How to teach an old railroad new tricks

Posted by Roy Blanchard
on Monday, July 19, 2010

By Roy Blanchard

Winchester, Va., July 10, 2010.

Norfolk Southern’s former Norfolk & Western Shenandoah Valley line has long been a favorite. Today I visited the line from Riverton Jct., Va., just north of Front Royal, to see how the Crescent Corridor improvements have changed the line since I first photographed it in the mid 1950s. Quite a bit, it turns out.

At Riverton Jct., where the ex-Southern line from Manassas joins the ex-N&W line from Roanoke, Va., on a connecting track built in the late 1980s, there is an S-curve that ends on the Shenandoah River bridge and limits trains to 10 mph. NS is reconfiguring the layout to eliminate the S-curve and is repositioning the bridge to accommodate the new alignment.  I’m told the new alignment will get speeds up to 30 mph. In-service date is scheduled for July 25.

Within the seven miles north of Riverton Jct. NS has essentially built a new five-mile, double-track railroad. Not only does it feed the intermodal ramp at the Virginia Inland Port, it’s also designed to relieve a congestion point for trains to and from the south.

The Crescent Corridor -- see -- is two parallel main lines between Birmingham, Ala., and Riverton (Front Royal on the map). The easternmost of the two (dubbed the “Piedmont Route”) via Atlanta, Charlotte, and Manassas is all ex-Southern and, for the most part, was rebuilt and double-tracked about 95 years ago to handle large volumes of passenger trains and fast freights. The westernmost line (the “Shenandoah Route”) is ex-Southern Memphis to Bristol, Va., thence ex-N&W to Riverton, a route largely built for tonnage, with a surfeit of grades and curves and therefore slower.

The ex-N&W north of Riverton, while generally fast and reasonably level, until recently has been a single-track railroad with short passing tracks more suited to Y-6s and drag freights than Dash-9s and doublestacks.  It now represents a potential choke point – the “neck of the funnel”, if you will – where the traffic flows from the Piedmont and Shenandoah Routes blend, and where high-speed intermodal jobs commingle with mixed freights on a daily basis.  Something has to be done to maintain fluidity; thus, the Riverton rebuild and five-mile double-track projects.

So here I am at Fairgrounds Road, just north of the Virginia Inland Port at 1 p.m. on a sunny July Saturday afternoon. I’m admiring the new crossover at control point “Success” and am looking at some pix I have in the car of the site in pre-double-track days when I hear two longs a short and a long from a train heading for my location from the north. It’s 80 cars of mixed freight wasting no time getting across the railroad.
Twenty minutes later I’m at the end of the road above the Riverton Jct construction site and here comes as northbound stack train off the Manassas line with Union Pacific run-through SD70MACs on the point. This guy is not as fast as the first train being restricted to 10 mph through the S curves. I can see immediately what increasing the speed to 30 mph is going to do for fluidity.

Then it’s back to the inland port area, only this time at Rockland Road, a mile to the south. I barely stop the car and here comes another southbound merchandise job, this one closer to 100 cars. By this time much of the cloud cover has dissipated so I go back to Fairground Road to see if there’s another shot to be had. There is.

As I approach the crossing I look across the field to my left and here comes a southbound intermodal train. Happily, there’s no car behind me so I poke the Leica M-3 loaded with Kodachrome out the car window to get some nice slides as he crosses the field and another frame or two at the highway crossing proper.

In sum, not a bad afternoon of train watching.  I pull up not knowing what to expect at one and by five I’ve bagged four trains, recorded the track improvements made and in progress, and have seen a railroad much changed from the last time I was through here.  As I wrote recently in my weekly newsletter, we’re in a 90 percent economy with a railroad infrastructure that can take a return to 100% even now. This NS visit proves the point quite well.

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