An Amtrak Northeast Regional day trip to Washington is within the sights of most Northeast U.S. residents. One of the recent successes in expanding that Northeast Regional service was restoring passenger train service to Roanoke in southwestern Virginia in 2017. The now-five-year-old passenger service reintroduced regularly scheduled trains to Roanoke for the first time since Amtrak’s Hilltopper was discontinued in 1979. Roanoke residents benefit from daily and – daylight service –to Washington, and beyond, as well as a daily return trip option that leaves from the District of Columbia in the late afternoon.
The experience begins at Roanoke’s new platform and canopy at 55 Norfolk Avenue SW. Built in 2016, the platform is conveniently located in downtown, easily within walking distance of the Virginia Museum of Transportation less than three blocks away, and the O. Winston Link Museum, located diagonally across the street. Each of these rail attractions provide great options for activities the day before or after your train ride.
The Northeast Regional experience departs Roanoke weekdays at 6:19 a.m. Eastern and weekends at 8:40 a.m., sporting a lone GE P42DC locomotive and a handful of Amfleet coaches – usually no fewer than six. Within a couple minutes of departing Roanoke, on the conductor’s side of the train, affords unique views of Norfolk Southern’s former Norfolk & Western East End shops at Schaffers Crossing (MP N 256.1). Here is where the N&W built its famous locomotives, notably the J-Class 4-8-4 No. 611 and 2-6-6-4 No. 1218, among a number of others. Passing the shops on Amtrak today offers one of the few publicly accessible vantage points of the historic locomotive shops. NS still uses the facilities today for minor repairs and servicing.
East of Roanoke, Northeast Regional trains trace the N&W’s famous Blue Ridge District east through Vinton, Bonsack, and Webster, climbing the west slope of the N&W’s Blue Ridge grade. The grade is no challenge for Amtrak’s sporty consist, however. It’s a heavy grind for for trains. East of Webster, at Villamont (MP N 243.8), trains crest the grade before descending into Bedford. At this point, passengers are enjoying Virginia’s mountain countryside on the original route of the N&W’s
Powhatan Arrow. There isn’t a tremendous amount of notable rail-focused sites east of Bedford until closing in on Lynchburg, where the Northeast Regional trades former N&W territory for NS’s Washington District of former Southern Railway lineage near NS’ Kinney Yard at Montview (PH 16.6).
After easing through the wye, the Northeast Regional follows the ex-Southern Railway mainline toward Washington, D.C., but first stops in Lynchburg, VA., at the city’s former Southern Kemper Street Station. Opened in 1912, Kemper Street serves Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and Crescent. The Crescent, linking New York and New Orleans, is a long-distance train inspired by the Southern’s flagship passenger train, the Southern Crescent, of which served the same route. From Lynchburg east (MP 172.5), Northeast Regional trains operate geographically northeast, passing through rural communities on what is predominantly a single-track railroad. With the exception of a couple passing sidings, the next attraction is the rail diamond at Charlottesville, and NS’ crossing of the Buckingham Branch Railroad’s ex-Chesapeake & Ohio west-east mainline at Charlottesville (MP 112.2). Northeast of Charlottesville, Northeast Regional trains pass through the historic Virginia towns of Montpelier, Orange, Manassas, and Fairfax before reaching the junction of CSX Transportation’s ex-Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac at Alexandria’s AF Tower (MP 9.4). Once on the former RF&P, the final phase of the experience serves Washington, bedroom communities and features a double-track mainline with additional D.C.-originating passenger rail service offered by Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express. An occasional CSX Transportation freight can also be expected outside of peak-passenger schedules.
A brief journey on CSX’s ex-RF&P will guide you into Washington Union Station where passengers disembark in the core of the nation’s capital. When on time, the Northeast Regional arrives at Union Station at 11:20 a.m. EST on weekdays and 1:35 p.m. on weekends. Once in Washington, the nation’s capital requires no introduction and offers an abundance of activities for the admirer of architecture, history, and railroading. Washington Union Station is located at 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, three blocks north of the United States Capitol, and only a brief walk from the National Mall. A number of Smithsonian museums and galleries are within a short distance of Union Station, allowing passengers to enjoy various attractions without renting a vehicle.
The nation’s capital offers an endless number of activities and while this series focuses on day-trip opportunities, the author encourages an overnight stay or maximizing your single-day adventure. Maintain a watchful eye on time, as your Roanoke-bound Northeast Regional departs from Washington, D.C. for Roanoke on weekdays at 4:50 p.m. Eastern, arriving at Roanoke at 9:55 p.m. On Saturdays, it departs at 4:35 p.m., arriving at Roanoke at 9:33 p.m. EST, and on Sundays, it departs at 4:50 p.m., arriving at 9:48 p.m.
Tips & Recommendations:
• Allocate a sufficient amount of time to appreciate Washington Union Station’s architecture and décor. Opened in 1907, Union Station is Amtrak’s second busiest station today.
• Old Ebbitt Grill is a wonderful place to dine, known for high-profile customers and its oyster specials. It is located just steps from the White House and is less than 2 miles from Washington Union Station.