From staff reports
Amtrak’s route between Washington and Lynchburg was one of only four — out of more than 40 operated by the train service — that turned a profit in 2011, according to a report released Friday.
The Lynchburg to Washington route, which receives no state funding, offset $6.9 million in costs with $10.1 million in revenue, turning a profit of roughly $3.3 million, according to the report by the by the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation, a Washington,
D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization.
The report notes the line — which began in October 2009 and also stops in Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas, Burke and Alexandria — saw 184,907 riders in 2012. For fiscal year 2012, which ended in September, the Lynchburg-Washington line carried 172,106 passengers, up from 149,306 in fiscal year 2011, according to numbers released by Amtrak.
Area economic leaders say the route’s profitability and consistent ridership numbers make the region more attractive to businesses looking to relocate or expand.
“What that means for us is that in attracting new business investment or working with existing businesses to expand, we can point to the train as a real way of connecting to major metro areas,” said Bryan David, executive director of the Region 2000 Economic Development Council.
“I certainly use the train service and its great success in my telling the story of the region,” David said.
The Brookings-Rockefeller report separates service from Lynchburg to Washington from the rest of the Northeast Regional line because of divisions in Amtrak ridership reports. But Rex Hammond, president of the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of rail expansion, said the line’s connectivity to all the destinations serviced by the Northeast Regional — including D.C., Philadelphia, New York City and Boston — is one of the main reasons for its success.
“A major source of our ridership is that linkage,” he said.
Both Hammond and David see potential in the line’s eventual expansion as well.
Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan, passed by the General Assembly in late February, calls for Amtrak service to extend to Roanoke.
Hammond said he would like to see the line grow to include Blacksburg and surrounding areas as well, and he’s working on building support for service to the west, passing through Bristol and extending all the way from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Norfolk.
“It’s great that we’re building on success,” he said. “We hope to expand on our vision of expanding passenger rail service across the commonwealth.”
Right now, Roanoke and Lynchburg are connected by bus. The Smart Way Connecter, which shuttles passengers between Roanoke and the Lynchburg Amtrak station, carried 14,204 passengers in 2012, its first full year of service. According to numbers provided by Greater Roanoke Transit Company, monthly ridership has hovered around the 1,200-passenger mark, varying between lows of around 800 and highs above 1,300.
When the shuttle debuted in 2011, organizers said usage exceeded expectations.
If an Amtrak expansion to Roanoke generated the same strong ridership numbers that Lynchburg and Charlottesville have seen, Hammond said, the region might see more cars added and increased frequency in train departures. That, in turn, would drive ridership up more.
“The more frequency you have, the more it accommodates people’s varying schedules, and that makes ridership go up even more,” Hammond said.
The other three lines with a positive balance in the Brookings report were the Northeast Regional, stretching from Virginia Beach to Boston; the Acela line, which runs between Boston and D.C.; and the Adirondack, which stretches north from New York City to Montreal. All four profitable lines service the northeast region of the country and connect to at least one of the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas.
But the report notes profitability is not the only significant measure of Amtrak’s success and not, therefore, its “primary goal.”
“Governments at all levels invest much more heavily in the key elements of the transportation network, whether though direct grants for highways, tax incentives for airlines, or appropriations for public transit,” the report says.