Amtrak is extending passenger rail service to the Roanoke Valley in southwestern Virginia.
The first Amtrak train will pull out of a new station in downtown Roanoke on Halloween, providing a new way for residents to travel to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
And, officials in Virginia are betting the service could draw more visitors from across the Washington region and the entire Northeast corridor. Roanoke, nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is a popular destination for outdoor lovers, particularly in the fall.
“We want people to come to Roanoke,” said Chris Smith, spokesman at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “There is tons to see in the Blue Ridge during the fall. If they don’t want to deal with that traffic in Northern Virginia, they can hop on the train.”
Ideally people who travel frequently between the Roanoke Valley and Washington and cities in between, would choose to ride instead of drive, officials say. Football fans who attend Hokies games at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg could also benefit from the option. Amtrak offers thru-bus service to and from Blacksburg for $4.
The addition of the new passenger service is part of a larger $100 million investment in the state’s rail network, Smith said. Other major projects include the addition of about 10 miles of track in the Roanoke area and the expansion of various railroad tunnels to allow double stacked trains through. Those efforts aim to increase freight capacity for Norfolk Southern, which owns and operates the tracks.
In the past decade Amtrak service has been extended to Norfolk and Lynchburg.
Passenger train service to Lynchburg, about 56 miles northeast of Roanoke, has been so successful since it launched in 2009, that revenue come close to surpassing operating costs, Smith said. Trains in the route are running near capacity, he said, with people traveling from that part of Virginia to Northern Virginia and up to New York on a one-seat ride.
“Roanoke is the next logical place to go,” Smith said.
The state estimates that about 34,000 riders a year will be added to the Northeast Regional by bringing the line to Roanoke. In 2016, Amtrak Virginia trains carried 837,464 passengers, with total ticket revenue of $51.3 million, according to a Department of Rail and Public Transportation report.
The new station in downtown Roanoke includes not only a $13 million passenger platform with a canopy, but also a $5.5 million overnight facility for Amtrak crew and a service area for the locomotives. Public parking is available nearby, officials said.
Amtrak officials say the expansion of Northeast Regional service to and from Roanoke is a significant step in its growth. Trains have free WiFi and no middle seat; travelers on this route are allowed to bring their pets along.
“More people are choosing passenger rail travel and the power of this increasing demand is recognized through Virginia’s strategic investment in the infrastructure to improve service, speed and safety,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said.
Amtrak officials say ticket sales have been robust, but seats are still available for the inaugural trips. Some dates, including Thanksgiving holiday, are selling fast.
The Northeast Regional already makes stops in Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Culpepper, Manassas, Burke Centre and Alexandria, before reaching Washington’s Union Station and continuing north to New York.