We Need Passenger Rail Service

Hayden Hollingsworth
Hayden Hollingsworth

Here’s a case in point: The proposed passenger rail access from Roanoke. Everything seemed to be moving toward a successful link up with Amtrak’s Northeast Regional. Currently, the train operates from Lynchburg to Boston without having to change trains. There is bus service from Roanoke to ferry patrons to Kemper Street station to catch the train. The last time I was involved in that the ticket price was $4.00; it maybe more now but the bus is averaging 47 passengers a day, which is near capacity.

If the current plan goes through, then the train would originate in Roanoke instead of Lynchburg. There would be intermediate stops in the major cities between here and Boston. In Washington diesel power would be replaced with electric locomotives and the procedure reversed on the return trip to Roanoke. What an appealing idea.

But wait, there are complications. What about handicapped accessibility? In major cities, platforms at the station make level entry into the cars very easy. It has been that way for decades but in lesser cities passengers have had to navigate steps to enter the train. Building level entry platforms at smaller stations was not feasible so to be in compliance with the American Disability Act, such locations have a lift for those who cannot navigate steps. It has worked well.

Now we come to the Roanoke problem. It seemed that the same lift system would be employed here; it works even in Washington’s Union Station. It’s not clear who decided that we should have level entry platforms and a sizeable amount of money has been earmarked for that purpose . . . up to ten million dollars.

One hundred million dollars of federal and state money has been designated for other improvements but not all of that would be spent in Roanoke but in revising rails between here and Lynchburg, a line that is now essentially single rail. That could run into real cash, but apparently it would need to be done.

Bev Fitzpatrick, director of the Virginia Transportation Museum, has been most helpful in supplying some disturbing information. The conversation that possibly may kill the whole project has to do with the platform height and width.

If built to the required specifications it would reduce the trackage to a single rail through Roanoke, an impossibility for continued operation of wide-load freight trains of which there are 50 or more a day. Who knows what affect that would have on the proposed inland port at Elliston, already under construction!

There is yet another fact that has not been mentioned: The 611J, our international icon, will not be able to pass the level platform. What an embarrassment to have invested the money and interest in its restoration and then build a platform that will negate its use!

The Norfolk Southern is one of the most profitable rail systems in the country. They haul millions of tonnage a day; all of it freight through Roanoke. That they have been helpful in trying to extend passenger rail service to Roanoke is admirable, but there is a limit to what they can and will do. The Northeastern Regional operated by Amtrak is one of their more profitable runs. The Roanoke extension will add little to their established success.

The platform lifts have worked quite well in countless stations with the same problem we have here. There is no reason it cannot be implemented successfully. If those who insist on a level platform have their way, rest assured that the Norfolk Southern is never going to agree to a single rail line through Roanoke. The whole project will die before the first spike is driven.

This is an important step in Roanoke’s future. So far our local congressmen have been quiet on the subject. If they are truly interested in our civic welfare they will support the solution that will give us easy rail access to the entire northeast without the maddening hassle of I-81 and I-95. To lose this opportunity may well accelerate the loss of our heritage as a city that once ruled the rails.

Hayden Hollingsworth