Roanoke rejoins passenger rail network

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Amtrak P42 No. 193 stands ready to lead Amtrak Northeast Regional train No. 176 east from Roanoke, Va., Tuesday morning.
Malcolm Kenton
An Amtrak locomotive parked in Roanoke, Va., for the start of regularly scheduled passenger service for the first time since 1979.
Richard Shell
ROANOKE, Va. — Today marks the return of Amtrak service to and from the Star City for the first time in 38 years. Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 176 departed Roanoke this morning at 6:19 with many local passengers taking a short ride east to Lynchburg, Va., so they can return by bus.

Passengers will be able to travel in and out of Roanoke from cities such as Washington, New York, and Boston. Local and state officials, as well as city leaders expect the economic boost of passenger rail service coming to the city to be significant.

About 150 passengers arrived before dawn this morning to board the Northeast Regional, which is the first regularly scheduled passenger train to depart Roanoke since the Oct. 1, 1979. That was the date Amtrak discontinued the Washington to Catlettsburg, Ky., Hilltopper.

Trains will arrive and depart from the newly built high-level platform on Norfolk Avenue on Norfolk Southern’s ex-Norfolk & Western main line in the city’s downtown. The trains are funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia south of Washington.

Ceremonies were held Monday afternoon with a five-car special train book-ended by the Amtrak business car Beech Grove. Dignitaries who gathered to speak alluded to the significance of passenger trains returning to a city whose history and development are intertwined with railroads, where the N&W built and maintained steam locomotives until the 1960s, and where NS remains a significant employer. The city hosts the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the O. Winston Link Museum, housed in the mid-century former N&W depot across the tracks from the Amtrak station.

The new train “means a lot to Roanoke and southwest Virginia,” U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., tells Trains News Wire, adding that he usually drives to Washington from Roanoke. “It took many years to get it here, but I’m glad it’s here. This is so much more relaxing."

In addition to the new platform, a fenced-in layover facility with a small crew office was built along the ex-N&W Roanoke to Winston-Salem branch, close to the former Virginian Railway depot. The facility can also accommodate the layover and storage of private railcars, several of which are planning weekend excursions to Roanoke.

SmartWay Connector buses, which had provided daily Thruway service connecting Salem, Blacksburg, Roanoke, and Bedford with the Regionals at Lynchburg, will now shuttle passengers between the new Roanoke station and Salem and Blacksburg. The train bypasses Bedford, a community of 6,350 once served by N&W trains, some of whose residents have been pressuring the state to add a stop there. The state's next goal is to extend service further southwest to Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee state line.
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