Train Service Back in Roanoke

Roanoke’s New Train Platform. (photo: Visit VA’s Blue Ridge)

After a day of ribbon cutting and a ceremonial train full of dignitaries arriving from Lynchburg, Amtrak began daily service to and from the Star City on October 31.

151 people were reported to have boarded the train on that morning, heading for the Kemper Street Station in Lynchburg and then points beyond on Amtrak’s northeast corridor route, which connects to Washington D.C, New York and then finally to Boston.

“This is the first day of our future,” said State Senator John Edwards as he rode the ceremonial train on October 30. “We worked so long on this, so many people.” Edwards traced it back to the additional Amtrak routes added 8 years ago in Lynchburg when Tim Kaine was governor; he also recalled a town meeting in 2009 when bringing passenger rail service back to Roanoke was the topic – trying to gauge the level of interest as well.

State funding for the connector Smart Bus from Roanoke to Lynchburg was secured and the high level of ridership over the past few years was one more reason Amtrak, Norfolk Southern (which owns the tracks), the state and the City of Roanoke decided that the time was right to work together, to bring rail service back to downtown Roanoke. A new passenger loading platform was built along Norfolk Avenue. “That got Amtrak’s attention.”

“The connector bus proved there was a market for the Roanoke region, with 50 passengers a day on average,” said Edwards. The Democratic state senator also lauded a 2013 transportation package backed by then-Governor Bob McDonnell, which included funding for rail service.

Edwards says the New River Valley is next and noted the NRV 2020 group that hopes to bring passenger rail service there by that year, although Amtrak will evaluate the Roanoke passenger levels for the next few years before deciding on any extension. Another group wants a station in Bedford – halfway between Lynchburg and Roanoke, in part to service Smith Mountain Lake as well.

Amtrak has said in the past they felt a Bedford stop was more likely to poach passengers from the Roanoke or Lynchburg stations but advocates feel it will be net gain for the service. A trackside protest is planned for November 8th with backers holding up signs as the train makes its way from Roanoke to Lynchburg. There is one train leaving in the morning from Roanoke (6:19 weekdays, later on the weekend) and one returning train at night (9:55 weekdays.)

Some in Congress have long been vocal critics of Amtrak as a money-losing service backed by federal funds, with low ridership on many lines, but the northeast corridor train that the Roanoke station now ties in to is a money maker. Count 6th District Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte was a fan on October 30th as he rode the ceremonial first train:  “[it] allows you to sit back and get some work done and I think that’s a nice way to travel,” said Goodlatte.

Basic WiFi is available on the Amtrak train and snacks can be purchased. Riders can also bring their own food and beverages. Purchase tickets on Amtrak’s website; parking is available at several nearby garages to the Norfolk Street station. All aboard!

Gene Marrano