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Modern Transportation for the Virginias

A British View of Rail Service in the Virginias

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, summer 2006

By Simon Norton, Cambridge, England

I recently took part in an organized rail-themed tour in MD, WV, and VA, and would like to share with you some of my ideas.

Our trip visited or stayed at several places on the I-81 corridor (Winchester, New Market, Staunton, Natural Bridge, and Roanoke), and it would be good if we could get between these places independently. A video presentation at the Winston Link Museum at Roanoke ended by saying that one day it might again be possible to take steam excursions from Roanoke. If so, Natural Bridge would seem to be a logical destination.

I’d also like to see a bus service (connecting with trains) on the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of my biggest disappointments with the tour was that it didn’t visit the parkway. A Blue Ridge directory says that the overlooks are large enough to accommodate buses.

A minimal addition to existing service would have significant benefits: a pair of counterflow MARC trains between Washington and Harpers Ferry or Martinsburg, and either a connecting bus from Harpers Ferry to Roanoke or (if that is too ambitious) connecting buses from Harpers Ferry to the I-64–Blue Ridge Parkway junction and on to Staunton, Waynesboro, Charlottesville, and Roanoke, with Amtrak connections at Staunton and Charlottesville. Buses along the parkway would open up new opportunities for day hikes on the Appalachian Trail. (On one of the Amtrak trains I used, I encountered someone who was returning from a walk and had used Harpers Ferry as a railhead.) A bus linking Lynchburg and Clifton Forge via the Blue Ridge Parkway and 501, Natural Bridge, and Lexington, which would add two more railheads.

In West Virginia there seems to be a long route covered by tourist rail operations between Tygart Junction and Cass. It would be helpful if people could make through journeys instead of having to do it bit by bit and shuttle between the bits by car or bus (as we did). This would also need public transport to each end of the route—perhaps an Amtrak stop at Green Spring and a bus between Petersburg and Elkins, which would add yet another tourist rail route. The mountain shuttle at Snowshoe could also be linked with this network.

The station at Charleston, WV, lies across the river in South Charleston, right under the bridge that leads to Charleston proper. But there’s no direct access, and anyone wishing to walk into the city cannot do so easily. Someone wondered whether South Charleston might prefer that people didn’t visit Charleston, given that all the information leaflets at the station referred to South Charleston rather than Charleston. This might make sense if there were actually some amenities close by the station. There was reference to a restaurant a couple of blocks east, but the walking route doesn’t look very pedestrian friendly.

Finally, some comments on the Washington Metro. I was due to fly home from Dulles, and getting there was a problem. According to the Metro website, there’s a bus from Rosslyn, but the display map at Metro Center seemed to suggest, instead, a shuttle from West Falls Church. I went to West Falls Church and Rosslyn to investigate. I found that the Rosslyn bus did run and that it started at L’Enfant Plaza. When leaving for my flight home, I went to L’Enfant Plaza to wait for the bus. Unfortunately, it has no sign indicating where to catch the bus to Dulles, and I waited not at the beginning of the route but at 7th and E, which is shown as an official stop, but the bus didn’t stop. Maybe I should have signaled more clearly, but there was a storm on and I was trying to minimize my exposure to the rain. By then I was seriously worried about missing my check-in time at the airport, but in any case my flight was cancelled. Dulles Rail would certainly have helped me.