By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
The commonwealth of Virginia plans to soon expand Amtrak service to Norfolk, and if recent experience is any indication, there will be no shortage of riders lining up to take the train.
Congestion on the Interstate 95 corridor along the eastern seaboard continues to mount, making automobile trips into major metropolitan areas of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) increasingly long and stressful. That's why the commonwealth of Virginia launched a new intercity passenger-rail service to Lynchburg in October 2009 and another one to Richmond in July 2010. The state-supported service to Norfolk, scheduled to launch Dec. 12, will add yet another travel option for a growing area of the commonwealth.
Home to nearly 1.5 million people, the Norfolk area has the highest population density in the commonwealth without access to an intercity passenger train, says Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) Director Thelma Drake. Norfolk also is home to the world's largest naval base and a number of defense contractors, and has the highest active duty military population in the country — any number of which might need to travel to the nation's capital at a moment's notice.
"That trip has a very high airfare, and it's becoming a more and more difficult car trip to make because of congestion," says Drake.
That's why adding train service that connects to the NEC is becoming increasingly critical. As it did with the Lynchburg and Richmond services, DRPT has contracted Amtrak to operate the Norfolk service trains. That way, trains traveling to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station will be able to continue along the Amtrak-owned NEC to New York City, Philadelphia and Boston, providing travelers a one-seat ride to those destinations.
Providing rail service to Norfolk will be crucial, too. The historic town is a tourist destination, and also home to a handful of colleges and universities.
Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) in 2011 opened The Tide light-rail service, which connects downtown Norfolk with several key employment centers. The new intercity service will connect with The Tide at Harbor Park. Early morning Amtrak departures will occur before The Tide begins operations, but passengers taking the evening train into Norfolk could connect with the light-rail service.
That connection could pay even more dividends down the road. HRT is studying the feasibility of extending light-rail service to Virginia Beach, which means people could eventually travel exclusively by train from Northeast Corridor destinations to the Virginia oceanfront.
To accommodate the new Norfolk service, the commonwealth purchased three train slots from Norfolk Southern Railway and one from CSX Transportation; the railroads own segments of the track along which the passenger trains will operate. In return, the Class Is have upgraded the infrastructure for passenger trains on the heavily used freight corridor, which serves the Port of Virginia in Norfolk. Additional improvements are coming: The railroads are building crossovers and upgrading the signal system. Trains will operate a bit slower during the first six to eight months until those upgrades are completed, says Drake.
DRPT officials anticipate the Norfolk service to be as successful — or perhaps more so — than the existing Lynchburg and Richmond services, which are performing well. The Lynchburg service, in particular, has blown ridership and revenue projects out of the water, and currently runs in the black, says Drake.
"Lynchburg not only covers the costs for both services, it puts money in the bank," she says.
DRPT officials expect the Norfolk train to help boost ridership on the Richmond service; trains will be stored in Norfolk overnight, and then go on to serve Richmond.
"A major goal of the state is to be able to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road," says Drake. "This new service will provide another opportunity for people to get into and out of a very important region of our state."