Fantasy Thinking about Passenger Rail

I like riding passenger trains. My wife and I rode the rails from Richmond to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago to avoid the knuckle-clenching grind of Interstate 95 and the expense of parking in the District. The seats in our Amtrak car were comfortable, and Wi-Fi allowed us to check email and surf the Web. What I like even more is that my tickets were subsidized. Thank you, taxpayers, for making my enjoyable trip more affordable!

The cost of train travel rarely enters into the consideration of other rail buffs, however. Indeed, in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch Rafi Guroian, a director of the Virginia Rail Passengers Association, urges a massive expansion of train service in Virginia without ever once mentioning how much his marvelous ideas would cost.

Guroian praises Virginia for expanding its passenger rail service in recent years to Roanoke and Norfolk, but says the state’s long-term vision is crimped. Virginia’s passenger rail system, he observes, serves mainly “to whisk people and money out of Virginia, and into Washington and the Northeast corridor. … But what about people who want to visit Virginia from out of state for a day-trip of business or tourism? Their options are decidedly more limited.”

Guroian offers an expansive vision. “We need trains that encourage travel to and within our commonwealth,” he writes. “We need more trains coming into the state in the morning, leaving in the evening, and we need cross-state trains through our key activity centers (college, business, and tourist destinations).”

Wow, that is quite a list of “needs.” But I’m wondering, how many people actually need these things? How badly do they need these things? Given alternative transportation modes such as cars and inter-city buses, how willing are they to pay to, say, ride a train from Roanoke to Norfolk? How much would it cost to fund Guroian’s vision of expanded rail service, what is the gap between what it would cost and what people are willing to pay in fares, and how much would he ask from taxpayers to make up the difference?

Any discussion of passenger rail in Virginia that fails to address such questions strikes me as disconnected from reality and utterly pointless.

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21 responses to “Fantasy Thinking about Passenger Rail”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Like health care – you gotta wonder why these things work in every other industrialized country and not ours?

    You said yourself – you took the train to avoid the knuckle-clenching ordeal. Do you think you’re alone that others also would not take the train if it ran more frequently and had more stops?

    In terms of subsidies – let me point out that the general sales tax in Virginia generates more than a billion dollars a year. If that money goes to roads is that a “subsidy”? If it went for trains – would it be a “subsidy”.

    Do other countries “subsidize” trains or do we say that because they pay taxes and the taxes pay for trains that – that’s no more a “subsidy” than paying taxes for schools or police? Are police “subsidized” because there is no fee for their “service”?

  2. S. E. Warwick Avatar
    S. E. Warwick

    Do tracks between Norfolk and Roanoke exist? If not the cost of acquiring rights of way could be enormous, not to mention political jockeying over the route they would take.

    If you take the train from Richmond to DC and arrive at Union Station, many places to visit are in walking distance, or you can use the Metro. If you arrive in Richmond at either Staples Mill or Shockoe Bottom, how easy is it to get anywhere?

    What kind of return on investment would there be from creating all of these rail routes?

    1. Lawrence Hincker Avatar
      Lawrence Hincker

      Yes, of course the tracks exist. After all, Norfolk Southern’s former name was Norfolk & Western and was headquartered in Roanoke. Coal train after coal train rides along those tracks every day. In this instance available tracks are not the issue. Getting Norfolk Southern to the table to allow passenger rail, however, always remains a stumbling block.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        VRE, CSX and AmTrack co=exist on the track from Richmond to Washington – so far but VRE can and does get whacked from time to time much to the chagrin of VRE who prides itself on “on-time”.

        1. Same on Manassas VRE line, I could walk from my house to get an AMTRAK to New York if I so desired. But the VRE schedule is very limited to work commuting basically. That may change with future new tracks over the Potomac into DC, which is the bottleneck.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: getting around after you get there – think UBER!

      In terms of tracks to Roanoke – multiple ones

      Anyone driven I-81 to Blacksburg lately? I-64 to Va Beach on a weekend?

      We have tracks between Richmond and Washington but they are maxed and an additional track is needed. You would not believe the opposition from landowners! It’s a no-go unless the state exercises eminent domain.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Calling All Virginians Aboard
    Virginia Department of Rail & Public Transportation sent this bulletin at 04/30/2019 11:17 AM EDT
    April 30, 2019

    Jessica Cowardin, DRPT
    (804) 205-8702

    Calling All Virginians Aboard
    Discover more of Virginia with 15% off Amtrak trips within Virginia and DC

    RICHMOND – Beginning Tuesday, April 30, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is rolling out the Virginia Anytime Fare allowing Virginians to receive 15% off Amtrak travel within Virginia and Washington D.C. Customers will be able to book any time, on any Northeast Regional train, using the promo code V552. The Northeast Regional provides daily service within Virginia originating from Norfolk, Newport News, Richmond, and Roanoke.

    This new in-state discount reinforces DRPT’s mission to facilitate and improve mobility of its citizens. “The Commonwealth is proud to offer the Virginia Anytime Fare to our passenger rail customers in Virginia,” said DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell. “We know how much our citizens enjoy taking the train, which is why creating a discount solely for Virginians and rewarding train travel within the state is important to DRPT. This discount is for Virginia. From Virginia.”

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Thanks, Larry. I like to take the Amtrak to D.C. a couple of times a year for a day at the Smithsonian or around there. I was planning a second trip in the summer. Now I can get 15% off. Of course, DRPT’s intent was to give me an incentive to take a trip, not subsidize one that I was planning to take anyway!

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Jim is baiting me because he knows last week we had a trip on France’s TGV, making it between Paris and Lyon in just over two hours, with stretches of the trip approaching 300 kmh (180 mph). Train was clean, on time, comfortable, had a nice snack bar, and the stations at each end were well served by subway and bus connections. A trip to DC at least has that, easy to get onto to the DC metro from some of stops up there. Richmond? Station is convenient to me, but not to most parts of town. I’m sure TGV is heavily subsidized. Our tickets (group rate I’m sure) were first class and the ticket read $55 USD (not Euros). It’s a five hour car trip. Magnifique.

    Airport comparisons between CDG and IAD don’t come out favorable to the US of A, either. We just won’t support the investments, the dreaded taxes. When will the DC Metro finally reach out to Dulles? In my lifetime? Idiots not to do that from the first….

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Informative post, Steve. Why can’t America build such rails anymore That lack of competence and will is surely another dead canary silent in our gloom.

      1. America can’t build any major infrastructure projects anymore. (That’s one reason why the $2 trillion infrastructure initiative floated by Trump and Congressional Democrats is a joke.)

        One way to improve the speed of rail from Richmond to D.C. is to run a third rail line through downtown Ashland in Hanover County. Needless to say, everyone in Ashland is up in arms. Can’t blame them. If I were them, I wouldn’t want a third rail line either, which would create all sorts of mayhem for the city’s downtown. But no one outside of Ashland wants a rail line running around the city either. We run into the same problem everywhere, whether it’s natural gas pipelines, high-voltage transmission lines, highways, railroads, (sometimes) solar farms, or downtown development projects that might cause “gentrification.”

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Richmond is too small to be relevant. There’s no problem with passenger train transport from DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York City to Boston. If Richmonders want to play big boy, big city games you have to become a big boy big city. The idea that Richmond should spend tax money building big city conveniences while not being a big city is absurd. Follow Charlotte, Nashville, Atlanta or Austin into big boy big city land then ask for taxpayer paid passenger rail.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        We’re well past the dead canary stage transportation wise in the DC Baltimore and Richmond region in substantial part due to our abysmal record of building rail, including efficient modern rail between between Richmond and DC. In addition, if the inland empire is to live up to its enormous but misunderstood potential, rail should be able to play an important roll there. Wake up Virginia! You’ve only just got started, unless you finish yourself off first through lack of imagination, initiative, and will.

        I also totally agree with Jim Bacon’s comment above. It’s largely a cultural problem of despair. Akin to when a culture stops making enough babies to replace itself. That’s Va. too.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    I’ve been to Richmond once in the last ten years and I’m in no hurry to go back. Nothing wrong with Richmond but why would I go there on a regular basis? Ditto Roanoke. These are not major population centers. Steve’s trip from Paris to Lyon connected France’s two biggest metropolitan areas, Lyon metro at 2.3m people and Paris metro at 12.5m. Roanoke metro has 312,331 people. You seriously want to spend taxpayers’ money to build rail to Roanoke? C’mon.

    As an aside, I taken Amtrak from DC to Philly, NYC and Boston literally hundreds of times. Almost every time for business. Big cities should have passenger rail. Virginia’s towns masquerading as cities? Give me a break.

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Point taken. There was NO stop between Paris and Lyon, and I’m sure that’s true of other stretches of the TGV, which does branch all over France. Marseilles is number two, Lyon number three.

    1. TBill Avatar

      We took it to Paris to Provence some years ago. Thanks for the memories.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Marseilles is the #2 city if you count the city proper. Lyon is #2 if you count the metro area. At least, that’s my understanding. Given any discussion of Richmond I think you have to count metro areas. Otherwise, the City of Richmond is too small to matter.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    So.. I question the use of the word “subsidies”. We use taxes to pay for all manner of infrastructure and services so how do we differentiate between what is said to be subsidized and what is not?

    Europe and Asia have CHOSEN to fund world class rail with their taxes yet we say that if we do that – it’s a subsidy.

    Europe and Asia and CHOSEN TO INVEST in rail and transit with their taxes – yet we say that if we do that – we are “subsidizing”.

    and…………. we can’t add a 3rd rail for Amtrak and CSX because people are opposed – but we CAN add more lanes to highways – even if they are also opposed?

    1. In LarryWorld, the word “subsidy” has no meaning. If subsidies have no meaning, they don’t exist except as concepts in our heads. “Invest,” “subsidize,” “piss away money,” it’s all the same.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        In Larry’s World they DO have meaning but I also expect some consistent criteria to be used. Right now, it seems totally arbitrary and subjective depending on whether one “likes” the thing that is being tax-funded or “subsidized”.

        Do we “piss away” money on schools, police, and the myriad other things we pay taxes for?

        Also – whether we tax-fund something or “subsidize” it – it does not mean we “piss away” the money; that assessment is in the eyes of the beholder.

        I just don’t see transit and rail as much different than roads, police and education in terms of what we CHOOSE to fund with taxes and that apparently is how Asia and Europe see it. They’re no more “subsidizing” rail than they are education or public safety, airports, ports, river locks, etc – all are needed for society and all provide benefits to society. Whether or not they cost “too much’ is a separate issue.

        We lack a decent rail system in this country – while every other industrialized country in the world has one – because of this idea of “subsidy”.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          One of the long running theories on Bacons Rebellion is to expose (and hopefully eliminate) hidden subsidies. Hidden subsidies are part of how the deep state secretly rewards its friends without the voter – taxpayers knowing. I’d much rather increase the payments under the SNAP program than continue to subsidize BigAg. I have no problem giving well documented discounts to less affluent people to take mass transit. However, using hidden subsidies for mass transit gives a discount to everybody – affluent and less affluent alike. Why is that the right approach?

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