Amtrak Train

Passengers boarded a southbound train at the Staples Mill Amtrak station in Richmond last year. Federal officials continue to explore options for a possible high-speed rail line in the southeast.

During weekday rush hours, as well as weekends, dozens of cars and rideshares jockey for space at Amtrak’s Staples Mill Road station.

Each day, four different rail lines — the Palmetto, the Silver Service, the Carolinian and the Northeast Regional — connect passengers to points due north (as far as Boston) and south (as far as Miami). Amtrak is right to call Staples Mill a “major rail hub.”

Riders also know the potential for major headaches. Even in 2019, Amtrak tickets can be tenuous. Depending on the train you book, there’s a stark divide in a critical metric — on-time performance (OTP).

Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report last week that resonates in the Richmond region. OTP was strongest for trains on state-supported (81%) and Northeast Corridor (78%) lines. This includes “Virginia Services,” connecting Washington D.C. to Lynchburg, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News.

But the report also warned “long distance routes” have an OTP of 46%, with an average delay of 49 minutes. If you’re on the “Palmetto” or “Silver Star” at Staples Mill, there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll face an issue. Even “Northeast Regional” trains in Virginia include vulnerable rail segments, thanks to an ownership issue.

Amtrak owns and controls most of the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston. On state-supported lines and long-distance routes, “freight (or host) railroads generally own the tracks and dispatch trains,” the OIG report notes. “Although federal law requires host railroads to give passenger trains preference over freight trains, company executives have stated publicly that host railroads routinely disregard these laws, resulting in delays.”

That’s why we need to keep pushing options for a high-speed rail line that would include Richmond. According to a Sunday Charlotte Observer report, the Federal Railroad Administration and Georgia Department of Transportation are convening public meetings this week on a segment that would run from Charlotte to Atlanta. A draft study includes speeds of 220 miles per hour, for a travel time of two hours. The rough construction costs range from $2 billion to $15 billion, and money is to be determined.

While that’s quite the pricetag, we can’t ignore growing populations in southern metropolitan centers like Atlanta, Charlotte and Richmond. Amtrak’s OIG report identified poor OTP as a main driver of a 2018 operating loss of $171 million. Steps should be taken to find solutions that go past the status quo. We can benefit from building new, reliable rail corridors that yield on-time travel, not bleed money.

Chris Gentilviso

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