State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Virginia

Virginia is another state where railroad ridership is booming. Amtrak ridership in Virginia has doubled over the past dozen years, making it the third fastest-growing state in the country over that time frame. (Only New Hampshire and North Carolina grew faster.) On the regional railroad in the northeast part of the state, Virginia Railway Express, average monthly ridership has surged 148% from September 1994 to March 2015. Ridership is increasing as both railroads are in expansion mode. Amtrak has recently expanded its Boston-bound Northeast Regional service southward from Washington, with two new branches into Virginia. And Virginia Railway Express is poised to extend its Fredericksburg Line southward to Spotsylvania before the end of the year.

Except for the western panhandle, Virginia’s railroad stations are fairly evenly distributed throughout the state. Today there are 20 Amtrak stations in Virginia, up from 18 at the beginning of 2003. (Richmond-Main Street opened in December 2003, and Norfolk opened in December 2012.)

Besides the Northeast Regional, Amtrak also serves Virginia with seven long-distance trains, six of which originate in New York: The Cardinal to Chicago, the Carolinian to North Carolina, the Crescent to New Orleans, the Palmetto to Georgia, and the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Miami. Virginia is also the embarkation point for the Auto Train, which rolls with you and your car down to the Orlando area. But the most frequent Amtrak service in Virginia is the Northeast Regional, and Amtrak has been increasing service in Virginia.

The railroad has long had Northeast Regional service to/from Newport News. In October 2009 it added a western branch to Lynchburg, via Charlottesville, using tracks that were already in service for the Cardinal and Crescent. In December 2012, it added an eastern branch to Norfolk, and in October 2013 it began breaking out ridership statistics for trains to Richmond-Staples Mill, which is on the line to Newport News and Norfolk. I think this may have coincided with a service increase that made that data breakout worthwhile. This graph shows the average monthly ridership on each of these branches of the Northeast Regional in Virginia.

The total average monthly ridership has doubled over this time period, thanks to the service increases. What’s interesting is that the Washington-Norfolk service has certainly added riders to the overall total, but it also seems to have reduced some of the demand for service to Newport News, which is not surprising since the cities are near one another on opposite sides of Hampton Roads. As far as the apparent reduction in ridership to Newport News that results from the addition of the light blue component of the graph (Washington-Richmond), that’s really just a function of having more data available. You can effectively add the light and dark blue areas in this graph together, since prior to the data being presented separately, trips to Richmond would have been counted in the Newport News category. Since October 2013, the blue presumably includes just the ridership at Newport News, Richmond-Main Street, and Williamsburg. It presumably previously included all of the ridership those stations as well as at six stations now in the red field: Alexandria, Woodbridge, Quantico, Fredericksburg, Ashland, and Richmond-Staples Mill.

Now lets’s turn to overall Amtrak ridership across the state, looking at the Northeast Regional as well as the long-distance routes. This stacked column graph shows the totals by station, by year.

And this line graph has the same information, but putting the focus on the relative increases at each station.

Please note, in the legend at left, Lorton should be the second station listed. There is a glitch of some kind that is kicking it down to the bottom. The fastest growing station in the state is Lynchburg, where ridership is up 666%, growing from 11,267 in 2003 to 86,302 in 2014. Next is Culpeper, which grew 462%, from 2,536 in 2003 to 14,257 in 2014. Other stations with rapid growth rates are Woodbridge, up 313%, Newport News, up 289%, Manassas, up 285%, Fredericksburg, up 271%, and Quantico, up 225%.

Now let’s look to a pie chart that shows which stations are busiest.

Virginia is one of those states with an even distribution of passengers, such that no one station dominates too much. The busiest station is and has been Richmond-Staples Mill, which in 2014 accounted for less than a quarter of the state’s riders (23%), next was Lorton with 17%, then Alexandria, with 11%.

But it is important to remember that these statistics only cover Amtrak, not Virginia’s other passenger railroad, Virginia Railway Express, which is a major rail success story. It was started in 1992 as a commuter railroad with two lines operating between Washignton, D.C., and Virginia’s northern suburbs. Since then ridership has greatly expanded, as this next chart shows.

As you can see, if there was any doubt about ridership as of the summer of 1998, that should have quickly evaporated when the railroad began a long-term uptrend.

Let’s conclude the post as we did last week with Vermont, with a case study in what happens when Amtrak opens and closes stations that are near one another. In January 2010, three months after Amtrak began Northeast Regional service to Lynchburg, it added a stop at the Virginia Railway Express Manassas Line station at Burke Center. With that station in service, in April 2010 it ended Northeast Regional service at the nearby Virginia Railway Express Fredericksburg Line station at Franconia-Springfield (that was on the Newport News branch of the Northeast Regional). This graph shows the results on ridership.

As we’ve seen in Vermont, Michigan, and California, it seems the service planners knew what they were doing. Ridership had been growing at Franconia-Springfield, and one might hesitate to end service at a station that’s getting busier each year. But it grew even more at Burke Center.

This entry was posted in Amtrak, Auto Train, Cardinal, Carolinian, commuter rail, Crescent, Northeast Corridor, Northeast Regional, Palmetto, passenger rail, railroads, regional rail, Silver Meteor, Silver Star, State of U.S. Passenger Rail Series, trains, transportation, Virginia, Virginia Railway Express. Bookmark the permalink.