in 1842, only a handful of Virginia cities had a railroad
Source: University of North Carolina, United States, exhibiting the railroad & canals (by Thomas G. Bradford, c.1842)
The Virginia General Assembly has chartered multiple railroads, starting with the Chesterfield Railroad in 1831. Construction of the initial framework of railroads in the state was completed as a series of public-private partnerships. Nearly all railroads chartered prior to the Civil War were partially financed by the state; the Bureau of Public Works purchased 40%-60% of the railroad's bonds.
One exception was the Blue Ridge Railroad. The state owned 100% of it, because the Virginia Central was unable to afford the risks of constructing the first tunnel through the Blue Ridge. When the tunnel was completed, the Virginia Central leased the track and four tunnels completed by the Blue Ridge Railroad between Mechums River and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.
By 1858, before the Civil War, North Carolina managed to build a railroad network that connected all sections of the state east of the Blue Ridge to the port cities of Wilmington and Beaufort. Key interconnections were at Goldsboro on the Neuse River and Weldon on the Roanoke River, at the head of navigation similar to Fredericksburg on the Rapphannock River.1
Virginia failed to link the northern part of the state to ports at Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg, Portsmouth, and Norfolk until the completion of the Fredericksburg-Alexandria link in 1872. Sectional rivalry between Alexandria and Richmond was an effective barrier to building an efficient transportation system. After the Civil War, northern investors took control of Virginia's railroads and focused on making them profitable. Once local investors lost control, construction of track that might carry cargo/passengers to a rival port city became more of a business decision made by Northern investors and less of a political decision made by Virginia residents.
after the Civil War, financing to restore the railroad system in Virginia came from Northern capitalists who linked competing lines together into interstate systems
Source: National Archives, Ruins of P.R.R.R. Bridge at Richmond, Virginia
The routing of railroads had an enormous impact on the development of communities. After the Norfolk and Western Railroad united two lines at Big Lick in Roanoke County, the junction became known as "Magic City" as it grew rapidly into the city of Roanoke. When the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad built its track through the swamps between Petersburg and Suffolk, small towns developed at the spots where locomotives took on water and firewood for the boilers. The Atlantic and Danville spurred the growth of Lawrenceville when it located its shops there in 1890.
Some modern railroads still follow the original routes, while other stretches of track have been abandoned. Right-of-way ownership reverted to the adjacent property owners, was used for a road, or in some cases was repurposed to become a hiking/biking trail.
The technological change in the 1950's from steam engines fuel by coal to diesel locomotives led to a dramatic drop in railroad employment. Another shift after 2015 to Precision Scheduled Railroading led to another reduction in labor. Railroads operated with greater efficiency, creating trains 25% longer since 2008 to haul more cars. Using radio-controlled distributed power (DP) locomotives provided addition power without additional workers on the longer trains. Schedules were restructured to minimize the number of times trains had to stop, allowing one crew in a locomotive to go greater distances.2.
Today just two major (Class I) lines, CSXT and Norfolk Southern, own most of the track in Virginia today and they focus on carrying freight. Operating freight rail systems today, including Class III "short lines," are:
No privately-owned railoads have offered passenger service since 1979, when the Southern Railway transferred its passenger operations to Amtrak. Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express lease the right to carry passengers over tracks owned by other railroads. In addition, Metrorail in Northern Virginia and The Tide in Hampton Roads are transit rail systems that control their own track. None of the many rail-based trolley systems that once operated in Virginia have survived.
Operating passenger rail systems today include:
in 2019, there were no passenger rail stations west of Roanoke
Source: Office of Intermodal PLanning and Investment, InteractVTrans
As railroads went through financial stress and reorganized, they often changed their name from "railroad" to "railway" or vice-versa. Former railroads no longer operating, with reporting marks assigned by the Association of American Railroads that are no longer in active use, are termed "fallen flag" lines.3
locomotive of Conrail, a fallen flag railroad, at Manassas train station
Virginia railroads that are now shut down or incorporated into the remaining operating lines include:
there are almost no signs today of the Marion and Rye Valley or the "Virginia Southern" logging railroads, with their junction at Sugar Grove in Smyth County
Source: Library of Congress, Post route map of the states of Virginia and West Virginia
Norfolk Southern and CSXT are the only Class 1 railroads that remain in Virginia
Source: 2008 Virginia State Rail Plan
U.S. Transportation Infrastructure and Tonnage Hauled, 2010
Source: United Soybean Board, Maintaining A Track Record Of Success: Expanding Rail Infrastructure To Accommodate Growth In Agriculture And Other Sectors (Table 1)
major rail lines in Virginia, 2013
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), National Map