Norfolk to Anywhere
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Dec 13, 2012, 12:42
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Local and state officials and private partners joined forces to cut the ribbon on the new passenger rail service between Ettrick and Norfolk.
When the Amtrak train bound for Norfolk pulled into the Ettrick station in Chesterfield County on Tuesday morning, the scene was one of jubilation.
Hundreds of people turned out to see the first passenger train in 35 years run the line between their home station and Harbor Park Station in Norfolk.
“I want to ride,” said Jean Massenburg, who lives in South Chesterfield. “I think my last train ride was 20-some-years ago, and Norfolk is a great place.”
The train on Tuesday was a special one, carrying those instrumental in the line’s restoration to Norfolk.
The restoration of the rail line between Ettrick and Norfolk was a $114 million project, paid for entirely with state funds.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without your support, because this is a state provided, state supported, financially supported service, that is being supported with your tax dollars,” said Sean T. Connaughton, the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Transportation as he addressed the crowd waiting at the station on Tuesday.
Later, in Norfolk, Connaugton said that as the train proceeded down the line from Washington D.C., to Ashland, the Staples Mill, to Ettrick, to it’s final destination at Harbor Station, the enthusiasm and excitement of the crowds waiting had only grown.
“It shows you, as you went from city to city, stop to stop, just how important this train is, and this train service, to this region, to this city,” he said.
Amanda Reidelbach, manager of policy, communications and administration for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said that ridership on the stretch of track from Norfolk to Petersburg is expected to increase by 45,000 from the service’s start on Wednesday through Sept. 30, 2013.
At some point in the future, two additional trains might be added to the service in and out of Norfolk, although the necessary funding is not currently in place, Reidelbach said.
“There was a lot of research that went into making the decision to extend passenger rail to Norfolk,” she said, noting that the excessive congestion on the highways in the Hampton Roads area was a driving factor behind the decision.
The Hampton Roads area is one of the most populous regions in the state and is expected to grow. In addition to the Port of Virginia, one of the largest ports on the East Coast, the area is also home to the world’s largest Naval station.
“We’ve anticipated the military, based on research and input from them, that the miltiary will utilize this service to connect...all the various military installations in Hampton Roads with Fort Lee in Petersburg and then up to Quantico and the Pentagon,” Reidelbach said.
From 1977, when passenger service stopped running from Norfolk to Washington D.C., until yesterday, the Hampton Roads area was thought of as a region with a lack of transportation arteries.
“It was routinely referred to as sort of a cul-de-sac of Virginia,” said Governor Bob McDonnell, as he boarded the special tour train.
Connaughton returned to that theme later, saying the the passenger service would help Norfolk move away from cul-de-sac status.
“People always talk about Hampton Roads being a cul-de-sac, and you know what, it’s not a cul-de-sac,” he said in Norfolk. “If you look at this port, you look at the Navy, the military, the airports here, this is a gateway. It’s a gateway to the world.”
The project was achieved through cooperation between state, federal and private partners.
“This is a team effort,” said Thelma Drake, director of DRPT, who received a standing ovation from the crowd in Norfolk for her efforts spearheading the project. “It’s Virginia, it’s our railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, Amtrak as our operator, who all worked closely together, and with the city of Norfolk.”
Norfolk Southern worked to improve the rail alignment from Norfolk to Ettrick while CSX forged a new connection between the two lines in the local area so Amtrak could operate the passenger service, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said. He also noted that service will be starting 10 months ahead of schedule.
“I think that this is a marvelous example of a public private partnership of the state, the local and federal governments working together with the private sector, getting things done, no egos involved, everybody working together, not worrying about credit, just trying to solve problems and get things accomplished,” said McDonnell.
Speaking at the Ettrick stop, Charles “Wick” Moorman, CEO, president and chairman of Norfolk Southern, said that Virginia has been a torch bearer in the realm of railway revival.
“It is the most progressive states in the country in terms of understanding the importance of rail in solving this nation’s transportation issues, both in terms of freight and in terms of passengers,” he said.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson This police dog used the ride as a chance to nap, while humans settled in to send emails and catch up on work while the train trundled toward its destination.
Ellen Fitzsimmons, executive vice president of CSX, said that the project had been a wonderful example of wisdom, collaboration and public interest.
Leaders from the Chesterfield government and other local institutions also spoke at Ettrick about the benefits the passenger service will offer.
“It’s important for us to realize that education is still the key to success in life for many people,” said James Tyson, vice president for institutional advancement at Virginia State University. “We’re just thrilled to have this opportunity to continue to bring students from up and down the Eastern seaboard here to VSU to receive that education.”
The ability of rail transport to connect people all over the country was a major point Amtrak wanted to make.
Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman said that while much attention had been given to the fact that the new rail service will connect Norfolk with Washington D.C. and northern cities, that is just the beginning.
“You can also get to the West,” he said. “You can get to Chicago, you can get to Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego...”
Tom Carper, chairman of Amtrak’s board said that is the job of railways.
“Connecting the country,” he said. “That’s what Amtrak does. It connects the country.”
Both Carper and Boardman said they had seen increased interest in rail service in recent years and believed that providing efficient and frequent service would drive ridership.
“It was clear to me today to see that these people are very happy to have passenger rail back to Norfolk,” Carper said. “These things just don’t happen,” he said. “They take a lot of work and dedication and commitment. We’ve got that here, all up and down this line.”
Kate Collins, who lives in Virginia Beach, said she treasures her childhood memories of riding the train to North Carolina and knows she will use the passenger trains departing from the Southern side of the Hampton Roads for the first time in 35 years frequently.
“This is the most fantastic thing I can think of,” she said. “My friends all know that they couldn’t have this today without me being here. I’m very very enthused about trains.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Passengers board the special train celebrating the opening of the new line.
Service between Norfolk and D.C. officially began Wednesday. For tickets booked before Dec. 17 for dates before the end of December, a special rate of $19 per ticket is available.