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April 24, 2009

New passenger train schedule may be obstacle for business trips from Charlottesville

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By Daniel Nairn
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, April 24, 2009

After years of advocacy for better passenger rail access along the US 29 corridor, in February of 2009 the Piedmont Rail Coalition (PRC) saw their goal come to fruition when the Commonwealth Transportation Board agreed to support a new daily route between Washington D.C. and Lynchburg. This is the first time the Commonwealth has ever agreed to fund intercity passenger rail, and it opens up the possibility of more transportation options for thousands of Virginians along the corridor. However, in recent weeks an unanticipated scheduling change has threatened to jeopardize the entire project, at least in the eyes of  PRC Chair Meredith Richards.

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Richards, who founded both the advocacy group CvilleRail and the Piedmont Rail Coalition, had been under the impression that the planned rail service would depart from Lynchburg at 5:05 AM, arrive in Charlottesville by 6:17 AM, and reach Union Station at 8:40 AM. In fact, these times appear in a January 2008 AMTRAK document, which also  states “the combination of the morning and evening trains would establish a good service pattern for business travel to and from Washington, D.C. – a first for this region.” The merit of this schedule is that it would get passengers into the nation’s capital in time for a 9 o’clock meeting, justifying rail travel for many commuters and day-trippers alike.

The proposed schedule recently released by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) shows the morning route to be leaving about two and a half hours later than earlier indications. The train is scheduled to leave Lynchburg at 7:45 AM, come through Charlottesville around 8:45 AM, and arrive in Union Station by 11:30 AM, giving only about a five hour window of time before the returning south-bound train leaves the station. Based on her experience, Richards said, “This schedule will bypass the lion’s share of the market that is not now riding the trains.”

20080507-Amtrak2 But what concerns Richards most is that this new regional rail service has only been granted funds by the state for a three-year period. The future of rail along the corridor is contingent upon an acceptable performance for this demonstration project. Virginia DRPT estimates that both the service to Lynchburg and a separate new service to Richmond could together remove 1.4 million cars from highways each year, saving around 8.3 million gallons of fuel. Yet these estimations are based on peak-hour transportation projections. What happens if the service does not perform as well as expected because of scheduling that is less than ideal?

Railroad scheduling is an incredibly complex ordeal. Over the last century, the total railroad track mileage in the United States has dropped from a peak of 260,000 miles in the 1930s to under 100,000 miles today. Rail as a form of passenger transportation lasted through decades of stagnation and neglect, yet the industry of freight rail has actually undergone a resurgence in the last several years. The trouble is that the increased volumes of freight travel have not yet led to an equivalent increase in track capacity, leaving the less profitable passenger service fewer slots available for usage.

On April 1, 2009, Governor Tim Kaine joined Wick Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway, at Lynchburg’s Kemper Street Train Station for a ceremonial signing of an agreement to begin improvements for the new passenger rail line between Lynchburg and Washington D.C. The Virginia DRPT has agreed to $43 million worth of infrastructure improvements, such as side-tracks for parking the train and parallel tracks along congested corridors, and these agreements need to be established not only with Norfolk Southern, but with three other parties that either own track or operate their own rail service: AMTRAK, CSX, and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

Although the Virginia DRPT makes the final scheduling decisions, each of the five parties have to sign off on the schedule. The two most significant scheduling hurdles are created by a short segment of CSX track along the route that receives heavy freight traffic and potential conflicts with an existing VRE service between Manassas and Washington D.C. Furthermore, the new rail service through Virginia is technically the extension of an existing line that runs between New York and Washington D.C., and the timing of this line needs to be taken into account as well.

However technical the issue of scheduling is, according to Richards it still remains the case that no representative from the public was at the table to express the needs of travelers and commuters when the scheduling decisions were made. All of the negotiations and contracts were held behind closed doors. The Piedmont Rail Coalition is embarking on a campaign to encourage the DRPT to engage in a public participation process. If this is unsuccessful, the coalition intends to move forward with a participation process themselves in hopes that the DRPT will join them in their efforts.

The Virginia DRPT considers the schedule they have posted to be tentative. Although all of the agreements between the five parties have already been secured, the contracts list the scheduling as an “exhibit,” which leaves AMTRAK with a certain degree of flexibility.

According to Richards, “This is the first new passenger service for the US29 corridor in 53 years.  It is a great gift to our region, for which we are extremely grateful. But we have one chance to get it right. And if we don't get it right, it's ‘stuck on the highway’ for thousands of our residents who would rather be taking the train.” She hopes that a full-fledged public participation process will ensure that the final schedule will sufficiently meet the needs of riders.

The planned start date for the new Washington D.C. to Lynchburg service of October 1, 2009 serves as a functional deadline for the scheduling decision, since nobody has an interest in seeing the new service delayed at all. However the scheduling decision is resolved, Charlottesville residents will see their options for rail travel more than double when the new service starts.

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