As has been reported in this newspaper and others, discussions are underway to bring passenger rail service back to Christiansburg after a 50-year absence.
I’ve taken an acute interest in this, as my most recent book, “Chasing the Powhatan Arrow,” is about trains, and specifically how the railway presence has affected the communities through which they run.
Recently I got together with John Tutle who is on a volunteer committee to coordinate efforts between the various municipalities, stakeholders and AMTRAK to try to make that happen.
“They’re seeing good ridership numbers in Roanoke,” he told me, regarding the new service expanded from Lynchburg in October 2017. “That’s crucial, because if they don’t get the good numbers they need in Roanoke, we won’t see it here. But they’re getting good numbers and they’re pleased. They’re going to see around 40,000 passengers in the first year.”
At this stage, Roanoke is the end of the line; you can only go or come from the east, through Lynchburg. John’s group hopes to change that, with the end of the line extended into Christiansburg and potentially to Bristol.
If they can continue to have enough ridership in Roanoke, and if they feel they can expand, they’ll come here. It makes lots of sense and is getting good support here.
Virginia Tech is strongly in favor, as is the CRC (Corporate Research Center). The town of Christiansburg has proactively bought property alongside the tracks near the Aquatic Center in anticipation of building a platform or station there. They’re putting in a parking lot that can be used now as overflow for the Center, but later used for train patrons.
At this stage, Roanoke doesn’t have a station at all, merely a platform, near the Winston Link Museum, the Hotel Roanoke, and the Farmer’s Market.
According to Tutle, Christiansburg would like to “jump a little bit more, and get a station as soon as possible.”
Tutle was personally not a train aficionado. But for years he’d been involved with the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and its economic development efforts, serving as a board member for many years and chairman in 2013.
“I began to see (renewed passenger service) as an economic driver for the region.”
I envisioned more people leaving than coming, with local folks going to Washington, New York, and Boston on holiday visits. But Tutle felt that many people would use the train to come here, for graduations, football games, and recreation.
“It will be a great way to bring people here, especially on the weekends.
“And it’s a great, relaxing trip. The train has WiFi so you can be connected and get work done. It’s 5-1/2 hours to DC, but there is no traffic and no stress.
“With I-81, we’re averaging five wrecks per day from Winchester to Bristol. Last Thursday, there were two traffic jams that turned several sections into a parking lot that lasted for hours. Trains certainly have the chance to be more reliable.”
During research for my book, I spoke with the station master in Lynchburg who told me that on weekends, especially prior to holidays, the train from there to Charlottesville, Washington and beyond is filled with students from Liberty University, Longwood University, and University of Lynchburg going home in a safe, affordable, traffic free way, making it almost a party scene. There’s nothing more fun (for college kids) than riding a train filled with college kids!
“I was hesitant when I first got started in this,” Tutle admitted. “But I think passenger rail will make a comeback. I thought it was a fad. But I don’t believe that any more. It’s been eye opening, how many people want to ride the train and how many people are riding now. Transportation to and from the station will be easy with services like Lyft and Uber. Hotels will offer service the way they now offer shuttles to airports.
“My committee started with the Blacksburg Partnership. I’m on the marketing side. I’ve done a couple of presentations where people have said the’ve been on trains and want to go again. They want to see a ballgame or show in New York, Baltimore or Washington.”
Personally, I’d like to see greatly expanded railroad service in America. We subsidize our highways and our airports and air traffic control. Why are we not willing to subsidize railroad service?
“I’d like to see a shuttle train from Blacksburg and Christiansburg to Roanoke,” Tutle said. “It would really tie the area together.
“I’m really impressed by how many people want to ride the train. It’s not a whim. It’s not a passing fad.”
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.