Passenger rail history in Virginia


Michael Abraham
Blacksburg, Virginia

As reported in this newspaper and referenced in my prior columns, passenger rail travel via Amtrak may be working its way back to Christiansburg on an extension of the line now serving Roanoke This article takes a look back on railroading in the state.

Railroading in America began on Christmas day, 1830, when a locomotive named the Best Friend of Charleston steamed passengers and crew on the ride of their lives out of Charleston, South Carolina, reaching an astounding 25 miles per hour. In the years to follow, right-of-way acquisition and track building activities were active nationwide and by the mid 1850s, tracks extended from Lynchburg to Salem, Christiansburg, Wytheville, Abingdon, and Bristol, and by 1858 from Lynchburg to Petersburg and Petersburg to Norfolk. These lines would later become part of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, now Norfolk Southern.

Carriage of this line would greatly benefit the Confederate war effort and would present a constant target for the Union, including the raid in May, 1864, when Federal troops overwhelmed the Confederates at Cloyd’s Mountain in Pulaski County and proceeded to destroy the bridge over the New River in present day Radford, burning the station and much of the community of Cambria, now an annexed part of Christiansburg.

Rebuilding began immediately and the zenith of American railroading was reached in 1916 at an incredible 254,037 miles of track, with the largest track mileage in the world, more than seven times the approximately 33,000 miles of interstate highways that crisscross the nation now.

Afterwards, track mileage began an inexorable decline that continues today. Many abandoned rights-of-way have been conserved for public access and converted into recreational trails, including our Huckleberry Trail.

Railroads began in corporate ownership (and with the exception of Amtrak, still are, which we’ll discuss momentarily), with lines typicaly named for the communities they connected, for example the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad. While there are now still several independently run railroads in Virignia, most have been subsumed into either Norfolk Southern or CSX Transportation, which have a duopoly throughout much of the eastern states.

The Norfolk & Western, the local rail line during the last era of passenger service was born in 1881. For most of its existence, it was headquartered in Roanoke.

The N&W’s main line was from Norfolk through Roanoke to Cincinnati, with important spurs from Lynchburg south to Durham, Roanoke north to Hagerstown and south to Winston-Salem, from Radford to Bristol, and from Portsmouth, Ohio to Columbus. In the Appalachian coalfields, these arteries spawned dozens of spur capillaries, reaching into coal-laden hollows of Virginia, Kentucky, and especially West Virginia. The lion’s share of N&W’s revenue came from carrying coal to Norfolk for export markets, where N&W operates the world’s largest coal-loading pier, and to Cincinnati and Columbus, for domestic markets in the Rust Belt.

Railroads and Appalachian coal have a tight, co-dependent relationship, because it was impossible to transport the coal from tight mountain hollows to market without a train, and, at least in the steam era, impossible to run a locomotive without coal.

Because of its dependence on coal, both for income and for motive power, the N&W stuck with steam locomotives longer than any other major railroad in the nation, switching to the operationally superior diesel-electric locomotives in 1958.

N&W also was distinguished by building its own steam locomotives, employing thousands of design engineers (many from nearby VPI), pipe fitters, welders, and boilermen. The stupendous Class J 611, lately known for its excursion runs, exemplifies that excellence.

Like most American railroads, N&W provided passenger services and maintained a series of stations. The famous Powhatan Arrow, for example, plied the main line, originating in Norfolk and stopping in Suffolk, Petersburg, Blackstone, Crewe, Farmville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Christiansburg, and Pearisburg, then the West Virginia communities of Bluefield, Welch, Williamson, and Kenova, before crossing the Ohio River and stopping in Ironton, Portsmouth, and Cincinnati. Because of the relative scarcity of population on the route, passenger service was always a minor part of its business, and never more than 5 percent of its operating revenue. Facing decreasing ridership, it discontinued all passenger service in the early 1960s.

As other railroads were ending passenger service, Amtrak was founded in 1971 as a quasi-public corporation to provide intercity passenger services across the country, essentially picking up the pieces of what was thought to be a doomed industry. But a funny thing happened; it didn’t die. Today ridership is increasing.

Because Amtrak is government subsidized, as are airports, flight operations, and highways, it is always begging for funding. Amtrak faces significant operational challenges, as decades of underinvestment have left it with an aging infrastructure struggling to keep pace with increased demand.

In 2017, after a 40-year absence, passenger service returned to Roanoke, a city founded by and for railroading. Efforts are underway to extend service to Christiansburg, and potentially to Bristol, where rail fans and people who have never ridden trains before eagerly await its return.


Michael Abraham is a writer and businessman, author of 8 books including Chasing the Powhatan Arrow, a travelogue in economic geography. He lives in Blacksburg.