Railroads & Locomotives Hot Spots Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460

Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460

By John Friedmann | May 13, 2024

| Last updated on May 20, 2024

All the ingredients: Tracks generally within sight, a legendary grade, interesting endpoints, and rail attractions

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A pair of black and white painted locomotives, under a blue sky, passing a newly plowed field.
Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460 stays close to the Norfolk Southern across Virginia making for memorable images such as this westbound empty coal drag running the former Norfolk & Western main line. It’s seen climbing Christiansburg Mountain west of Roanoke, Va., in the small town of Shawsville on May 24, 2014. Kevin Gilliam

Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460 has all the elements: tracks generally within sight, a legendary grade, interesting endpoints, rail attractions along the way, and reasonable train density (including two Amtrak routes). Some unique cuisine and non-rail history along the way even make it palatable for the non-railfans in the car. The 225-mile trip between Roanoke and Suffolk is an easy day’s drive even with numerous railroad-related distractions.

“460” parallels the former Norfolk & Western (now Norfolk Southern) main line across the state. The N&W was once a coal funnel from the Appalachian coalfields to the piers in Norfolk, but mergers and economics have changed the traffic mix. Coal trains are fewer, and most loads now use NS’s parallel and lower-grade former Virginian Railway halfway across the state, while empties return on the N&W. Intermodal — mostly from the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads — is now a huge player on what NS calls its Heartland Corridor between Norfolk and the Midwest. Passengers are again big business along the N&W: Lynchburg to Roanoke sees four daily Amtrak trains, and Petersburg to Suffolk hosts six.

At the west end of the trip, Roanoke has enough rail attractions to merit a trip itself — NS’s sprawling yards and Shaffer’s Crossing locomotive shops, the Virginia Museum of Transportation (home to legendary N&W steam engines Nos. 611 and 1218), and the formerly N&W-owned Hotel Roanoke hard by the tracks. Start your trip by admiring the N&W photographs at the O. Winston Link Museum located in the former N&W Roanoke station, then head east.

A pair of black and white locomotives against green mountains in the background and green grass in the foreground
Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460 follows the former Norfolk & Western main line out of Roanoke through Shawsville, Va. Parallelling US 460, an autorack train from Norfolk, Va., is bound for the Midwest on May 7, 2016. Kevin Gilliam

Once out of Roanoke, Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460 follows the N&W up Blue Ridge grade (9 miles, up to 1.3%), and then plays tag with the railroad until Bedford where 460 and the railroad take different routes to Lynchburg.

Now dominated by Liberty University, Lynchburg used to be a big-time railroad town at the intersection of the N&W, Southern, and C&O main lines. The former Southern Montview Yard is the most active in town, but the yard and the adjacent double-wye connecting the former N&W and Southern mains are tough to see.

Instead hunt down Southern’s Kemper Street passenger station, a unique structure built in 1912 and still serving Amtrak passengers. CSX’s former C&O main line claimed the low-grade through town along the James River, and the Depot Grille in the former N&W freight house is within a stone’s throw of CSX action. Both Southern and N&W have photogenic bridges in Lynchburg. (see Trains.com’s online Hot Spots for more on Lynchburg)

The former Virginian from Roanoke rejoins the N&W at Abilene, increasing train density going east. At Burkeville, Norfolk Southern’s branch to Richmond diverges and the Virginia Southern division of the Buckingham Branch Railroad connects. The Buckingham Branch runs irregularly, so catching them in Burkeville is a rare event.

Crewe, the only yard of any size en route on the former N&W, is just a few more miles east. Some Roanoke – Norfolk trains change crews in Crewe, and there is a small railroad equipment display adjacent to the yard. The local police are quick to ticket speeders, so slow down and pay attention!

A pair of black and white locomotives exist a tunnel cut into a tree-covered hillside
A westbound coal train climbs Christiansburg Mountain at Montgomery Tunnel, east of Christiansburg, Va. The former Norfolk & Western color position light signals, still active in this 2012 view, were replaced by Safetrans signals in October 2014. Kevin Gilliam

The railroad and 460 stay close to one another between Crewe and the outskirts of Petersburg. NS has two parallel routes through Petersburg — the old main line to the north and the Petersburg Belt Line to the south (most trains take the belt line). Along the belt line, NS connects with CSX’s former Atlantic Coast Line main line just north of CSX’s Collier Yard (containerized trash is a big part of the interchange) and Amtrak trains to Norfolk use a 2012-built connection in the northeast quadrant between the two lines. You can also see Norfolk Southern’s “car lot” (N&W-speak for automotive distribution terminal) near control point Poe on Petersburg’s east side. 460 uses Interstates 85 and 95 to cross Petersburg — watch signs carefully.

The 52-mile tangent between Petersburg and Suffolk was a raceway for N&W’s J-class 4-8-4 steam engines. Freights roll up to 60 mph, Amtrak trains tear through the small towns on the line at 79 mph and U.S. 460 is close to the tracks for most of the way.

Suffolk is worth a quick visit for its three railroads and two stations. NS still uses the brick former N&W depot and serves its former Norfolk, Franklin and Danville Railway branch with a local based here. CSX’s former Seaboard Airline station boasts a distinctive turret and is now the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum (closed indefinitely but check Facebook for updates). Genessee & Wyoming’s Commonwealth Railway is the third road in town — primary traffic is double-stacks in conjunction with both Class 1s from the Virginia International Gateway container terminal in nearby Portsmouth.

Worth stopping for:

  • Winston Link Museum. Located in Roanoke’s Raymond Loewy-remodeled former N&W station, the museum showcases the photographer’s art, the modern architecture of the station, and Roanoke history. Trains pass frequently and are visible from the museum.
  • High Bridge. This 2400’ long, 125’ tall bridge near Farmville hosted NS trains until 2005, and the route became a 31-mile rail in 2012. The bridge is an easy 0.3-mile hike from the Camp Paradise trailhead.
  • CSX/NS crossing in Petersburg. CSX’s busy former ACL main line crosses above the NS belt line in Petersburg. While NS pictures can be tricky, CSX’s nearby Collier Yard provides additional activity. Vaughan Road provides the best access.

If time is short: Roanoke to Lynchburg is just over an hour’s drive, but both endpoints have volume and variety of rail attractions. Along the way, Blue Ridge is worth a quick stop just to kick the ballast and imagine N&W steam engines slogging upgrade.

Besides the railroad:

  • Both the N&W and 460 pass through the town of Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant in 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. A highly-rated national park commemorates the surrender and the beginning of Reconstruction.
  • Virginia peanuts (the kind sold in ballparks) are a thing along the N&W. The Hotel Roanoke’s menu features Peanut Soup and Suffolk calls itself the “Peanut Capital of the World.” Peanut stores dot the eastern portion of route selling all flavors and forms. Plantation Peanuts’ Salt and Pepper variety is highly recommended — look for them across the street from the peanut-themed Virginia Diner in Wakefield.

If you enjoyed this installment of Railfan Road, check out John Friedman’s guide to Highway 30 across Nebraska here.

A black and white diesel locomotive with tree-covered mountains in the distance
A westbound container train climbs upgrade at Basham Hollow Road near Shawsville, Va., on May 24, 2014. This double-track corridor carries traffic along the N&W main line to Portsmouth, Ohio, as well as the N&W Bristol line to Tennessee and points south. Kevin Gilliam

Updated 5-19-24 to remove “is the second longest rail tangent in the U.S.” Information regarding the 52-mile tangent between Petersburg and Suffolk was incorrect.

2 thoughts on “Railfan Road: Virginia’s 460

  1. Thanks for a great story. Interesting though, that the trip is described East from Roanoke to Suffolk, yet all of the accompanying photographs are of scenes West of Roanoke.

  2. I don’t believe the 52-mile tangent between Suffolk and Petersburg is the second-longest tangent in the U.S. If memory serves me correctly, the ex-ACL between Kinderlou (just west of Valdosta) and Waycross, GA, is just a hair over 60 miles, and again if memory serves that is the fourth-longest tangent in the U.S. I know the longest tangent is inland from Wilmington, NC, on the ex-SAL, and there’s a long tangent or two on the old SAL’s Miami Extension, but I don’t know the(ir) length(s).

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