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Rolling toward a resurgence in train travel

Rail proponents are convinced the time is right for a return to regular and wide-ranging train travel. Here’s a look at the latest developments.
Image: Train travel
Amtrak recently reported that ridership over the past 12 months dropped 5.4 percent. Nevertheless, the numbers represent the second-highest passenger load in Amtrak history, and proponents of rail travel maintain that even more people would ride the rails if service were more convenient.Seth Perlman / AP file

Seems the airlines aren’t the only ones suffering from a decline in business travel.

Last week, Amtrak announced that 27.2 million passengers rode its trains during the previous 12 months, a drop of 5.4 percent attributed primarily to a decline in business travel along the busy Northeast Corridor.

Nevertheless, the numbers represent the second-highest passenger load in Amtrak history, and proponents of rail travel maintain that even more people would ride the rails if service were more convenient.

In fact, while dozens of proposed projects await the awarding of $8 billion in potential funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a few are already on track. Here’s a look at the latest developments:

If there’s a test case for the second coming of U.S. train travel, it’s now rolling out of Lynchburg, Va., every morning at 7:38. As the newest addition to Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service, it offers a second daily train to Washington, D.C. (and beyond) and the first service to originate in Lynchburg.

The service is a joint partnership between Amtrak and the state, which contributed $17.2 million to fund the three-year pilot project. With stops in Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas and Alexandria, it arrives in Washington, D.C., at 11:20 a.m., a trip of about 3:40.

The idea, says Jennifer Pickett, chief of policy and communication for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, is to ease congestion in the busy Route 29 corridor. Projected ridership is 51,000 passengers the first year, she says, “but the anecdotal evidence is that it’s doing pretty well and that we may be exceeding our goal.”

The service, says Pickett, should prove especially popular with the thousands of students who attend college along the route, as well as leisure and business travelers heading to Washington: “If you travel by car, [Washington] is a minimum of four hours, so the train is definitely car-competitive. And if you want to go all the way to New York, you can be there before 3:30 in the afternoon.”

Regular one-way fares are $38 between Lynchburg and Washington, D.C., and $88 between Lynchburg and New York, with 25 percent off select fares for travel through December 16.

Meanwhile, rail fans in the other Washington are celebrating the belated arrival of a second train between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Originally scheduled to start in 2008, the service kicked off August 19 and will run as a test program through the duration of the Winter Olympics in February.

The additional Seattle–Vancouver connection is only part of it; equally important, the train makes it possible for the first time to ride the rails between Portland, Ore., and Vancouver in a single day. (Previously, travelers from Portland had to overnight in Seattle or complete the trip by bus.)

According to Vickie Sheehan, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation, the new service is not only seeing steadily increasing ridership, but also providing a bump to the original run: “We’re finding that when you increase frequency, people will ride more because they’ve got that flexibility. With only one trip up and one back, it was hard to do day trips.”

Increased frequency is also the focus of Washington’s application for ARRA funding, which would permit boosting Seattle–Portland service from four roundtrips per day to eight. With that, says Sheehan, “we’ll be able to attract business travelers and compete directly with the airlines.”

For now, regular one-way fares are $35 between Seattle and Vancouver and $46 between Portland and Vancouver, with 25 percent off select fares if bought before December 31 for travel through January 31.

The three Cs stand for Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati; the “Quick Start” refers to the goal of offering medium-speed (up to 79 miles per hour) service in 2011 or 2012 and high-speed service later, and the idea is to bring train travel back to an area where the last passenger trains ran in 1971.

“Sixty percent of Ohio’s population lives within 15 miles of the corridor,” says Stu Nicholson, public information officer for the Ohio Rail Development Commission. “That’s more than 6 million people.” Of those, a recent Amtrak study suggested nearly 500,000 people a year would ride the rails if the service were available.

“If,” of course, is the operative term as the proposed service is contingent on $564 million in ARRA funding, which puts it in competition with projects in California, Florida and 20 other states. The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to announce its selections some time this winter.

In the meantime, rail proponents are convinced the time is right for a return to regular and wide-ranging train travel. “Oil prices are creeping back up, and people are paying more attention now than they used to,” says Nicholson. “It’s like getting stung by a bee — you don’t forget that.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .