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Main Street Station Sees Spike, But Fast Trains Still Distant

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Amtrak ridership is up in Richmond and federal money’s flowing in for high-speed rail planning. So when is Main Street Station going to regain its place as a bustling rail hub? Not for a while.

High-speed rail advocates applauded last week’s announcement that Virginia would get $44.3 million in federal funds to develop the blueprints for high-speed rail between Richmond and Washington. This sum is significant, says Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, because it will allow the state to get a more precise idea of costs — estimated at $1.8 billion — as well as address the environmental concerns and logistics of running 90-mph trains.

But Richmonders won’t be zipping up to Washington in 90 minutes anytime soon. The design process may take as long as eight years, Plaugher says. And Virginia still needs to come up with some money of its own.

Last year the state established the Virginia Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund. “It’s an empty wallet today,” Plaugher says, but it’s intended to allow Virginia to upgrade tracks and and match federal money.

Once that fund balloons and the high-speed rail design is done, Richmond will see some action downtown.

Main Street Station, which is owned by the city, is intended to be the hub for high-speed rail to the nation’s capital, Raleigh and Hampton Roads — a “singular golden crescent,” Plaugher calls it.

The station saw train ridership increase by 31 percent in the second quarter of 2011, compared with 2010 (from 7,496 riders to 9,821). The Staples Mill Road station, which is much busier but far less picturesque, had a 27-percent increase, from 68,839 riders to 87,517.

But Main Street Station gets only four trains per day (five on weekends), says Viktoria Badger, principal planner for the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development. “In order for us to get more trains at Main Street Station,” Badger says, “we need the track improvements, and that’s the responsibility of the state.”

So when the fund is full and the high-speed blueprints are done, Main Street Station will have 32 trains per day, Badger says. For the time being, you might want to drive.

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