CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — People are traveling by Amtrak in and out of Hampton Roads more than ever before.
In August alone, more than 87,000 passenger took trains trains originating or bound to either Newport News or Norfolk, a 10% increase over the previous year. Ridership hit an all-time high in 2022.
However a recent report by the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization found trips on Amtrak still make up less than 1% of travel in and out of the region.
They’ve wondered if adding more frequent service will be the ticket to more riders, proposing the RVA757 Connector.
Currently, a total of 10 trains service the three railroad stations serving Hampton Roads each day during the week — two northbound and southbound at Newport News and Williamsburg and three northbound and southbound out of Norfolk.
In total, the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which receives money from the Commonwealth of Virginia, budgeted $83.2 million this fiscal year to support the operations of the trains.
In the future, the number of trains and amount of money spent is only expected to increase.
Three more daily trains will be added to the Southside and one additional train will run on the Peninsula beginning in 2026, according to the 2022 Virginia State Rail Plan of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
In the meantime, while Amtrak continues to explore options to make tickets more competitive, Robert Case, the chief transportation engineer for HRTPO, said time is the currency most would-be travelers seem to be considering.
“One reason for this is that rail trips take longer than auto trips,” Case wrote in his report.
Using data from October 2022, a comparison of of train travel time between Richmond and Hampton Roads and car trips found on-average that a trip by car saved 13 minutes.
Case found that the reason, other than delays at station stops, was the increased travel times between Canal Drive in Chesapeake and the Norfolk’s Harbor Park Station, between the two Richmond stations — Main Street (RVM) and Staples Mills (RVR) and between Darbytown Road in Henrico County and the Main Street station in Richmond.
All Amtrak trains south of Washington D.C. share the tracks with CSX and Norfolk Southern freight trains, and often those can cause delays. While Case believes building additional track could help solve these issues, “seeing the unlikeliness” of that happening, his staff sought a different approach.
“We can’t really improve those delays,” Case said. “What can we do to improve? And so we threw out this staff idea to improve service, not by decreasing delay, but by increasing frequency, basically.”
Thus the idea of the RVA757 Connector was born.
All trains in and out of Hampton Roads either are going or coming from the north. They terminate or originate in Boston or New York, stopping at major cities like Richmond, Washington D.C. and Baltimore along the way.
However in order to go south, a passenger leaving Hampton Roads has to go to either Petersburg or Richmond to transfer trains.
Case said with the current train load, timing those transfers can be difficult and take hours on their own.
He wonders if adding more service to those transfer points will make the difference in people choosing to climb aboard.
The RVA757 Connector would be a special train Amtrak would operate to increase the frequency of trips between Hampton Roads and Richmond’s two stations.
“It wouldn’t decrease delays, and what it would do is give you more more trains up and back, like say it is sort of a shuttle,” Case said. “This would just go to Richmond and back. And so you could do four or five round trips in a day.”
For their study, staff proposed running the train on the Peninsula — meaning it would originate and terminate in Newport News and Richmond Staples Mill Station as well as stop in Williamsburg and Richmond’s Main Street Station.
Case said not only could this help people make connections in Richmond, but it could also increase connectivity between the two metro areas.
“You would be tripling the number of trips,” Case said. “Because of all these multiple times and opportunities, you could actually make day trips. And so, it wouldn’t be a commuter train because a commuter train leaves, like, every hour in the morning and comes back every hour and in the afternoon. But this gives you enough trips to where you could go up for a meeting or shopping or dining or whatever and come back in the same day.”
At this point, the proposal has only recently been sent to the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which ultimately would be charged with making the idea a reality.
There is no cost estimate and neither Amtrak or CSX has been consulted. Case doesn’t expect action anytime soon.
More importantly, Case said he wants to hear would would be travelers think.
“It’s for the state to to respond to,” Case said. “It’s to get the idea out there in the public like you’re doing, you know, to see if there’s interest in this kind of thing,” Case said. “I don’t think 1% is magic. I think … we made this investment. Why not make the most out of it? So the tracks are there, the stations are there, Amtrak is there. You know, why not? Why not make the most out of what you’ve got?”