A Republican governor who gets it

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, December 13, 2012

A happy group of people rode what I dub The Celebration Train to Norfolk this week, the day before start of daily Amtrak service between points on the Northeast Corridor and Norfolk, Va. Nobody was happier than I. You see, Virginians love passenger trains and prove it every day. And we have a conservative Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, who understands this and is supportive.

Six short-distance trains, all of them extensions of NEC trains to or from Boston or New York, now ply CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks in Virginia. Two go to Newport News, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk and Virginia Beach, two go to Richmond, the state capital, and one each run to Lynchburg in southern Virginia and to Norfolk.

I said earlier that Virginians prove they love trains. Here is what I mean: One of the Richmond trains, plus the ones to Norfolk and Lynchburg, are state-supported, meaning that Virginia pays Amtrak for the losses the trains create. But get this: So far, Virginia has not paid Amtrak a dime. Through the first 11 months of fiscal 2012, which ended this September 30, the Lynchburg train averaged 261 passengers each way per day, producing revenue of $11 million that after fully allocated costs left a profit of $3.6 million. This more than covered the small loss of the state-supported run to Richmond.

Come next October 1, Congress requires that states pay the fully allocated losses of all short-distance trains, plus a capital cost. That shouldn’t represent much of a problem for Virginia. Kevin Page of Department of Rail & Public Transportation told me the state has millions of appropriated funds in the bank that so far haven’t been needed for losses that never materialized.

Infrastructure investments Virginia made to NS tracks between Petersburg, Va., and Norfolk “bought” slots from that railroad for two more round trips to Norfolk. CSX has hinted that the price it will demand for its portion of future Norfolk runs, between Richmond and Petersburg, will be a new double-track bridge over the Appomattox River in Petersburg. Given the number of Amtrak trains already crossing the present single-track bridge (12 a day), CSX probably has a good case to make.

Bob McDonnell could have taken a leaf from fellow Republican governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, who spurned commitments to passenger trains (and brought very little glory upon themselves, I might add). But he did not. Instead, he boarded The Celebration Train near Suffolk and joined the party. Like I said at the start, we were a happy bunch. — Fred W. Frailey

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