Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Along the Rails:

Train Travel in Virginia


Virginians never had their own 20th Century Limited – the New York Central’s luxury train that rolled out a red carpet for its Chicago-bound passengers. But, even today, everything from potatoes for French fries at McDonald’s to computers rides the rails in the Old Dominion. Two major railroads and nine smaller (short line) rail lines travel more than 6,700 miles of track in the state, according to the Railroad Regulation Department of the Virginia State Corporation Commission (Railroad Regulation).


In fact, CSX Transportation, one of the state’s major rail companies, handles 240,000 carloads of freight per year on the 1,000 miles of track it operates and maintains in Virginia. It carries coal, stone, marble, granite and even municipal waste throughout the state.


However, this is a far cry from rail’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century. When the State Corporation Commission was first created in 1902, in part to regulate the industry, 40 railroad companies operated almost 4,000 miles of track. (“Making Virginia Progressive: Courts and Parties, Railroads and Regulators, 1890-1910,” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, Spring 1999.)


As an aside, not everyone was pleased when a progressive fever captured the country in the late 1800s and attempts were made to regulate large utilities, such as railroads. William Vanderbilt, the son of the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, is best remembered for his retort, “The public be damned,” when asked by a reporter if railroads should be run for the public benefit.


But before the railroad monopolies, Virginia's multiple railroad lines were extremely fragmented and failed to connect with each other. The state’s Tidewater ports each wanted rail service to their individual cities to keep commerce in the state and prevent Virginia farm goods from traveling through the ports of Baltimore or worse still, Philadelphia.


In Virginia, early railroad lines were chartered in the 1840s. By 1861, six Virginia towns had railroad junctions for more than one rail company within their boundaries. In Alexandria and Richmond, each rail line even had a separate terminal building. “Union stations,” where multiple railroad lines met, did not develop until much later (Virginia Places -- Railroad Cities). Because railroad lines failed to meet, there was a need for “draymen” or wagon drivers to carry freight between train stations.


During the Civil War, Virginia’s railways helped the Confederacy survive. The Manassas Gap Railroad, which linked the Shenandoah Valley with Northern Virginia, had the distinction of carrying 10,000 soldiers from Delaplane (then known as Piedmont) to Manassas Junction, according to a Washington Times article by Jack Trammell a few years back (“Virginia Railroads Vital to the Southern Cause,” August 11, 2001). It is considered the first large military movement by rail in history.


The MG was only one of 14 major railroads in Virginia during the Civil War. The state had one quarter of the Confederacy’s total railroad resources. This was one of the reasons Richmond became the Confederacy’s capital. Another well-known railroad during the Civil War period was the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. It ran from Alexandria to Gordonsville in Orange County. Union soldiers captured its major assets in 1861, but employees kept it running and it contributed to most major campaigns. The Norfolk Southern, the state’s other major railroad today, now operates the line.


The post-Civil War era saw the rise of the coal hauling railroads in the western part of the state. By the 1900s, four railroads brought most of Virginia’s coal to salt water ports. These included the Chesapeake and Ohio and Clinchfield, which are now a part of CSX Transportation, and the Norfolk and Western and the Virginian, now run by Norfolk Southern (Virginia Places -- Topography and Coal Railroads). Constructing railroads through mountainous terrain requires creative engineering. An incline reduces the ability of a train to pull a load. In some cases, pusher locomotives are used for extra power when a grade is steep. They attach to the back of coal trains and push them over mountain tops.


The invention of the automobile and the ability to carry freight over roads, as well as the development of airline travel led to the decline of the railroad industry. At least thirteen abandoned railroads are scattered throughout the state, including lines from Staunton to Lexington, Orange to Fredericksburg and Alexandria to Bluemont (Abandoned Railroads of Virginia). Another dedicated group is trying to save four Norfolk & Western steam engines abandoned at the Virginia Scrap Iron and Metal Co. in Roanoke in 1950 and have whimsically created a Web site that echoes the Lost Colony of Roanoke theme (Lost Engines of Roanoke).


By 1980, profits were rare on the 137,000 miles of railroad track in the U.S. Federal regulation, necessary at the turn of the century, required railroads to make deliveries on little-used track. Often only government subsidies kept railroads afloat. The Staggers Act, passed that year, deregulated the industry and helped with its revival. Unprofitable railroad lines were abandoned. Virginia’s CSX Transportation is the result of mergers with over 200 railroads.


Another factor in the revival of the railroads was the growth of new commuter trains around metropolitan areas. The Virginia Railway Express, which connects Fredricksburg and Manassas with Northern Virginia suburbs and downtown Washington, D.C., was launched in 1992 and is one of the more recent commuter lines on the American scene. Its early ridership was 2,000 people per day. By 2004, that number had jumped seven-fold to more than 14,000 daily riders.


Rail fans still make pilgrimages to the CSX railroad tracks near the New River in southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia to get a glimpse of one of the 24 or so trains that pass daily, hauling coal and sometimes merchandise. These days freight cars are sometimes 1,000 feet larger than in the past, and a single train hauls up to 130 cars – a modern marvel for rail aficionados.


So, despite William Vanderbilt’s scorn, the Old Dominion’s railroads survive and thrive.


NEXT: Why Does Dillon Rule? Or Judge John’s Odd Legacy


-- September 19, 2005













About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.