Passenger Train Service Depends On Funding and Citizen Support

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Visitors gather outside the O. Winton Link Museum after an excursion train arrives Saturday from Spencer North Carolina.

Visitors gather outside the O. Winton Link Museum after an excursion train arrives Saturday from Spencer North Carolina.

Is Roanoke any closer to getting passenger train service again, something it has not had since 1971? Aside from the occasional excursion trains that arrive every fall, Roanokers must head to Lynchburg or Clifton Forge in order to catch an Amtrak train to other parts of the country.

As he did last year, once again state senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) hosted a town hall meeting at the O. Winston Link Museum on the future of passenger rail service.  Once again the lobby of the building, which also doubles as the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau information center, was jammed with people. “Your interest and enthusiasm makes all the difference in the world,” said Edwards as the meeting got underway.

Last week’s update session focused on two factors: the availability of funding, especially at the federal level, and the demand for such a service in the Roanoke Valley. Edwards estimated last year that the earliest target date for the restoration of passenger rail originating in downtown Roanoke would be 2015, if a combination of state and federal funding were in place.

Roanoke Mayor David Bowers, State Senator Ralph Smith (D-Botetourt County) and City Manager Chris Morrill were among those in attendance at the latest town hall. Morrill said it was possible that by the spring bus service to the Lynchburg Kemper St. Amtrak station could be in place; passengers would purchase one ticket that includes both the bus bridge and train fare.

“We are very committed to try and put that bus bridge in,” said Morrill. “[There are] logistics to work out.” Cooperation from other local governments may be a key,” said Bowers, adding “it is regional. How much support is there for this bus bridge in jurisdictions other than Roanoke City?”

The state director of rail and public transportation, Thelma Drake, was on hand to paint a realistic picture of passenger rail expansion locally. The state is “working on a study,” said Drake, that would look at the feasibility of adding the bus bridge that would take people from Roanoke to the Amtrak station in Lynchburg, at least until if / when the trains return to Roanoke.

Increased Amtrak service in Lynchburg, including trains sponsored by the state, have been a big hit with riders. “You have made it very, very successful,” noted Drake. Smith offered a motivational line towards the end of the 90-minute session about service to and from Roanoke: “It’s a railroad town – let’s do it.”

Adding service to Roanoke and other localities “requires increasing capacity on the tracks,” owned by Norfolk Southern and CSX. “We partner with them,” said Drake. The ultimate goal is passenger rail service that extends all the way to Bristol.

“We talk about Roanoke a lot,” promised Drake, a former Congresswoman appointed to her post by Governor Bob McDonnell. The state has worked with Norfolk Southern and Amtrak to “model” passenger train service originating from Roanoke, including a look at the track improvements – perhaps 100 million dollars or more — that would have to be made.

A survey to be finished by a December transportation conference in Roanoke may reveal how many Lynchburg train passengers actually come from Roanoke, perhaps providing more ammunition for funding the track improvements needed. “So far we do not have the funding in place for … this service,” said Drake.

One meeting attendee suggested that a train link to Roanoke would also boost tourism to the Star City.  Drake held out some hope to those that would like to board a train some day, headed for D.C., New York, Boston or elsewhere: “In some of my conversations with Amtrak they do think the next logical extension is Roanoke.”