Advocates Want Passenger Rail in the New River Valley But it Won't Happen Anytime Soon

Oct 4, 2019

A group trying to bring passenger trains back to the New River Valley heard Thursday night from lots of folks who want to make it happen: State delegates, a congressman, college officials, even the state transportation secretary.

They also heard that it’s not happening anytime soon.

On a warm weekday night, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional glides into Roanoke. Dozens of travelers get off, some of the 5,000 riders a month at this station since service started almost two years ago.       

A special Amtrak train pulls into Roanoke's station to inaugurate passenger rail service in 2017.
Credit David Seidel

New River Valley Rail 2020 wants what Roanoke has. The group set up by local governments, universities and state and federal lawmakers has a place for a station all picked out and 40,000 college students who might want buy a ticket.

State Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine wants to see it happen.  “And I do want you to know that the Northam administration and I personally want nothing more than for you all to get passenger rail service anchored in this region," Valentine told the gathering.

The state legislature put $350,000 for a feasibility study in last year’s budget. It’s still there because Norfolk Southern doesn’t want to see it happen for now. And as Secretary Valentine noted they own the tracks.  “We have approached rail both freight and passenger in a way that we want a win-win for both. That is how we’ve been in discussions for a long time," Valentine said.  "That is how we’ve approached our relationship with the railroads. And they are helping us think of creative ways to expand rail.”

Commonwealth Transportation Board member Ray Smoot says one way to make it happen is for people to keep riding the rails as much as they can. “But certainly the ridership is very important to all the parties and the ridership as measured by the people getting on the train in Roanoke right now is very positive.”

Secretary Valentine said that ten years ago, people didn’t think Lynchburg could support passenger service. Now she says, it almost pays for itself. It can happen.