CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston Mayor Danny Jones is a train travel enthusiast, making trips across the country on Amtrak several times a year.
So you can imagine his position on the possibility of Amtrak’s Cardinal line, which has several stops in West Virginia, increasing its frequency from three trips a week to seven.
Jones favors the idea, although he’s also a realist on the matter.
“It would bring more people through or more visitors if it were seven days a week,” Jones said last week during a visit to Charleston’s Amtrak station. However, “It would still lose money.”
Jones has been part of a groundswell of support for increasing the frequency of the Cardinal, which along its path between New York and Chicago serves West Virginia stations in White Sulphur Springs, Alderson, Hinton, Prince, Thurmond, Montgomery, Charleston and Huntington.
The epicenter of that effort is in Cincinnati, where supporters from communities along the Cardinal line gathered at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce in September in an effort to get the ball rolling.
“Reliable and consistent passenger rail service is really critical to our region’s ability to compete and maintain our reputation as one of the fastest-growing economies in the Midwest,” Jason Kershner, the chamber’s vice president for government relations, said in a telephone interview. “That point is relevant to the other stops along the route as well.”
“Getting daily Cardinal would be a huge step in providing businesses and residents regular service to other parts of the country. When we look at what other regions and places are doing to compete, we recognize that having options with regard to transportation is critical to business and economic growth.”
Bringing other communities like Charleston into the effort is key to making the case to Amtrak, Kershner said.
“What we wanted to do was to start the conversation with these communities so they could talk with their congressional representatives and get the momentum going. We’re obviously connected by the Cardinal route. I think daily expansion would connect all the communities along the route in a positive way.”
Amtrak has noted the discussions and watches with interest, said Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokeswoman who responded via email. She noted that West Virginia has played a key role with the Cardinal for many years and seems ready to continue playing that role.
“Shortly after the Cardinal Conference (in Cincinnati), the (West Virginia) Governor’s Conference on Tourism unanimously passed a motion in favor of daily Cardinal service,” Woods wrote in her email. “The current tri-weekly Cardinal service was brought back from the dead in 1981 by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, so it seems appropriate that West Virginia is taking a leading role in working with Amtrak and the host railroads, CSX, to improve the service.
Woods continued, “Discussions on future of Cardinal comes as ridership continues to be robust for intercity passenger rail. For fiscal year 2016, a record 31.3 million passengers traveled on America’s Railroad – nearly 400,000 more than the previous year. This is the sixth consecutive year Amtrak has carried more than 30 million customers throughout its national network.”
This has been a particularly busy week for rail travel. For Thanksgiving travel, Amtrak was operating every passenger rail car in its fleet and also adding extra trains and additional capacity.
As Mayor Jones mentioned, the controversy over Amtrak is its level of subsidy by the federal government. Hey, but there’s good news on that front: Amtrak’s record number of passengers in the past fiscal year helped it post its smallest operating loss in decades, according to the Wall Street Journal. Amtrak reported an operating loss of $227 million, improved from a loss of $306.5 million a year earlier, the newspaper reported last week.
Funding possibilities to expand Cardinal service are more flexible now, said Woods, the spokeswoman for the company.
“This interest picked up since the passage of the FAST Act, America’s surface transportation bill, which for the first time includes new starts funding authorization among a cornucopia of funding streams that could potentially be used to improve the Cardinal,” Woods said.
Mayor Jones would like to see expansion, but he knows it’s a tough sell to fiscal conservatives who are skeptical of Amtrak’s subsidies.
“It’s hard to sell to those people just interested in cutting government,” said Jones, who is an unpaid host of 580 Live with WCHS Radio. “Every form of transportation we have is subsidized.”
Jones learned to love trains from an early age. When he was a boy, the station in Charleston had a newsstand. His dad would go there to pick up a Baltimore Sun and let him tag along. Jones also caught trains from camp and to and from Greenbrier Military School.”
At some point, Jones’ father advised him to enjoy the train while he could because eventually its federal subsidies would dry up.
“My dad told me that train passenger service couldn’t last,” Jones said. “It’s been 45 years. it hasn’t made money and it never will. One of every three dollars that goes into Amtrak comes from the taxpayer.”
When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Jones felt certain a fiscally-conservative coalition would end Amtrak and its subsidies. Then 9-11 happened and there was enormous demand for rail service as air travel bounced back from disaster. “You couldn’t get a seat on a train for four months,” Jones recalled.
For the current effort to expand service through West Virginia, Jones feels like the congressional delegation seems to be on board.
“They’re going to work on it,” he said. “Amtrak, like everyone else, is slow moving.”
When I was hired for this job, I invited readers and listeners to send me some story ideas. One of those who responded was Jeff Ashenfelter.
He said: “Here’s a news story idea – Why has the City of Charleston and the State of West Virginia NOT invested in building a new train station for the State’s capital city? The current Amtrak facility, buried under the dreary and scary South Side Bridge, wedged between MacCorkle Avenue and the CSX railroad tracks, and having only 2 or 3 parking spaces, is an abomination for arriving visitors and families!!
“The City and the State have invested tons of money into the airport and the bus station over the years, but NOTHING has been done to improve or revitalize the train station! With West Virginia, and Charleston in particular, putting more and more emphasis on attracting tourists and conventions, it would make sense to improve and showcase the city, and the state, by offering a modern and convenient train station, with ample parking.
“Other cities and States around the country are spending millions on remodeling or building train stations, as economic drivers, and to generate local investment in expanding rail service. This would make an interesting news story and could serve as a catalyst to get the ball rolling to boost rail travel to/from West Virginia.”
I asked Mayor Jones about this when I chatted with him at the train station last week. He noted that some improvements have been made to the stop, including the installation of benches outside and some signage and landscaping around the train stop.
But he said the big issue right now, rather than dramatic improvements to the station, is fighting to keep the stop staffed with personnel. Although interaction with Amtrak may take place through its website and apps, there are still customers who need the support of human staffing, Jones said.
“I’m fighting to keep that place manned,” Jones told me. “We’re going to be the only manned station in West Virginia. I’ll fight to keep it manned.”