A Long Time Coming

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, August 1, 2022

Some of you may have read my article “Commonwealth Commitment“, in the August issue of TRAINS, about Virginia’s increasing support for passenger rail services in recent times.  Due to space limitations, not all of the information that I obtained in the process of researching the background for this was able to be included in the final product.  Since the following puts this in its proper historical context, I’m sharing it here.

On January 17, 1970, while I was in college in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, friends and I stopped by Norfolk & Western’s passenger station in Roanoke, the railroad’s headquarters.  Occupying the northernmost track, and pointed east was a short string of N&W office cars being prepared for departure, as shown in the photo above. 

On that day, Linwood Holton was inaugurated Governor of Virginia, the first Republican to be the Old Dominion’s chief executive since the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era.  One of the workers getting the train ready indicated that it was for company executives to attend some of the events being held in conjunction with the inauguration.  

In 1972, Governor Holton requested that John Volpe, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation do a study of the potential for rail passenger service in the Richmond-Washington, DC corridor.  In conjunction with this, Jim Smith of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac’s (RF&P) Engineering department prepared a conceptual study that included a bypass of Ashland, Virginia, for high speed passenger trains.

According to Richard L. Beadles, a former RF&P executive, who continues to be a strong advocate of rail passenger service in Virginia, “the price tag was shocking”.  Furthermore, as related by Danny Plaugher, the Executive Director of Virginians for High Speed Rail (VHSR), there also was significant opposition by local landowners.  Accordingly, nothing came of the effort, but fifty years ago, at least someone was thinking strategically, even if it would take decades to see results.

Fast-forwarding to 2022, Roanoke once again has a pair of passenger trains available to the public, albeit on a single route (Roanoke-Lynchburg-Washington DC and points north in the “Northeast Corridor”), and with no service west of the “Star City” (or to Norfolk), although a modest westward increment, as far as Christiansburg/New River Valley, is now planned to occur in the next few years.

In a general sense, the present station facilities are essentially in the same area as in 1970, although they consist of a single high-level platform, with no staffing.  The post-World War 2 N&W depot on the north side of the tracks is still standing, but now houses the O. Winston Link and History Museum of Western Virginia, while Amtrak’s facility is on the south side of the railroad.

So, while the rest of the world, starting with Japan’s New Tokaido Line in the 1960s, and moving onwards to France’s TGV; the HST trainsets in the UK; and the now-massive expansion of high-speed rail passenger service in China, has many swift and shiny “new toys” on their railroads, the U.S. hasn’t advanced much beyond the Northeast Corridor, in geographic terms.  For that matter, on January 17, 1970, the original Metroliners were already plying their trade between New York and Washington.

This isn’t the place to analyze why the U.S. chose other transportation alternatives, principally air and highways, than the nations cited above during the intervening 50 years. On the other hand, as discussed at length in the article I mentioned at the outset, transportation policy, at least in Virginia, has shifted modestly in the direction of a more balanced surface transportation system for moving passengers.

Progress has been made, and hopefully, this will continue.  Two key requirements going forward will be commitment, and persistence.  On the other hand, as my article points out, there is a tiny harbinger of higher-speed passenger rail infrastructure already in place in the Old Dominion, south of Petersburg. Hopefully it will take less than fifty years for there to be other trackage built to the same standards, and used multiple times per day.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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