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With railroad strike apparently averted, a banner year for passenger rail in Virginia looks to roll on

Amtrak Northeast Regional Train Roanoke
David Seidel
/
Radio IQ
An Amtrak passenger train at the Roanoke station.

It appears Congress will avert a potential railroad strike. It could have canceled passenger rail service in the Commonwealth because Amtrak runs its trains over freight lines in Virginia.

This summer saw the highest number of people ever to ride trains in Virginia since Amtrak began service in 1971. The route from Roanoke to D.C., for example, more than doubled the number of riders compared to last year.

Billions of state and federal dollars will add more trains and stops over the next decade.

On a recent morning aboard the Northeast Regional Amtrak train from Roanoke to D.C., passengers sat quietly. Some headed to the café car for breakfast or coffee. Many, like Jeremy Thompson, were watching towns and hills outside the window. “I just wanted to try something different,” Thompson said. “It’s nice. [A] different scenic route. When you’re driving, you don’t really take the time to enjoy the views.”

Thompson was riding onto Baltimore to visit family. It was his first time on a train, and he’s heard a mixture of reviews from friends. Some were critical of the delays. “But you can’t really control it.”

The train shook and jostled a few people who were walking. Apart from the clatter of the train, it was quiet. Some passengers drifted off to sleep.

A potential railroad strike would cancel this route and all passenger rail service in the Commonwealth because Amtrak runs its trains over freight lines in Virginia. This comes on the heels of historic ridership numbers— this summer saw the highest number of people ever to ride trains in Virginia since Amtrak began service in 1971. The route from Roanoke to D.C. for example more than doubled their number of riders compared to last year.

By 2027, this route will extend to a new station in the New River Valley, likely in the Christiansburg area, making the connection much easier to Virginia Tech’s campus.

“That would be a lot easier than taking the bus to Roanoke,” said Virginia Tech Freshman, Gabriella Callicotte. She took a bus from Blacksburg to catch this train.

She said the main reason for taking the train was the price. “A cost for a coach ticket is relatively low versus taking a plane to another state or another city. It’s cheaper than gas if you’re driving as well,” Callicotte said.

Several riders, like Rob McDonald, said they took the train mostly to avoid traffic in D.C. “It is a nice way to travel. [A] nice, relaxing way I mean,” McDonald said.

McDonald is from Canada, and this was his third time to ride Amtrak. His only complaint is that the trains are often late.

“You wouldn’t want to take the train on a day where you have to be somewhere specifically at that time, unless you left yourself almost half a day flexibility,” McDonald said.

Amtrak Roanoke Station
David Seidel
/
Radio IQ
Roanoke's Amtrak station

Many of the delays on this route, and other trains in Virginia, are due to a congested bridge over the Potomac River, said DJ Stadtler, executive director of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA).

“We just cannot add any more capacity there because of the current Long Bridge,” Stadtler said.

His agency is overseeing the construction of a second bridge over the Potomac. Costing $2 billion, the new Long Bridge is expected to be finished in 2030.

In the meantime VPRA is working with Norfolk Southern to complete the extension of Amtrak into the New River Valley. Some people in Southwestern Virginia are asking, will the train eventually go on to Bristol?

“We can’t get to Bristol unless we get to the New River Valley,” Stadtler said. “So we’re focused on getting to the New River Valley.”

Stadtler said the extension into the New River Valley is expected to bring about 80 thousand more riders per year.

“If that exceeds expectations, we’re surely gonna hear a loud clamoring for a trip further south.”

A route to Bristol would open up access into Tennessee, and further into the southeast. Lawmakers in Tennessee are currently studying the cost, and feasibility, of investing in rail in that state. What they decide to spend will likely impact what Virginia does, and how quickly, with rail beyond the New River Valley.

Updated: December 2, 2022 at 9:01 AM EST
Editor's Note: The headline and first paragraph were updated to reflect Congressional action to avert a freight rail strike.
Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.