Passenger rail service moves closer to reality for New River Valley

Passenger rail service is now more than just a dream for New River Valley area residents.

Ed Lawhorn, a member of the New River Valley Rail 2020 Steering Committee, provided an update Tuesday to Pulaski Town Council on the push to bring passenger rail service to the area.

Lawhorn said that, back in 2010-11 in the Roanoke Valley, plans were made for Amtrak service to begin there by 2016-17.  That service began in October, he said.

The Roanoke effort followed the successful extension of passenger rail from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, which occurred in 2009.

Passenger rail was an instant success in Lynchburg, Lawhorn said, adding service there immediately surpassed ridership estimates.

“The state had set aside a subsidy to underwrite the Lynchburg extension for some period of time, but it was never needed,” Lawhorn said, noting that riders from the Roanoke and New River Valleys make use of the Lynchburg service.

Lawhorn said the Roanoke effort to bring passenger rail to the Star City took significant community support and a strong lobbying effort.  State and local governments, he added, made real infrastructure investments in Roanoke to make passenger rail a reality.

“By 2013, local governments and organizations in the New River Valley – seeing the promise that passenger service held – came up with our goal of duplicating that rail service in the New River Valley,” Lawhorn said.

“We believe it’s a reasonable alternative for transportation to the Northeast that would bring that area’s cultural, economic and educational opportunities to the NRV,” he continued.

Lawhorn said passenger rail is looked on as an alternative to the congestion often encountered by travelers on I-81, and that nationwide people are seeing rail as an acceptable form of transportation.

Lawhorn said the “sweet spot” for rail are trips of 250 to 600 miles.

“On trips to Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., you probably wouldn’t fly, but rail is easier and makes sense,” he said.

Partnerships, he added, are critical to the effort. Currently the local push for passenger rail includes partnerships between local governments in the valley, Virginia Tech and Radford University, local and state representatives in Richmond and Washington, and organizations in the valley such as the NRV Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), Onward NRV, the NRV Regional Commission, Virginia Tech Foundation and more.

Lawhorn said the partnership will, as it progresses, include the state government, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Norfolk Southern.

A market demand study conducted in 2015 by the regional commission, estimates a strong demand of 40,000 trips per year. Lawhorn said Amtrak looks for ridership of between 20,000 and 100,000 per year – depending on the market – before it will begin service.

Lawhorn said the NRV is home to 180,000 residents and 40,000 college students, and that student ridership is key.

“Fifty percent of Virginia Tech students come from Northern Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, and will be a key market for us as we move forward,” Lawhorn told council.

Passenger rail service in the New River Valley would provide service from here to Boston, Lawhorn noted.

He added that an operational study, to be conducted by a consultant used by Norfolk Southern, will begin in 2019 and take several months to complete.  Some $350,000 in funding for the study has been approved by the General Assembly.

Lawhorn said a location study to determine where the Amtrak station would be placed has been conducted by the Regional Commission and the NRV MPO.  That study, he noted, identified 29 potential locations in Pulaski, Pulaski County, Radford and Christiansburg.

Six of those locations met the minimum requirements set by the MPO and Amtrak and were located in Pulaski, Dublin, Radford and three in Christiansburg.

The list of possible station locations was then narrowed down to three finalists – two in Christiansburg and one in Radford.

Lawhorn said key to the search for the right station location was its proximity to the valley’s population, sufficient land for all the station’s facilities and its proximity to the road network serving it.

A site near the Christiansburg Aquatic Center was deemed the most favorable in the search.

Lawhorn said the site is central in the NRV in terms of population, it has the available land, is adjacent to the U.S. 460 interchange and is located along the Norfolk Southern line.

Lawhorn said the Town of Christiansburg is already acquiring land around the site for a station.

The next steps in the process, Lawhorn told council, is to continue to make the case to the DRPT and Commonwealth Transportation Board for rail passenger service here.  The committee also wants to more fully engage Amtrak to promote ridership, advocate for support from the General Assembly, engage and mobilize grassroots in the NRV and wait on the completion of the operational study.

He said a local task force will look at the issue of who will own and manage the station in Christiansburg.

“Will it be Christiansburg and we just contribute, or it will it be an authority? That is all to be determined,” Lawhorn said.

Until all this is accomplished, Lawhorn said citizens can do their part by riding the train from Roanoke and voicing support to local and state leaders.

The train, he said, leaves Roanoke at 6:20 a.m. on weekdays and at 8:40 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.  During the week it returns to Roanoke at 10 p.m.

Lawhorn said he and his wife had taken the train from Roanoke to Washington, spent the day there and then returned that night, noting that riding the rail is a lot easier than driving.

By Mike Williams, The Patriot