Happening Now

Interns Take The Commonwealth

July 28, 2022

by Hannah Kaplan, TFAS Summer Intern

Traveling to Virginia started with a delay on the Northeast Corridor, which turned into missing the train completely. Union Station, D.C. was packed with people waiting around for their various trains. Grant and I were lucky to hop on another train, but the process was vexatious.

Missing the first train was due to the digital departure board not being updated, it went from delayed to being taken off the board entirely. Grant and I managed to get the tickets switched (for an upcharge) to the Crescent, which takes longer but does stop in Charlottesville, VA. Once we boarded the train, the staff were so polite and welcoming. We found our seats and had a moment to breathe. Relaxing on the train was like sitting in a reclining chair at home, the relief of sitting stress-free felt great.

About two hours later, we arrived in Charlottesville. RPA Board Chair Merdith Richards welcomed us graciously and took us to the hotel. On the way there, Meredith gave us a humble introduction of all the work she does for Virginia Passenger Rail. After a long hunt for a restaurant, we all settled on an amazing burger place. It was vegan friendly and open late, which was much appreciated given our arrival time.

During dinner, Meredith dove right into the issues and solutions to many problems with passenger rail. Most recently, she attended a convention in Ohio, a state with very limited passenger rail options. Columbus is one of the largest cities in America right now, yet there is no rail transportation. As many members know, this is a huge issue for both highly populated and rural areas. Passenger rail has so many benefits, short and long term. Within the third hour of our time spent with Meredith, Grant and I felt more compelled to take action. Her aura and devotion to improving passenger rail is absolutely contagious. Tuesday started off with a tour of the University of Virginia, where Merdith and her husband have taught many classes. Before leaving for Richmond to continue our educational adventure, we made a quick stop at BODO’S Bagels. Recommended to us by Joe Aiello and beloved by Meredith and her husband, this campus staple lived up to the hype.

While in Richmond, we met up with Michael Testerman, an insightful RPA council member who is extremely active in the community. Michael showed us his hidden train watching spots that were absolutely beautiful. Richmond is full of historical sites, especially relating to the rail industry. The first stop was Libby Hill Park, overlooking the James River, this site is tremendously important to Richmond’s economy, serving as a major port during the height of its time. Richmond is also home to the three-way crossover. To the average person it looks like industrial confusion, but to those interested in railroads, it is a special anomaly.

For a quick midday break, the four of us dined at Bottoms Up Pizza, located right by the three-way crossover. During lunch, we explored the idea of electrified rail, engaging younger audiences, expanding passenger rail across the country, and of course high speed rail. Michael said something extremely motivating at lunch in reference to the future, “I hope to see something as possible as the electrification of rail happen in my lifetime or at least in the lifetime of your kids.” It was refreshing to hear someone so optimistic about what can happen in the future with a commitment to advocacy.

Micheal, Meredith, Grant, and I went to Main Street station after lunch to meet up with Danny Plaugher, Executive Director of Virginians for High Speed Rail. He told us about the renovations made to the station. Years ago, Main Street Station served an average of a million people per year. Located conveniently in the center of town, the train would drop people off in the heart of Richmond’s thriving market space. Part of the station is the old building and the renovated reception hall is made almost entirely of glass, overlooking the city in all directions.

Once we said goodbye to Michael, we headed back to Charlottesville for the regional train returning to Washington, D.C. Traveling back to D.C was less of an aggravating process. Meredith was happy to stay with us until the train came. It was on time this time for our departure, making the adventure of traveling by Amtrak more enjoyable.

The entire trip was a delightful experience, being able to work with such friendly people make the experience of being a summer intern so much more rewarding. We learned a lot about the history of Amtrak and Virginia rail. Meredith Richards is the nicest woman in Virginia. She was a phenomenal host and tour guide. Her crash course in the rail industry was so informative and exciting! It is really no wonder that her course at University of Virginia about the environmental science of rail is so loved by her students.

Working for Rail Passengers Association for the past two months has been a great experience, it exposed us to the rail industry in ways we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. If not for this opportunity, we would have been oblivious to the problems occurring within the federal government and passenger rail. Although it is not all bad, we’ve witnessed aggressive wins made in the short timespan we worked for RPA.

Rail Passengers Association connected us with great people in the rail industry. This past Wednesday we were able to get a private tour of Union Station in Washington D.C thanks to Amtrak. Accompanied by Amtrak interns and professionals, the private tour dove deep into the history of the station. During the presidential inauguration event of Ulysses S Grant at Union Station, there was even part of a train in the lower level. A temporary floor was put over until the celebration came to an end. The train was in the floor because brakes went out on the train, luckily nothing bad happened to passengers or workers aboard at the time. Small facts like these have been such an interesting and educational part of our internship.

After the VIP tour, Grant and I headed across the street to Amtrak headquarters. A highlight of our time there was getting to experience the beautiful office of their Government Affairs team. We were able to talk about both the history of Amtrak and day to day operations. Everyone at Amtrak was extremely kind and invested in the future of public transportation.

Because of a Twitch stream, Amtrak was able to gain a mass following on social media platforms and reach young folks they were not connected with before. It was amazing that we were able to discuss more solutions to the problems Amtrak faces as the demand for passenger rail increases. High speed rail dominated the conversation, along with electrification of rail. Thanks to our time with Government Affairs, we are more knowledgeable on the process itself, one day congress will catch up on the conversation. The entire experience was phenomenal, learning more about passenger rail, Union Station, and Amtrak was a great way to spend the summer.

As our time as interns comes to an end, we are extremely aware of the difficulties within the transportation industry. This has been a solid and impactful educational experience that will empower our advocacy. Looking back to the initial interviews for our intern positions, we never thought our education would provide such diverse exposure to government and nonprofits working within the legislative process. The trips we have been able to take, and the research we helped with, have been transformative of our views moving forward.