to find $5 million to $7 million a year to keep the service running. The state currently has no funding to do so, but Homer said if the ridership is there, the General Assembly will support it.

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