August 19, 2010 — The American public is ready for a passenger rail renaissance. Virginia, among the states proving that point with enthusiastic ridership, has the potential to create an outstanding intercity rail network reaching most of its citizens.
That is the hopeful conclusion of a longtime rail analyst-advocate and former government official, Meredith Richards, writing in the current issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Amtrak's steady growth in national ridership and the rapid growth of state-supported regional trains demonstrate that people will take trains instead of driving or flying if given competitive choices, writes Meredith Richards, a former president of the Virginia Transit Association who served on former Gov. Mark Warner's Commission on Rail Enhancement for the 21st Century.
"The instant success of Virginia's new corridor train connecting Lynchburg and Charlottesville to Washington, D.C., and the Northeast provides an ideal model for the further expansion of state-supported intercity passenger rail in Virginia," writes Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilor and current president of Virginians for High Speed Rail.
Last year almost 6 million car trips were eliminated in Virginia alone by use of intercity and commuter passenger rail, Richards says. Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads all have strong rail ridership and plans for increases in service.
Virginia can create a versatile and efficient passenger rail network that brings convenient intercity rail access to at least 70 percent of its citizens, including the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia, Richards says. In her vision, high-speed rail lines could connect Virginians easily to the Southeastern states and to the already well-served northeast high-speed rail corridor. Commuter rail could be operating smoothly in all the state's major metropolitan areas.
But to do this will require strong public investment and the resolution of chronic problems of longtime neglect that threaten to prevent passenger rail from reaching its full potential, she says. Her article in the latest issue of U.Va.'s Virginia News Letter offers a detailed analysis of the steady decline of passenger rail over the previous half-century as a result of policy decisions favoring highways.
To lay out goals for a strong Virginia passenger rail system and build upon the achieved recommendations of the 2004 Warner Commission report, Richards advocates convening a statewide stakeholder task force representing rail advocates, environmentalists, local governments, colleges and universities, businesses and economic development groups, tourism and national security agencies.
The goals should be specific and include steps and benchmarks for reaching them. Some hypothetical examples she cites of what such goals might look like: rail linking major state universities to Washington by a certain realistic date; linking larger airports to their city centers; and connecting Virginia's cities to the state and national capitals and other rail corridors, with frequent service and schedules that meet the needs of both business and leisure travelers.
"While achieving these goals will be constrained by the realities of budgeting and resources, they would provide a guidepost for planning future projects and allocating future resources, and we can measure our progress against them," she writes.
Freight rail is also enjoying a strong comeback, and it uses the same tracks as passenger rail in most of the nation. The freight lines already have their goals "and areas of compatibility between the two sets of goals will be a great place to start," Richards suggests.
"Think of the billions of dollars we spent on the interstate highway system, and the billions we continue to spend on roads and highways, then contemplate what we could do if we shifted priorities and spent those billions on creating a 21st-century rail network. The future is ours to define and ours to create, but we must start doing it now.
"People want more than simply to remember with nostalgia passenger trains from the past. They want to have the kind of modern, comfortable, fast and reliable passenger rail system they read about or experience firsthand in other countries. Many understand that, ethically, we cannot continue on the same path we have been on for half a century, but must begin to make wiser transportation choices for ourselves and our nation."
About The Virginia News Letter
Launched in 1924, The Virginia News Letter is a publication devoted to Virginia public policy issues. Its authors are drawn from the University of Virginia, other public and private higher education institutions in Virginia and non-academic experts in the state. Each issue features an article by a different author.
The Virginia News Letter is issued six to eight times per year. John L. Knapp, senior economist in the Center for Economic and Policy Studies, is the current editor, and Robert Brickhouse is a consulting editor.