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Passenger rail service a possibility for Pulaski?

Train depotBy CALVIN PYNN



With Amtrak’s passenger train expected to make its stop in Roanoke in the next couple of years, conversations have started about possibly bringing the service a little further south to the New River Valley.

Pulaski’s historic train depot, which has not harbored passengers in more than four decades, was the sight of a meeting earlier this week to discuss bringing a passenger train stop to the New River Valley. Several larger figures from around the NRV attended, including various mayors, county officials and high-ranking individuals from Virginia Tech and Radford University.

This was one of several meetings that have been held recently about that service, with a little more than 30 people in attendance. Amtrak’s passenger train is expected to be ready in Roanoke by 2016 or 2017, while the nearest station to the New River Valley is currently in Lynchburg.

“Building on that momentum, we would like to see it come on into the valley,” Pulaski Economic Development Director John White said.

According to White, a similar group in Bristol is talking about bringing the service to the tri-city area as well, and has also been working with groups in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Atlanta, Ga. The rail line that goes through Pulaski is the “Crescent Line,” so named because it runs through those cities to New Orleans, the “Crescent City.”

The group advocating passenger train service in the New River Valley has met with the Bristol group, as well as the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. A feasibility study is currently being conducted by the Pulaski Planning District Commission to determine the necessity to have the station at Pulaski’s depot.

Once completed, that study will be presented to the state, and then to Norfolk Southern. White said one of the challenges Pulaski faces in getting the rail service in town is the heavy amount of freight traffic that comes through, from which Norfolk Southern profits heavily, as opposed to passenger trains.

“One of the things the study is seeking to determine is what kind of ridership we would be having, because that’s a critical part of the argument,” White said. “We’ve gotta be able to assure Norfolk Southern that we’re gonna have an adequate number of passengers to justify it.”

Both Radford University and Virginia Tech are involved in the study, as a passenger rail service could be an advantage for students who come to study from all parts of the state. While a majority of students at Virginia Tech come from Virginia’s northeast corridor, many Radford students also come from the Northern Virginia area, which could possibly be accessed via passenger train.

A representative from New River Community College could become involved in those discussions as well. At the most recent meeting, Pulaski County Board of Supervisors chairman and retired NRCC administrator Joe Sheffey pointed out that many students traveled from different parts of the state to take classes at the college.

The Blacksburg partnership has been pushing hard for the rail service in the NRV as well, as the group is made up of a number of Blacksburg’s civic leaders and Virginia Tech officials. Overall, they see the rail service as a critical utility for both the university and NRV as a whole.

According to White, passenger rail service in Pulaski could encourage tourism in the town, especially as it could work in concert with other public transportation services.

“That’s all part of the equation,” he said. “I think it could assist us tremendously with tourism by bringing people into the valley, and then to use public transportation to get them to the places they need to go to.”

As the study will determine how much people in town would ride the train out of Pulaski, White said he is optimistic that people in town would take advantage of that service.

“I think with the passenger rail and people going to D.C., it would be a whole lot easier taking the train rather than driving six or seven hours and then fighting the NoVa traffic,” White said. “I think that would be a real convenience.”

The ridership would have to build over time, although it could be an option that would be frequently used by the younger crowd living in the New River Valley.

“From what I’ve read about millennials, they don’t have quite the hang-ups that some of us baby boomers have about taking public transportation,” White said. “I think that with younger people, there might be more openness to doing this.”

Passenger rail service stopped in 1971, and as a result, many people currently living in Pulaski have never traveled by passenger train. It’s an experience more common in urbanized areas with commuter rail lines, such as Chicago.

Despite that, White said there are a number of active train enthusiasts in the town. The general safety and convenience factors have been taken into consideration as well.

The study will also assess possible stops for the passenger train in the NRV. Pulaski’s train depot is one of three potential stops, the other two being just off Main Street in Radford, and in the Cambria district of Christiansburg.

Factors taken into consideration for those stops would include parking access in addition to nearby available public transportation options.

At the meeting, the group of community leaders advocating the rail service divided into marketing and legislative committees to communicate with the state’s governmental bodies about bringing the service to the area. As of now, their goal is to bring a passenger train into the New River Valley by the year 2020.



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