This October, it will be 10 years since the Commonwealth of Virginia and Amtrak initiated dedicated passenger rail service between Lynchburg’s Kemper Station and Union Station in Washington, D.C. And what a decade it’s been.
There were many supporters of passenger rail service in Central Virginia, but the great unknown — the great fear — was how successful it would be. Within weeks of service beginning Oct. 1, 2009, it became clear how great the pent-up demand for the service was: Ridership totals were blowing past monthly estimates, additional cars had to be added and the line was paying for itself within a year.
In the early years, there was shuttle bus service from Roanoke to Lynchburg for persons wanting to catch the new line to Washington. Eventually, that service built up a market of sufficient size for Amtrak to make Roanoke the starting point of the line, and even today, ridership numbers continue to grow.
Almost from day one, officials with the town and county of Bedford have dreamed of a stop there. Those efforts gained steam in 2013 when Amtrak announced service to Roanoke.
But skeptics, including — surprisingly — officials with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), raised doubts about the efficacy of a Bedford station, questioning whether there would be sufficient numbers of would-be passengers to justify building and operating a station in the town. Indeed, earlier this year, two DRPT officials were caught on tape dismissing the idea of a Bedford stop while also denigrating Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine’s leadership of the agency.
At a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board earlier this spring, one of those same DRPT officials recommended against approving a $10 million project to construct a station platform on Plunkett Street in Bedford, saying the estimated 2,800 additional passengers per year just couldn’t justify the cost.
Last month, the transportation board deferred action on the Bedford platform project, disappointing rail advocates, but all is not lost.
In a compromise, the board approved two measures that, taken together, keep the dream of a Bedford Amtrak stop alive. First, commissioners approved $300,000 to conduct a market and ridership study to determine how a Bedford stop would affect overall numbers for the line. Second, they designated $325,000 to restart shuttle bus service between Bedford and Lynchburg’s Kemper Street Station; service initially began in 2011 but was discontinued.
Ten years ago, we were among the mild skeptics of passenger rail service from Lynchburg to D.C., believing in its potential but fearing it would take years to build a sustainable market, requiring state subsidies in the mean time. We were wrong. And we believe doubters of Bedford service are likewise wrong today.
As the areas west of Roanoke provide growth potential for the Star City station, so does the area south of the town of Bedford provide similar potential for a stop there. Franklin County, with a population of 56,000, and the Smith Mountain Lake region, whose population of 22,000 is spread over the counties of Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania, are prime markets for rail service to D.C. and Northern Virginia.
Ten years ago, we took a chance on passenger rail from Lynchburg to D.C. Ten years later, let’s take a chance on a Bedford station.