Friday, May 20, 2022

Train travel is not a thing of the past — and the state, localities are pushing for more

(WYDaily file photo/Courtesy of Pixabay)
(WYDaily/Courtesy of Pixabay)

Every day, trains rumble across railroad tracks in the Historic Triangle, carrying Amtrak passengers and coal east and west.

Trains have remained a long-standing part of American history and industry for nearly nearly 200 years.

While Department of Motor Vehicles data shows there are more than 6.09 million licensed drivers in Virginia, some officials and residents alike are advocating to take those drivers off the road — and put them on the train.

For 25 years, a coalition of high-speed rail advocates, Virginians for High Speed Rail, has pressed the state to improve the railways throughout the state and make them more accessible and practical for Virginians to use.

Both James City County and the City of Williamsburg annually contribute money to the coalition. York County is a member of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, which also advocates for a commuter or higher-speed rail line between Newport News and Lightfoot.

Thomas Tingle, president of GuernseyTingle Architects in Williamsburg and James City County Economic Development member, represents James City County as a member of VHSR.

“What we’re trying to do is help the state identify those areas and basically advocate for and educate folks… and rally the groups that can make a difference,” Tingle said.

So, even though Virginia does not have a true high-speed rail system, what has VHSR done?

In the past, VHSR has successfully convinced Amtrak to keep both of its daily train routes through Williamsburg. Tingle said, at one point, Amtrak was considering canceling one trip per day.

The group also wants to triple the number of Amtrak Regional trains serving Virginia; reduce train travel times by up to 35 percent; increase on-time reliability to more than 90 percent; and reach 80 percent of Virginians, according to the coalition’s mission statement.

Tingle said the state has also gradually been prioritizing rail travel over the years, allocating more money through the budget.

According to a newsletter from Virginians for High Speed Rail, the state recently released its draft Six-Year Transportation Improvement Plan, which includes nearly $762 million in rail-related projects.

A seat at the table

Localities interested in supporting a higher-speed rail are able to join VHSR

The $1,000 essentially secures the county a “seat at the table” when it comes to actions of the VHSR, Tingle said. It shows the county is serious about improving Virginia’s rail system.

Williamsburg also allocates money to the coalition. This year, the city manager’s proposed budget includes $4,500 for VHSR.

Tingle said increasing the number of passengers coming through the area could boost area tourism and the economy.

Train travel is not dead

Virginia has four of the top-75 largest Amtrak stations in the United States, based on passenger volume, according to statistics published by VHSR and given by Amtrak.

“The other good news is we’ve increased ridership tremendously,” Tingle said.

Ridership on Amtrak trains in Virginia has also grown 101 percent since 2003.

“The not-so-good news is it takes a lot of effort and it takes incremental improvements,” Tingle said of expanding rail infrastructure.

While train travel has increased over the years, Tingle said one problem is congestion on the rail lines, specifically at “pinch points” where the rail is shared by another rail line, such as CSX.

CSX owns the rail lines on the Virginia Peninsula.

Tingle believes adding to the already-existing infrastructure using state funding is the best way to improve pinch points without being cost-prohibitive projects.

Current infrastructure will not allow for a true “high-speed” rail, but faster travel is possible with some improvements, Tingle said.

“If you haven’t taken the train, it’s a real pleasure,” Tingle said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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