Most railroads in Virginia were built to carry freight, not people.
The state's first railroad was a freight line, built to link the Midlothian coal fields of Chesterfield County with Richmond. The Chesterfield Railroad was designed to haul coal, and the original line was constructed before locomotives were acquired. Loaded coal cars were sent downhill by gravity from the mines for 13 miles to wharves on the James River. The "passengers" on Virginia's first railroad were in the last car - mules, who were unloaded at the end of the trip and used to haul the empty cars uphill to be loaded with coal again.1
The only major railroad built primarily for passengers in Virginia was the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac (RF&P, now incorporated into the CSX railroad), though the Virginia and Tennessee also managed to make more revenue from passengers than freight.2
The RF&P, chartered in 1834, was designed from the beginning to transport passengers between central Virginia and Washington, DC. People traveling between Richmond and Washington would get on an RF&P train in Richmond, ride at 20mph to a Potomac River wharf north of Fredericksburg, then transfer at Aquia Landing to a steamboat to go up the Potomac River to Washington. Freight traffic was expected to provide only minimal profits; not until 1900 did revenue from freight exceed RF&P's revenue from passengers.3
Most rail lines profits came from a mixture of passengers and freight. The South Side Railroad was built before the Civil War to haul tobacco and a variety of freight, so it twisted through Southside Virginia between Petersburg-Lynchburg to gather freight from small markets in little towns. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, extending west from Lynchburg to Bristol, did the same.
After the Civil War, the Norfolk and Western Railroad built its line through the Page Valley, east of Massanutten Mountain. That route bypassed the Shenandoah Valley's denser-populated towns of Harrisonburg and Staunton, but connected directly with the Big Gem iron furnace at the base of the Blue Ridge (in the community of Shenndoah).
The last major rail line in Virginia, the Virginian Railway, was constructed in 1909. It bypassed existing towns, letting its competitor (the Norfolk and Western) have almost all the passenger traffic. Henry Huttleston Rogers, "father" of the Virginian, did not want low-profit passenger trains to complicate the scheduling of the Virginian through-freights to Norfolk that were loaded with high-profit coal.
The Virginian's more-direct route between Roanoke and Norfolk even bypassed Petersburg. The straighter route enabled the Virginian's passenger trains going between Roanoke-Norfolk to offer a faster, smoother ride, without cars being switched between trains at intermediate stops. One president of the Norfolk and Western sacrificed loyalty to his railroad and chose instead to hook his private car to the Virginian passenger train, when traveling between Roanoke and Norfolk.4
Before the interstate highways and jets siphoned off the business, passenger traffic could be profitable. At times, Virginia railroads competed for passenger traffic and prestige. The Southern Railway bragged about service on the Crescent, at times operating it as an all-Pullman car train without ordinary passenger coaches, while the C&O advertised its air-conditioned cars were so comfortable that passengers could "sleep like a kitten and arrive fresh as a daisy." The Chessie kitten symbol was used by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and its successor for 50 years, until the CSX logo replaced the kitten in 1986.5
Chessie kitten symbol
Source: West Virginia Encyclopedia, Chessie Kitten
After World War II, railroads began consolidating/abandoning passenger train service, after getting permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to stop unprofitable service. In 1971, after the bankruptcy of Conrail made clear that transformation of rail operations was necessary, all but one railroad in Virginia transferred their passenger trains to Amtrak. The Southern Railroad tried to maintain operations, but could not compete with air travel and interstate highways and committed to Amtrak in 1979.
In 2013, Amtrak operated trains between Petersburg-Richmond-Washington DC (Carolinian Route, Palmetto Route, Silver Star Route, Silver Meteor Route), Norfolk-Petersburg-Washington DC, plus Newport News-Richmond-Washington DC (Northeast Regional Route), Clifton Forge-Charlottesville-Washington DC (Cardinal Route), and Danville-Lynchburg-Washington DC (Crescent Route, Northeast Regional Route). Amtrak also operated the Auto Train between Northern Virginia (Lorton)-Central Florida (Sanford).
The Rail Passenger Service Act that created Amtrak guaranteed it access ("trackage") rights to use railroad lines owned by other railroads, in order to operate intercity passenger trains. Amtrak owns no track in Virginia today; it pays CSX and Norfolk Southern for the use of their private tracks. No Amtrak trains use any track owned by the nine Class 2 "shortline" railroads in Virginia. The shortlines service areas of Virginia with relatively low population density, or in the case or Norfolk offer CSX/Norfolk Southern a neutral third party line for access to port terminals.
Scheduling passenger trains and negotiating costs is a major challenge for Amtrak officials. The private rail companies see passenger rail as a headache that constrains operations of profit-generating freight trains. Passenger trains operate at 79mph, a faster speed than most general merchandise freights, so they use between two-five slots that otherwise would be available for freight trains (according to the freight rail operators). Amtrak blames its reputation for poor on-time performance (late arrivals/departures) on interference by the rail lines, claiming passenger trains are forced onto sidings or delayed at stations while freight trains receive priority in scheduling.6
Delays are also caused by speed restrictions imposed by the host railroad. CSX and Norfolk Southern have different criteria for requiring trains to slow down after storms or in hot weather, which can cause steel rails to "kink" and cause a wreck. Each rail line schedules its own maintenance projects, so "slow orders" due to repairs can cause unexpected delays to passenger trains. Capacity utilization is also a factor - even with trackside signals and modern communications to engineers within cabs of locomotives, only a limited number of trains can be dispatched safely through a stretch of track within 24 hours.
In 2005, the General Assembly created the Rail Enhancement Fund and dedicated 3% of the tax on car rentals to finance rail infrastructure and Amtrak operations that expand service within Virginia. Virginia in investing public funds to upgrade the privately-owned rail lines, in part to increase the competitive status of Norfolk vs. other East Coast ports, in part to reduce truck traffic on I-81 and I-64 between Hampton-Richmond, and in part to increase capacity to provide passenger rail service.
Congress decided in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) to limit Federal support for Amtrak to intercity passenger rail routes of greater than 750 miles between endpoints, plus the Northeast Corridor between DC-Boston. Amtrak was paying the costs to operate the passenger train from Newport News-DC, and the new law required Virginia to absorb the marginal costs for that service or Amtrak would cancel it in October 2013.Despite the recession then affecting state revenues, and a political deadlock over raising taxes to finance transportation costs, Virginia still committed to expanding rather than contracting passenger rail operations.
In 2009, Virginia started to subsidize one train daily between Lynchburg-DC, on a route that had 16 Southern Railway passenger trains daily in the 1950's. In 2010, the state funded an additional train between Richmond-DC. Most Richmond trains leave from the suburban Staples Mill Road north of the city, and with the second state-subsidized train the state capital had 10 trains/day going north to Washington. The renaissance of passenger rail at Richmond (with a 60% increase of passengers between 1997-2012) may have diverted some cars from I-95, but its greatest impact may have been reducing the number of passengers taking the short-distance flights out of the Richmond airport:7
stations in Virginia where the Crescent passenger trains stop
Source: Amtrak Crescent Route Guide
The Lynchburg train has exceeded expectations for customers and revenues. The state projected 51,000 passengers per year, but three years later the "Northeast Regional" from Lynchburg-DC via Charlottesville, Culpeper, and Manassas was carrying 174,000 passengers per year. It collected enough revenue from customer fares to cover costs of operations. (Reports that the train "turns a profit" omit the initial $43 million in capital costs of additional train cars, locomotives, upgrades to Norfolk Southern's track/signal systems to handle passenger as well as freight trains, and the new train station platform at the Kemper Street Station.)8
Amtrak extended service to Norfolk in December, 2012. In preparation, the state spent $100 million from the Rail Enhancement Fund to upgrade the 105-mile Norfolk Southern rail line linking Petersburg-Norfolk, including an unusually long 51-mile stretch of straight track where freight trains reach 60mph. That stretch is part of the Heartland Corridor carrying double-stacked containers of freight between the port and Columbus Ohio. (State funding for the Heartland Corridor had subsidized earlier upgrades in Norfolk, as well as west of the Blue Ridge.)
Among other improvements intended to support passenger traffic, a new stretch of track (the "Collier Connection") was built at Petersburg to link the CSX tracks from Richmond with the Norfolk Southern tracks to Norfolk. The upgrade was completed almost a year earlier than planned, so passengers in Norfolk used a temporary loading platform until completion of the Harbor Park station, built near the site of the old passenger terminal used by the Norfolk and Western and by the Virginian.9
Virginia was the first state to conclude negotiations with Amtrak for subsidizing regional passenger train services, as required by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Amtrak continued to pay for the long-distance trains (going more than 750 miles) that cross Virginia. The state committed to pay $10.5 million annually for six years, for Amtrak to continue regional passenger train service from Lynchburg, Norfolk, Newport News, and Richmond. The 2013 General Assembly passed a new set of taxes to fund transportation, and that bill dedicated sales tax revenue to the Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund (IPROC).10
The new Norfolk station was more convenient for customers living in Norfolk/Virginia Beach than the Newport News station, which was located on the northern side of the James River. Ridership at the Newport News station dropped 37 percent in the summer of 2014, but the state committed enough new funding in 2014 to match Federal grants for a $38 million multi-modal transportation center to upgrade the railroad tracks and station on the Peninsula. Newport News is the "end of the line" for passenger rail, and the track upgrade was designed for Amtrak to reverse its trains in ten minutes vs. one hour.11
Just 55 miles west of Lynchburg is Roanoke, the next target for passenger rail expansion in Virginia. In 2013, after the General Assembly approved new taxes and fees to fund transportation, the governor announced plans to provide passenger rail service to Roanoke by 2017.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board committed the first round of funding, of the $100 million expected to be needed to upgrade the Norfolk Southern track and build platorms at rail stations. At the official announcement, attended by the Chief Executive Officers of Amtrak and Norfolk Southern as well as the governor, the mayor of Roanoke said:12
In a more jovial reference, the governor of Virginia acknowledged the political assistance from Onzlee Ware, delegate for Roanoke in the General Assembly. Ware supported significant tax increases in the governor's 2013 transportation initiative, recognizing that the initiative created the mechanism to fund extension of Amtrak service to Ranoke. In his 2014 (and last) State of the Commonwealth Address, Governor McDonnell joked how Ware had retired shortly after being re-elected in November, saying:13
A bus link already funnels Roanoke customers to the train station in Lynchburg, and the demand for passenger rail from Roanoke may have contributed to the higher-than-expected ridership on the Lynchburg line. A bus link to connect with the Amtrak Cardinal in Clifton Forge, 50 miles to the north, is also possible. In Roanoke, a new platform is planned near the current bus station, offering the potential to create a multi-modal transportation hub. The historic Norfolk & Western train station (now a museum dedicated to O. Winston Link's extraordinary photographs of steam trains) is no longer suitable, because Amtrak passenger trains at that location would block freight traffic.14
Amtrak and the Commonwealth of Virginia partner to offer train service on routes less than 750 miles
Source: Amtrak Amtrak Virginia
Costs for replacing the rail station were a factor in blocking Bedford's request for Amtrak service. The town (Bedford gave up its status as a "city" in 2013) lost its passenger service in 1971, and the old station was converted into a restaurant.
Bedford is halfway between Roanoke and Lynchburg, and residents use the Smart Way Connector (a bus service from Roanoke to Lynchburg) to catch passenger trains in Lynchburg. The Virginia Secretary of Transportation rejected the request to have Amtrak stop in Bedford when Amtrak service is extended 53 miles to Roanoke. He declared that the town was in the "travel shed" of Lynchburg, and:15
In that rejection notice, the Virginia Secretary of Transportation noted that every station stop delayed service to distant locations, and the population (and number of businesses) in Bedford did not justify the additional delay.
|2010 Census Data||Roanoke||Lynchburg||Bedford|
|Persons per square mile||2,280||1,538||905|
|Total number of firms||7,102||4,795||591|
|Source: Virginia Secretary of Transportation letter, February 10, 2014|
the old Virginia and Tenneesee Railroad line, going southwest from Lynchburg to Bristol, will be used for extending Amtrak service through Bedford to Roanoke
Source: US Geological Service (USGS), The National Map
Various studies by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation document a vision of expanding passenger service beyond Roanoke to Bristol, on the Virginia/Tennessee border. The proposed TransDominion Express, which was once proposed to be completely independent of Amtrak, would connect Bristol with both Richmond and Washington. Even if operating at 79mph between stops, a rail trip from Bristol would take 1-2 hours longer than driving by car.16
To enable passenger train travel from Bristol, one-time funding would be required to upgrade the Norfolk Southern line to minimize interference with freight rail operations. Additional public funding would be required to purchase trainsets (locomotives and passenger cars). Ridership projections in 1998-2002 assumed an annual subsidy would be required, beyond the start-up and replacement capital costs, to support annual operations.
Until the General Assembly approved new taxes/fees to fund rail operations in 2013, budget constraints blocked all efforts to convert the TransDominion Express concept into an actual program. Once the transportation funding deadlock was broken in 2013, Bristol's opportunity to get Amtrak service increased significantly.
Wytheville started making plans for a new railroad depot, while Bristol's leaders sought support from Tennessee to extend service even further south and create a through-train rather than leave Bristol at the end of the line. Building support for the necessary investment was recognized as a long-term effort:17
The extension of passenger rail to Roanoke will guide the further expansion of passenger trains in southwestern Virginia. If direct passenger rail service from Roanoke cannibalizes the existing traffic now boarding at Lynchburg, the state could be forced to subsidize annual operations from Roanoke/Lynchburg. On the other hand, if ridership exands as service expands to Roanoke and fares by customers cover the additional operating costs, then extending Amtrak to Bristol may be viewed as financially feasible.
Far more visionary than the TransDominion Express was a 2007 proposal to connect Dulles International Airport to Richmond by passenger rail. Consultant Jim Crupi, perhaps seeking to stimulate some out-of-the-box creativity for regional planning, advised Richmond-area leaders to build:18
The Silver Line of the Washington Metro will offer passengers the option of taking a train east to Tysons and the District of Columbia, but there has been no railroad connection to Dulles since the airport was constructed. The last substantial traffic on the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) railroad was carrying construction supplies to build the airport; afterwards, the line was abandoned and converted into a biking/hiking trail.
The lack of freight rail access to Dulles was noted during the 2013 debate over the Bi-County Parkway, a road proposed between I-66 and Route 7 cutting through areas in Loudoun/Prince William county that were zoned for low-density development. One justification used by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) was that the proposed road would trigger economic development, by making Dulles into a hub for freight traffic in addition to passengers.
Opponents challenged VDOT's claims that a new road was required to increase the ability of trucks to access Dulles from the south and west, since air freight typically consists of high-value, light-weight, low-volume products such as flowers, computer chips, and sea food. Bi-County Parkway opponents argued the road was designed to spur residential growth rather than air freight; increasing cargo at Dulles did not require a new "truckway" for 18-wheel trucks any more than it required a freight rail connnection.19
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority had ambitious plans for converting Dulles into the cargo aviation equivalent of the ports at Hampton Roads. As outlined in the airport's 2009 "missing links" report:20
If you use the old adage to "follow the money," the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was far more interested in Metrorail extension to the airport than in the hypothetical benefits of other rail connections. Substantial amounts of political capital were spent to obtain over $5 billion to build the Silver Line to the passenger terminal at Dulles. Proposals for a passenger/freight rail connection to the Norfolk Southern line at Manassas were floated but then ignored; lobbying efforts focused exclusively on building new roads.
"Multi-modal transportation hubs" involving passenger rail in Virginia do not include direct access to airports. Passenger train stations are located in downtowns, or along corridors of development over 150 years old. Virginia's airports were built on the periphery of urban areas, before development pressures increased the cost of land.
As a result, today's Amtrak customers must unload their luggage at the passenger train station, then catch a taxi to get to an airport. Northern Virginia is an exception. Passenger train passengers have the option at Alexandria to access Reagan or Dulles airports by a "mode shift" to Metrorail. Norfolk could mimic that in the future, if the Tide light rail system is expanded to Norfolk International Airport.
most airports were constructed where land costs were low, far from urban corridors and downtowns - and far from today's Amtrak stations (purple squares)
Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas
stations in Virginia where the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmetto, and Carolinian passenger trains stop
Source: Amtrak Carolinian/Piedmont Timetables
1. Gerald P. Wilkes, Mining History Of The Richmond Coalfield Of Virginia, Virginia Division Of Mineral Resources Publication 85, pp.22-23, http://www.dmme.virginia.gov/commercedocs/PUB_85.pdf (last checked July 29, 2013)
2. Charles W. Turner, "Railroad Service to Virginia Farmers, 1828-1860," Agricultural History, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October 1948), p.243, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739521 (last checked August 18, 2013)
3. William E. Griffin, Jr., One Hundred Fifty Years of History Along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, Whittet and Shepperson, Richmond (Virginia), 1984, pp. 23-25; Charles W. Turner, "Railroad Service to Virginia Farmers, 1828-1860," Agricultural History, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October 1948), p.240, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739521 (last checked August 18, 2013)
4. H. Reid, The Virginian Railway, Kalmbach Publishing, 1961, pp.85-86
5. "The Southern Crescent: A History of Good Service," Southern Railfan, http://southern.railfan.net/ties/1972/72-7/cres.html; "Chessie The Railroad Kitten," Chesapeake And Ohio Historical Society, http://www.cohs.org/history/chessie.shtml; "Chessir Cat derailed by new corporate logo," The Tims-News (Henderson, North Carolina), July 20, 1986, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1665&dat=19860720&id=-UIaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NyQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5053,4196241 (last checked August 13, 2013)
6. "Amtrak’s Sisyphean struggle to run on time," Railway Age, July 05, 2013 , http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/blogs/frank-n-wilner/amtraks-sisyphean-struggle-to-run-on-time.html (last checked August 27, 2013)
7. "Gathering Steam," Richmond Style Weekly, April 2, 2013, http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/gathering-steam/Content?oid=1868653; "Intercity Passenger Rail in Virginia: What’s on Track for the Future?," University of Virginia - Weldon Cooper Center, August 20, 2010, p.6, http://www.coopercenter.org/publications/VaNsltr0810 (last checked August 28, 2013)
8. "Is There Life Remaining in TDX Dream?," Lynchburg News & Advance, August 14, 2013, http://www.newsadvance.com/opinion/editorials/article_41a99f78-044b-11e3-8c5b-0019bb30f31a.html; "Intercity Passenger Rail in Virginia: What’s on Track for the Future?," University of Virginia - Weldon Cooper Center, August 20, 2010, p.7, http://www.coopercenter.org/publications/VaNsltr0810 (last checked August 28, 2013)
9. "Richmond to South Hampton Roads High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study: Task 1 Report – Engineering Feasibility Study," Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, May 2002, p.7, http://www.drpt.virginia.gov/studies/files/SHREngineering-Task1.pdf; "Norfolk passenger rail service to begin by Dec. 31," The Virginian-Pilot, January 19, 2012, http://hamptonroads.com/2012/01/norfolk-passenger-rail-service-begin-dec-31 (last checked August 7, 2013)
10. "Virginia to pay for regional passenger rail," Hampton Roads Business Journal, August 9, 2013, http://insidebiz.com/news/virginia-pay-regional-passenger-rail; "Amtrak's new strategic plan will help railroad become more efficient, customer focused, execs believe," Progressive Railroading, August 2012, http://www.progressiverailroading.com/amtrak/article/Amtrak39s-new-strategic-plan-will-help-railroad-become-more-efficient-customer-focused-execs-believe--32020# (last checked August 31, 2013)
11. "Transportation center slated for Newport News," Newport News Daily Press, September 18, 2014, http://www.dailypress.com/news/traffic/dp-nws-nn-trans-ctr-091914-20140918,0,1520938.story (last checked September 18, 2014)
12. "Governor Bob McDonnell Announces Extension of Amtrak Service to Roanoke," Governor of Virginia news release, August 9, 2013, http://www.governor.virginia.gov/news/viewRelease.cfm?id=1926 (last checked September 2, 2013)
13. "State of the Commonwealth Address," Washington Post, January 8, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/full-text-mcdonnells-state-of-the-commonwealth-address/2014/01/08/fd129256-78b8-11e3-af7f-13bf0e9965f6_story.html (last checked January 11, 2014)
14. "Passenger rail effort moving forward," The Roanoke Times, May 3, 2013, http://www.roanoke.com/news/1901113-12/passenger-rail-effort-moving-forward.html (no longer available); "Letters: An answer to the region's transportation needs," The Roanoke Times, January 2, 2014, http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/article_8fd5cdc6-7263-11e3-807e-001a4bcf6878.html (last checked January 4, 2014)
15. "Bedford leaders advocate for Amtrak stop," WDBJ-TV (Channel 7), November 22, 2013, http://www.wdbj7.com/news/local/bedford-leaders-advocate-for-amtrak-stop/23112900; Virginia Secretary of Transportation, letter to Mark Reeter, February 10, 2014, LetterfromAubreyLayne.pdf, posted at Bedford Above Board, "A train station in Bedford: Will Bedford receive full and fair consideration?" http://www.transportation.bedfordaboveboard.com/station (last checked March 3, 2014)
16. "Status of the TransDominion Express Passenger Rail Service," Report to the General Assembly, House Document No. 37 by Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, 2005, p.4. p.8, http://www.drpt.virginia.gov/studies/files/TDX-Report-Final.pdf (last checked August 31, 2013)
17. "Wytheville considers pushing for depot for passenger rail service," Wytheville News, September 1, 2013, http://www.swvatoday.com/news/wytheville/article_3d3a49b9-1009-56b7-aa37-f03824543e36.html; "Support for passenger rail service to Mountain Empire gains momentum," Bristol Herald Courier, April 27, 2014, http://www.tricities.com/news/local/article_ed420a5c-ce83-11e3-940d-0017a43b2370.html (last checked April 29, 2014)
18. Jim Crupi, Putting the Future Together, November 2007, http://lmrcommunity.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/putting_the_future_together_final.pdf (last checked October 31, 2011)
19. "The North-South Divide," Bacon's Rebellion blog, April 6, 2013, http://www.baconsrebellion.com/articles/2013/04/north_south_corridor.html (last checked September 1, 2013)
20. "Connections between Washington Dulles International Airport and Corridors of Statewide Significance in 2015," Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, 2009, p.3, p.6, http://www.washingtonairports.com/assets/documents/MissingLinksReport%20copy.pdf (last checked September 1, 2013)