Maybe someday: Amtrak disses Roanoke (for now)

A railroad helped turn a little town called Big Lick into a major rail city called Roanoke. But one thing is still missing: passengers.

After the Norfolk & Western Railway was born from the merger of two major railroads in the 1880s, Roanoke became not just the headquarters for N&W, but also the nexus of a burgeoning passenger system whose famed trains included the Cavalier, the Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Arrow.

By 1947, despite the fact that auto traffic was stealing the thunder from the rails, N&W felt confident enough to hire one of the world's foremost industrial designers, Raymond Loewy, to renovate its passenger station. Loewy– father of the Greyhound Bus as well as creator of the logos of Shell Oil and Lucky Strike cigarettes– gave Roanoke a vision of modernism.

But by 1971, most American railroads found that passenger service wasn't paying the, uh, freight. The government formed Amtrak in May of that year, and opted for a tiny new station in Roanoke serving its Norfolk to Chicago route.

Unlike Loewy's dramatic moderne architecture, the structure that Amtrak built was a one-story corrugated metal-sided building on a concrete pad, more closely resembling a "storage facility," says Roanoke transportation consultant David Foster. And while the building still stands on Shenandoah Avenue, Roanoke's passenger service has disappeared.

By the mid-1970s, Foster says, Amtrak had pulled out of the Star City, and Foster holds little hope that it'll soon return.

"There's no reason you can't operate more passenger trains in Virginia," says Foster, "but the main question is who funds the operation– because passenger trains rarely operate at a profit.

"Most of great railroad networks," he continues, "exist only because a government has determined that it's an important part of the national transportations scheme. But we've never had that here."

The 1947 Loewy building lost most of its passenger concourse in the early 1990s when N&W's successor demolished the track-spanning structure to make way for double-decker trains. But even that indignity is no bar to becoming a station again. John Bradshaw, the O. Winston Link Museum's treasurer, says the building would require just "minor modifications" to once again serve rail passengers.

One glimmer for prospective passengers is the TransDominion Express, an unfunded plan to run several daily trains from Bristol to Washington and Bristol to Richmond. The trains would serve Roanoke (and Charlottesville) along the way.

"If there's the money, you can do it," says Foster.

Ellen Qualls, spokesperson for governor Mark Warner, says the TransDominion Express stands a chance only if federal funds, estimated in the tens of millions, subsidize it.

"He's a rail advocate," Qualls says of Warner, "but rail takes a lot of money, and we don't have a lot of money." She says the governor recently sent train-loving letters to the state's congressional delegation, including high-ranking Senator John Warner and Congressman Frank Wolf, who "very successfully" bring federal transportation money to Virginia.

On December 18, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation released its own study, which revealed that 30 percent of the truck traffic on I-81 could be diverted to rail if Virginia and 14 nearby states spent $7.9 billion on rail and road improvements.

"We're pleased that the Commonwealth study shows there's a role for rail in the I-81 corridor," says Norfolk Southern spokesperson Susan Terpay. "We'll release a more complete response once we study the report."

Any improvement in rail capacity would be cheered by TransDominion Express supporters– since freight railroads are the ones asked to carry passengers. (Only in the Northeast corridor does Amtrak own its own rails.)

Currently, the state is also studying two competing proposals to expand truck-clogged I-81. For about $8 billion, the thoroughfare might be widened and offer segregated car and truck lanes– not to mention tolls of up to 27 cents per mile for trucks.

When the state asked for comment on the proposals, officials learned that 65 percent of localities asked for rail improvements to eliminate trucks from I-81. The next most popular response from localities was opposition to tolls.

Meanwhile, a transportation bill winding its way through Congress includes $1.5 billion in federal funding for dedicated truck lanes on I-81. Legislators who hold out hope for rail may not want to pin all their hopes on trains– and end up losing manna from Congress.