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Passenger Trains Aren’t Just for Cities

[imgbelt img= lynchburg-train530.jpg]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.

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Kipp Teague

The Amtrak PV (“Private Varnish”) business car, seen on the end of the train Sept. 30, 2009, in Kemper St. Station, Lynchburg, Virginia. Its first trip from Lynchburg departed the next day, and the passenger train has shown a steady profit ever since.

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?

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.

Advancing Passenger Rail in the Commonwealth of Virginia

Virginia provides passenger rail service to Lynchburg and has plans to extend it to Roanoke and Bristol.

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.)

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