Wednesday evening, October 9, 2013, Virginia State Senator John Edwards, a long-time rail advocate, held another of his Town Hall Meetings to discuss passenger rail service to Roanoke.  The session was held in the theater of the O. Winston Link Museum in the former N&W passenger station.  It was well attended, with at least one person from Norfolk present and several from Richmond, along with lots of locals.

Senator Edwards began with a review of the past meetings, going back to 2009. That was when a bus connection to the new Lynchburg train was first proposed. Each year since then progress has been made, with the latest being that the bus is now in the Amtrak timetable and Amtrak passengers can be ticketed to and from Roanoke.

He introduced Thelma Drake, Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), and Kevin Page, head of Rail Operations. Drake went through a presentation featuring 15 slides. She talked about the present and future passenger train service in Virginia. One map showed possible future service west of Roanoke to Bristol, and a connection between Lynchburg and Richmond.Thelma Drake. VA-DRPT

In short order, Virginia has gone from having no intra-state passenger rail service to being a leader, she said. A popular slide showed new Amtrak Virginia Lynchburg service in 2009, a new Richmond train in 2010, and new Norfolk service in 2012, followed by “Next Stop Roanoke!” Though officially the time estimate is four years, Drake said several times that that is what they said in Norfolk, too, and it got done in three. “Trains are coming back,” Drake said. “Real progress is being made.”

She defended Virginia’s incremental growth approach, extending and expanding service gradually where population and demand are there to support it. “Our decisions have been good; ridership has been there.” She talked about the success of the Lynchburg train and showed passenger numbers for Lynchburg and Charlottesville. Originally $6 million had been budgeted at the state level to support that train, but it has not been needed. Cost recovery is 156% and has been able to help support the start-up of the Richmond and Norfolk trains.

Significant year-to-year ridership growth on the Smartway Connector bus was highlighted in another table. Several photos and a track schematic helped pinpoint the location of the new Roanoke station and passenger platform.

Drake’s presentation included a discussion of HB-2313, the newly passed transportation bill in Virginia. Among the important features for rail is a designated revenue source for Intercity Passenger Operating and Capital Fund (IPROC), amounting to $44.3 million in the first year.

After her talk, Drake and Page took questions from the audience. Roanoke Mayor David Bower was the first to speak. He said he wanted to make three points. Roanoke is paying half the $6 million cost for the culvert replacement under the new tracks. Roanoke is already working on federal funding support for a multi-modal passenger station; and Roanoke is paying for the Smartway connector bus for the next two years now that state support is gone. He said Roanoke would need help working out the criteria for station design and construction.

A questioner asked whether DRPT had had any discussions with Tennessee about anchoring a western extension of service beyond Bristol. “Originally they said no way,” Drake responded, but went on to add that the new Lt. Gov. in TN has been showing more interest.

An Amtrak engineer from Richmond, who ran the AAPRCO train to Roanoke last year, pointed out that there are thorny equipment and crewing issues to be resolved for any extension westward of Roanoke. Kevin Page agreed, mentioning that the train needed at least five hours at the end point to turn around and head east again in the morning. There was talk of crew bases and Northeast Corridor slots.

A questioner asked about future Lynchburg – Richmond service, shown on the state map as a dotted line. “In the distant future,” Drake responded. In fact, she said, no decision has been made on how best to connect the Piedmont corridor to Richmond. It might wind up being a Charlottesville – Richmond link instead. Bruce Wingo of NS said that operationally, and regarding access to stations in Richmond, that option would probably work better.

Dorr Tucker showed a newspaper op-ed he had written in 1974 about passenger service to Roanoke and remarked how the DRPT incremental approach had pretty much matched what he envisaged at the time. It turns out that Sen. Edwards and Dorr Tucker were high school classmates.

The benefit of connecting bus service to other places in support of a new Roanoke train was discussed, and there was agreement that this could help make Roanoke a transportation hub. Kevin Page said he would like to see Roanoke and Clifton Forge paired with a connecting bus they way Norfolk and Newport News are now, giving passengers in each area more departure time choices.

Dutch Tubman asked about extending the Smartway Connector bus from Blacksburg and Christiansburg to seven days a week instead of just weekends. Drake thought there would not be money for that. David Foster suggested no new trips would be needed. A lightly-patronized mid-day bus could be deleted from the schedule and replaced by an early/late run to match with train times. Blacksburg has been added as an Amtrak point.

Michael Testerman said he would welcome some evidence of planning direct rail service to the New River Valley points of Christiansburg and Radford. Thelma Drake said she and Kevin Page had been meeting earlier in the day with leaders in the New River Valley to discuss that. She also pointed out that the Roanoke station track would be designed to be connected at the west end for future movement beyond. Page told Testerman that the Roanoke station platform would be between two tracks, adding to its capability to support growth. He also said in passing that the station track on the west side in Lynchburg will be restored and an overhead bridge to the station rebuilt.

In summary, many interesting and encouraging developments were discussed. Progress on Amtrak Virginia service under the Drake/Page regime has been remarkable and Virginia has benefited from a lot of new service in a short time. Because the trains have been well planned, they have produced gratifying ridership and have not required a state operating subsidy. Cooperation of Norfolk Southern has been vital, too.

David Foster, RAIL Solution

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