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Missing the Train

Why improving passenger service at Main Street Station may be economically - and politically - impossible.

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The air was dense as some of Richmond's big movers and shakers filed into a meeting downtown June 4 at the gunmetal gray-and-glass Richmond Times-Dispatch building.

Newspaper publisher Thomas A. Silvestri, chairman-elect of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, had offered the headquarters as a meeting place for the Capital Region Collaborative, one of the many leadership groups charged with planning the area's future. The guest speaker was Thelma Drake, a former Republican representative from Hampton Roads and who heads the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

What Drake had to say stunned the gathering. A new Amtrak train that will start service in 2013 from Norfolk to Washington, running through Petersburg, won't stop at the ornate, Renaissance revival Main Street Station built in downtown Richmond in 1901. Instead it will service the blocky Staples Mill Road station in the Henrico County suburbs.

Richmond's business elite had pinned hopes for better rail service and new higher-speed passenger trains on Main Street Station, which reopened for limited passenger service in 2004. Lots of urban revival plans center on the landmark station as a catalyst to revitalize Shockoe Bottom and downtown. More worrisome is that access to federal money for rail service is dependent on center city stations. Main Street Station is Richmond's official downtown designee.

Even though no newspaper reporter attended the Times-Dispatch meeting, according to people who were there, one was summoned to record the frustration of the group. “We want to get the word out that Main Street Station is the way to go,” says Charles E. Gates Jr., communications coordinator for the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, which oversees the Capital Region Collaborative with the chamber.

Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman with the department of rail and public transportation, says that eventually the Norfolk Amtrak train will use the Main Street Station, but only after about $600 million in capital improvements can be made to a freight-train line that follows Interstate 95 roughly from Petersburg to downtown. Gates says such improvement will cost only $122 million, still a substantial amount of money in a tax-averse state that can't afford $20 billion in needed road improvements.

While an architectural gem, Main Street Station has always been a diamond in the rough. Rail historians say it was already obsolete when construction was finished in 1901. The larger, more efficient Union Station on Broad Street, now home to the Virginia Science Museum, was a bigger operator during passenger rail's golden age more than a half a century ago.

Today, Main Street Station can serve only trains originating at Newport News on the Peninsula, meaning that most of Hampton Roads' population has to drive long distances and negotiate often-crammed harbor tunnels just to take Amtrak, which has an abysmal statewide on-time rate of just 52.4 percent.

Only two daily trains stop at Main Street Station, with five others operating on five-day or one-day-a-week schedules. Richmond's rail boosters say Main Street Station has seen a positive increase in ridership in recent years. In fiscal year 2009, Tracy Connell, an Amtrak spokeswoman, says ridership at Main Street was 23,576, an increase of 4,216 over fiscal year 2008. Still, it's a drop in the bucket compared with Staples Mill, which had 256,006 riders in fiscal 2009.

Main Street doesn't compare favorably with other Virginia stations either. Lorton has the highest level for the month of March, with 24,570 riders, according to the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Alexandria, Newport News and Charlottesville all had substantially higher ridership numbers than Main Street Station as well.

To allow passenger trains to use Main Street Station from the south, substantial capital expenses would have to be made. Passenger trains today take CSX lines until they get to Centralia Road, where they branch to the left to take an A route that crosses the James River using a historic 1902 bridge, then following Powhite Parkway, Interstate 195 and beyond to Staples Mill Station.

At Centralia Road, a little-used freight line known as the “S” line branches to the northeast and runs parallel to Interstate 95 near the Philip Morris USA cigarette plant and various warehouses past Commerce Road and on to Main Street Station. Pickett says that the line isn't equipped with needed signals and other gear, and that more improvements would have to be made north of downtown to bypass the busy Acca freight yard in order to use Main Street Station. Her department has prepared a study estimating that all of the upgrades will cost $591.6 million. Gates says that using Main Street can be achieved for far less, only $122 million, but doesn't provide details.

Regardless, funding is unavailable. When the Obama administration provided $8 billion for higher-speed rail service nationally, Virginia applied for more than $1 billion but received just $75 million to fix tracks in Stafford and Prince William counties. More federal money should be available for rail in the future, which is an Obama transportation priority.

Using public-private funding could be considered. A recent report done for the state by the corporate finance section of accounting giant KPMG, says that too much of such funding has been spent on roads and should be used for other sectors such as rail. The state has a rail enhancement fund that includes private equity, but the fund pays out only $23 million, far less than what's needed to expand service at Main Street Station.

The ultimate question, however, is whether Main Street Station is worth more than a half-billion dollars to upgrade tracks for upgraded service that averages a meager 2,000 passengers each month. That level is four times less than monthly ridership in Charlottesville, a much smaller city, and 10 times less than the Staples Mill station.

This isn't to say that passenger rail has no future. Officials were surprised when a new Amtrak train that began service from Lynchburg to Washington in October surpassed its projected annual ridership levels in less than six months. Pickett says that Amtrak tapped a ready market that includes college students looking for cheap and convenient transportation to the Northeast. The train leaves Lynchburg at 7:30 a.m. and arrives in Boston at 3:30 p.m.

The Main Street Station conundrum raises other issues as well. One is why communication seems so poor between the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appointed Drake, and Richmond's Republican-leaning corporate and civic leaders? The other is one of fiscal responsibility: Should the rest of the state bear the burden of improving Main Street Station when cheaper, more efficient solutions are available?

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