NEWPORT NEWS — On a recent mid-week afternoon, the Newport News Amtrak station was bustling with patrons lugging suitcases into the sparse waiting room to await the arrival of the 4:55 p.m. train to Richmond and points north.
About 50 people boarded the train when it arrived. While the number of passengers taking a single train on one afternoon is not an accurate indicator of a service's overall health, it is indicative of an increasing interest in rail travel — and rail travel has been growing dramatically over the last decade. Many of the Newport News riders — both newbies and veteran passengers — had high praise for passenger rail service as an alternative to dealing with traffic or airport frustrations.
Amtrak says there has been a national trend of growing ridership over the last 10 years, and two Virginia corridors — Newport News to Washington and Lynchburg to Washington — are particularly notable. In May, Amtrak marked 19 consecutive months of year-over-year ridership growth nationwide. With 2.6 million passengers, May was also Amtrak's best month ever, the passenger rail carrier reported.
Overall, there has been a 36 percent increase in Amtrak ridership nationwide since 2000. Ridership records were set in seven of the past eight fiscal years, including more than 28.7 million passengers in 2010, Amtrak says.
The Virginia routes have had sizable ridership gains — 32.9 percent for Newport News to Washington and 43.4 percent for Lynchburg to Washington. In May of this year, the Newport News-Washington corridor had more than 51,000 riders compared to just over 39,000 during the same month in the previous year. Between October 2010 and May 2011, the corridor had over 350,000 riders compared with 292,000 during the same period one year prior — a 20 percent gain.
Figures related to the Newport News to Washington corridor as a whole aren't necessarily representative of Peninsula ridership because there are stations in Williamsburg and Richmond where riders could start or end their trips.
While the Peninsula has also seen significant ridership increases, the growth has not been as steady.
In 2005, Newport News ridership — including arrivals and departures — totaled 92,382 passengers. That figured dropped to 90,880 in 2006, then rose to 96,473 in 2007. In 2008, Peninsula ridership jumped to 117,154, then fell to 110,226 in 2009. It rebounded to 116,229 in 2010.
The first eight months of Amtrak's current fiscal year — that runs from October to September — logged 75,122 riders passing through the Newport News station. One year ago, that figure stood at 72,507, so Amtrak's Peninsula ridership is poised for growth again this year albeit at a rate less than 4 percent, according to Amtrak figures.
Courtney Ware, a spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said the department hasn't done extensive research to find out exactly why more people are riding the train but speculates that high gasoline prices and an uncertain economy are contributing factors.
Data from the rail department shows statewide Amtrak ridership increased 21 percent in April compared to April 2010. The district with the greatest increase during the same period was Lynchburg at 39 percent. Hampton Roads — including the Newport News station, Southside bus transfer services and a small station in Williamburg — saw 20 percent overall growth.
"At least from DRPT's perspective, there has been a fundamental shift in how we look at getting from point A to B," Ware said.
That theory seemed to hold up when Amtrak passengers were queried about their transportation choice.
At the Newport News station, passenger Anita Anderson of Richmond sat with her boyfriend Jimmy Patterson of Newport News as she waited for the train home. Anderson said she is a "regular rider" who takes the train about 25 times a year — mostly fromRichmond to Washington.
"You don't have to deal with traffic — that's the main thing," she said.
Ozzy Gunduz, a Tufts University instructor in Boston, was returning home after visiting friends in Virginia Beach. Gunduz said he grew up riding trains and buses in his native Turkey, so it was natural for him to continue the practice after moving to the United States six years ago. He does not own a car, he said.
"Amtrak is really great because all the buses are really awful. There is not enough room — Amtrak has that," he said. "It's quite slow but it still does the job, especially between the major cities on the East Coast. Most of the time I prefer the train because of the comfort and convenience and safety."
Yolanda George took a nine-hour train from Newark to pick up her niece Ruby in Newport News and return to New Jersey. It was her first time on Amtrak. George said she decided to try the train after a recent plane trip to Florida that she described as "a hassle."
"For me, it was a positive experience compared to the airplane," she said. "Even the people on the train were quiet — there wasn't a lot of noise — respectful customers. I prefer it to the plane."
Ware, the rail department spokeswoman, said Newport News ridership could grow more in coming years. Passenger train service is supposed to return to Norfolk — running along the CSX tracks south of the James River — by 2013. When that connection is established, the two Hampton Roads routes will begin to receive a state subsidy to help pay for operating costs, capital improvements and marketing. The subsidy program already contributes millions of dollars to the Lynchburg-Washington andRichmond-Washington routes.
Ware said Virginia is one of only 15 states that currently partner with Amtrak. But that will change in 2013 when new federal legislation requires all states to provide funding support to their regional rail services.
"That means Virginia stepped up, saw the need for additional service," Ware said. "That created a buzz in Virginia."
In addition, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization has approved construction of a new multi-modal train station on Bland Boulevard across from the Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport.
The question remains how Newport News ridership would fare further down the road if a new high speed rail line proposed to run from Norfolk to Richmond is built. Under that plan, six high speed trains would run from the Southside, while the Peninsula would get three additional trains that operate at conventional speeds.
Ware said preliminary estimates show Peninsula ridership — under that proposal — would grow to between 212,000 and 223,000 by 2025 if all three additional trains were in service.