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Railroaded

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Oh, the irony. In the midst of its 150th anniversary celebrations, toasting its founding by the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad in 1858, the town of Ashland faces the prospect of becoming a train town without passenger rail service.

The town, along with the Staples Mill Road station in Henrico, may get the caboose treatment by Amtrak as the state considers alternative passenger rail routes as part of changes included in a proposal to bring a high-speed rail system through Richmond.

"I think it would be an emotional blow to the community -- it's a part of Ashland," says Ashland's town manager, Charles Hartgrove, of the Amtrak trains that roll through town seven or more times every day and set the pace and mood of the town. "Ashland is a town born of the railroad."

Business there is also born of the railroad, according to Hartgrove — with nods from many of the retailers whose shops line Railroad Avenue and from the two dozen or so commuters who take the train to work in Washington, D.C.

Theresa Harter is the former manager of the Club Car Ice Cream and Desert Bar, which rattles regularly with the passing trains that kids and parents, with ice cream cones in hand, line up to watch pull into the station just a block away.

"Birthday parties are big business here," Harter says. The shop advertises its availability for parties that embark from Richmond and drop off at the Ashland station. "The kids love it."

Losing the passenger service, she says, will "affect every business in town. That's why people come to town is they like to watch the trains — that's why they call this the Center of the Universe."

And Harter knows her share of the 30 or so commuters who take the train to work each day in Washington. Among those riders is Townes Rison, who hops the 6:10 a.m. train every day.

"I don't know all the workings behind the scenes, but it is discouraging," says Rison, who rides to his federal government job, paying between $590 and $680 a month for a monthly pass. That pricing, he says, "is looking better and better every week" with the skyrocketing cost of gas.

And the benefits don't stop at bypassing the pump: "You don't have to pay for parking, you don't have to pay for gas or for maintenance on your car — plus you can do work on the train or read or sleep," Rison says. "I think [Amtrak] should be encouraging people to take it — and take the most direct route."

And then there's Randolph-Macon College, also located along Ashland's tracks.

Students, faculty and staff use the train regularly. The regular passing of trains is part of the college's graduation ceremonies.

"Having the railroad access is one of the main reasons the college moved to Ashland from Boydton," says Hartgrove. "A lot of this may sound like a history lesson, but a lot of it's still true today."

Nixing the Ashland station stop, according to Hartgrove and state officials, is only one idea being considered as part of the high-speed rail study. The alternative route being considered is the existing Buckingham Branch rail line that runs roughly parallel to State Route 301.

Though it's only a proposal, it's a serious enough issue that town and county leaders are already addressing it by adopting or planning to adopt resolutions. Last week Hartgrove trucked down to Richmond to speak at a public hearing on the state's six-year transportation plan.

And a petition protesting the proposal that is circulating among town residents had by last week already gathered more than 600 signatures. S



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