Can a passenger train succeed -- and turn a profit -- in a region with low-population density? Lynchburg. Virginia, is a test case and passing with flying colors.
Lynchburg is a city of not quite 80,000 people nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. The rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont lie to the east and the towering Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. Lynchburg is home to several universities and a number of thriving industries. Agriculture is important here, too; you don’t have to drive far from town before you’re surrounded on all sides by the fruit of the Old Dominion.
Lynchburg’s got something else that most people would only expect to find in the megacities of the Bos-Wash corridor: a regional passenger train. And it’s not just any regional passenger train. Though the town is relatively small, Lynchburg boasts the highest performing passenger train in the entire United States outside of the urban northeast.
Gripes about “money-losing Amtrak” or “failed passenger trains” aren’t heard around here. Lynchburg’s train actually turned a profit in its first 2 ½ years. It’s running a $1.8 million service and has transported three times as many people as projected, says Amanda Reidelbach of Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Ridership data she provided shows an increase in every single month of this year compared to 2011.
What’s most amazing is that this train ought to have lost money, according to the conventional wisdom that presumes passenger trains do the best in high-density areas. So what does Lynchburg’s success mean for rail transportation in low density, rural areas?
For many rural communities, passenger trains are things of the past, rumbling with nostalgia. Not so in Culpeper, Virginia, the county seat of rural Culpeper County. The train to Lynchburg stops there. Now, for $13, you can ride from Culpeper to Washington, DC in less than two hours. Or take Bedford, Virginia. The train doesn’t come to Bedford anymore, but the bus does—the bus that takes you to the train in Lynchburg every weekday for only $4, according to Manassas resident Dick Peacock, a member of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons. Meredith Richards, of Cvillerail.org, says that you can ride the same bus to Roanoke and, on the weekends, all the way to Blacksburg. For families living in the southern parts of the Shenandoah Valley, there’s suddenly a public transit option that doesn’t involve long, dangerous drives on truck-choked I-81.
What makes the Lynchburg train so important for rural is that it proves that passenger trains can provide a true transportation alternative. Right now, for long distance travel, most rural families only have the options of driving to their destinations or to airports and catching planes, ruling out those who, for whatever reason, can’t drive or fly. Passenger trains can change that dynamic.
Train tracks run through countless rural towns whose only passenger transportation alternative is roads, many of them hazardous. Previous articles in the Yonder have shown just how dangerous rural highways are. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, for every 100 million passenger miles, cars have 1.29 fatalities. Passenger trains have .04 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles—that’s 97% less than cars.
Rural road access is often limited, which makes the passenger train an even more attractive option. According to Reidelbach, a major reason for the train’s success is that its route is not well served by the interstate highway system. Even if the train doesn’t go directly to these rural towns, it can still serve them. Charlottesville, Virginia (on the same route), and Lynchburg serve large outlying rural areas that don’t require hours of driving to reach. According to Dick Peacock, people drive all the way from Winchester, Virginia, to catch trains at Manassas in the southern extremity of the DC suburbs. Bus services can connect with the trains; Amtrak’s Thruway and other bus services offer an option for rural Americans who can’t fly or drive. The infrastructure is in place, whether it’s through regional centers or directly in rural towns. All that remains is the introduction of more passenger trains.
That introduction may be happening sooner than people think. Passenger rail has recently seen a resurgence through record amounts of federal funding. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s next project after implementing a train to Norfolk will be to extend the Lynchburg train west into Roanoke, serving a larger part of rural Southwest Virginia and even the far eastern parts of southern West Virginia.
According to Reidelbach of Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation, “When we look to move to the southwest, it would certainly be through the Roanoke line.” Norfolk Southern has already begun to upgrade its tracks for passenger trains, according to The Roanoke Times. Richards of Cville Rail believes that the service will open in four to six years. The ultimate goal is to extend the train as far as Bristol, Virginia, opening up areas of Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, Northeastern Tennessee, and northwestern North Carolina to passenger rail service. Other states, like Missouri and Vermont are getting on board as well.
But expanding passenger rail service is far from certain. Reidelbach expressed caution when she talked about extending the service to Roanoke, “…if it does happen.” According to Meredith Richards of Cvillerail.org, long-term funding sources are uncertain. Reidelbach said that recent, temporary measures have been undertaken by the Virginia General Assembly to provide funding for this and other trains, but that there is “no permanent, dedicated source of funding for intercity passenger rai.” While the Lynchburg train covers its costs and isn’t in any financial danger at the moment, rail advocates are concerned that a lack of funding will stunt potential growth and that, should the train fall on hard times, there may not be money to support it.
Despite the uncertain funding situation, the train’s ambitions remain high. It’s an example of what can happen when the conventional wisdom that favors urban areas with passenger rail is reversed. Next time you hear a train whistle blow, think about what that whistle could mean for rural America. It could mean a brand-new passenger train pulling into a small town station. It could mean seniors who can’t drive taking trips to places they’ve always wanted to visit. It could mean a safer option for those who are hesitant to use a car. It could mean an option that is cheap for travelers and fiscally responsible for the government. And it could mean a way for rural America to get itself back on the long-distance transportation map.
Jeff Sinclair, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has interests in Transportation Economics, Philosophy and the Banjo. (He sometimes confuses the latter two.)