Amtrak supporters gather to discuss improving Cardinal line

Gazette-Mail file photo
As motorists drive along MacCorkle Avenue in 2014, a passenger train leaves the station in Charleston heading east which will ensure a colorful ride through the mountains as the autumn leaves continue changing colors.

Participants in an Amtrak-sponsored conference to discuss ways to improve the Cardinal train route — particularly by expanding it to daily service — came away energized about putting together a coalition of support.

“Everybody was pretty clear at the meeting, West Virginia is going to have to lead the way in forming this coalition,” said Chuck Riecks, a vice chairman of the National Association of Rail Passengers and co-chairman of Friends of the Cardinal, the state’s advocacy group for the train.

“It was just about planting the seeds for growth,” said Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, a longtime rail aficionado.

Jones said Monday he was encouraged by the turnout for the day-long conference Friday in downtown Cincinnati, which included government, tourism and business representatives from most of the states served by the Cardinal.

“There were people at the conference from one end of the line to the other,” he said.

From West Virginia, that included representatives from the state Tourism Commission, the cities of Charleston and Huntington, and Fred Joseph from Congressman Alex Mooney’s office.

Currently, the Cardinal runs a 1,146-mile route from Chicago through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and up the northeast corridor from Washington, D.C. to New York City.

However, as Jones noted, ridership is hampered because the train operates only three days a week, making connections difficult.

“It’s like a restaurant: You can’t open just three days a week and have any business,” he said.

During the day-long conference, more than 90 attendees from six states got briefings from Amtrak and Federal Railway Administration executives on how long-distance trains operate, and how federal funds could be available to expand the Cardinal to daily service through the federal FAST Act for transportation funding.

They also heard national Boy Scouts of America executive Jim Horner discuss how the Cardinal service is essential to the Boy Scouts as they look to bring national and international jamborees to the Summit Bechtel Reserve in southern West Virginia.

There also were presentations from organizers of other coalitions that promote passenger rail service, such as Pueblo County, Colorado, Commissioner Sal Pace, who led a coalition that helped assure continued operation of the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Charlie Monte Verde, Amtrak government affairs officer, said the intent of the conference was to bring together representatives of the communities served by the Cardinal to come up with ways to improve the service.

“When it comes down to it, the folks that have the best shot of improving the service are the communities that benefit from the service,” he said.

“Ultimately, Amtrak is a network of communities,” Monte Verde added.

In addition to coalition-building, Riecks said another key issue at the conference was assuring cooperation from the freight railroads that make up much of the Cardinal route.

“The other important thing they emphasized was the importance of the, shall we say, care and feeding of the host railroads,” he said.

Riecks said he was encouraged that representatives of CSX Railroad — which makes up a significant portion of the Cardinal route — and the Buckingham Branch Railroad in Virginia attended the conference.

Monte Verde also said their participation was “definitely encouraging.”

“Whatever needs to happen to make this train daily, we’re going to have to work hand-in-hand with these private rail companies,” he said.

Jones, meanwhile, said he became a rail fan when his father took him on the trains in the 1950s, while warning him that private railroads would eventually end passenger service.

“He told me, ride the trains whenever you can, because they’re going to take them off,” Jones recalled, saying some would like to see that fate befall Amtrak.

However, he said he became convinced that Amtrak is a critical part of the nation’s transportation infrastructure in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, when all commercial air service was grounded.

While some complain about federal subsidies for Amtrak, Jones noted that all forms of transportation, including air travel and highways, rely on federal support.

“I would love to see them extend it to seven days a week,” Jones said of the Cardinal. “I’m a train guy.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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