Virginia Railroads In "The Old Dominion State"

Virginia railroads feature typical Appalachian operations; plenty of coal moving from tipple to tidewater with stiff grades over the Blue Ridge that must be conquered to complete the journey.

However, the Commonwealth also includes operations not often found in Appalachian states; coastal plains.  Virginia is home to the port of Norfolk/Newport News, a large eastern seaboard facility that handles important container traffic and outbound coal shipments. 

In addition, the state is home to north-to-south main lines like the former Southern, Atlantic Coast Line, and Seaboard Air Line.  From a train enthusiast's perspective at the time, it offered quite an eclectic display of operations.

The Old Dominion State may no longer be home to names like the Norfolk & Western or the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, but today successors CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern carry on operating many of their, and other fallen flags’, lines.

Additionally, Virginia is served by a handful of short lines, most of which are located in the eastern regions of the state (or directly along the coast).

Norfolk & Western 4-8-0 #382 winds its way along the fabled "Abingdon Branch" (Abingdon, Virginia-West Jefferson, North Carolina), colloquially known as the "Virginia Creeper," with a mixed train (freight/passenger) on October 1, 1956. Abandoned in 1977, today the right-of-way is the Virginia Creep Trail.

A Brief History Of Virginia Railroads

Virginia railroads date back to 1830 when the Petersburg Railroad was chartered to connect Petersburg, Virginia with Garysburg, North Carolina.

A distance of about 62 miles the railroad opened its main line in 1833 and after operating for 65 years, it was merged into the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad in March of 1898 eventually becoming part of the Atlantic Coast Line system.

The original Petersburg Railroad route became the Atlantic Coast Line's primary main line to Richmond and today it remains an important artery in successor CSX Transportation's system, more than 170 years since the route was constructed. 

In the succeeding years following the opening of the Petersburg, Virginia would come to know many of the South’s most celebrated railroads.

Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac E8A #1004, along with a mixture of other EMD power (including what appears to be an SW1500) lead a long freight northbound near Brooke, Virginia on February 8, 1969. The RF&P had a unique practice of running northbound movements with even-numbered units while southbound traffic featured odd-numbered power. Roger Puta photo.

Many of these railroads played a vital role in both developing Virginia and seeing it prosper, such as serving the Port of Norfolk/Newport News in the southeast and tapping the state’s rich coal reserves to the west.

While railroads like the C&O, Virginian and RF&P have particularly left their mark on the state, perhaps no other railroad is more synonymous with Virginia than the Norfolk & Western. 

Abandoned Railroads Of Virginia

For whatever reason, Virginia has not suffered the rail losses of other states; roughly, only 1,600 miles have been abandoned of a total reaching 4,700 miles.

Main lines of the Southern Railway, Norfolk & Western, and Chesapeake & Ohio all remain quite active under Norfolk Southern and CSX.

By and large, the abandonments have been secondary agricultural corridors and coal branches to the west.  The one notable exception is the old Virginian Railway.

Its main line is gone from just west of Norfolk/Portsmouth to Abilene.  There are also other sections removed, such as the section near Glen Lyn, Virginia.

Another notable abandonment is the Norfolk & Western's fabled "Virginia Creeper," the Abington Branch which ran from Abingdon, Virginia to West Jefferson, North Carolina.

Finally, notable short line abandonments include the:

  • Winchester & Western's original line to Wardensville, West Virginia (via Gore, Virginia).
  • Much of the Chesapeake Western around Harrisonburg, Virginia.

  • The old Virginia Blue Ridge Railway, which ran 19.5 miles from a connection of the Southern Railway at Tye River to Massie's Mill.

Today, with the Southern’s main north-south line that terminates in Washington, D.C. and the N&W’s east-west route that connects Norfolk/Newport News with most of the large markets in the Midwest (including Chicago), successor Norfolk Southern operates most of the strategic routes in Virginia.

In addition, part of the old Virginian's main line is still intact, which follows much the same route as the N&W.

Southern 2-8-2 #4501 (Class Ms) steams through the northern Virginia countryside near Markham along the road's Manassas Branch as it leads an NRHS fan trip on September 5, 1966. Ron Ziel photo.

While CSX operates the former C&O, SAL, ACL, RF&P and Clinchfield lines in the Old Dominion State none offer quite the strategic advantage afforded by the N&W, Virginian and Southern lines.

Aside from the Class Is, Virginia railroads also feature a handful of short lines which include the:

  • Buckingham Branch Railroad

  • Commonwealth Railway

  • Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad

  • Chesapeake & Albemarle Railroad

  • Shenandoah Valley Railroad

  • North Carolina & Virginia Railroad

  • Virginia Southern Railroad

  •  Winchester & Western Railroad

In total, Virginia's railroad network today consists of about 3,200 miles, which is about 68% of its one-time high of 4,703 miles that occurred during the 1920s (the "Golden Age", as it's also known).

Classic Railroads To Serve Virginia

Norfolk & Western

Chesapeake Western Railway 

Southern Railway

Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac

Norfolk Southern (Original)

Baltimore & Ohio (Operated a branch from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to Winchester.)

Virginian Railway

Clinchfield Railroad

Atlantic Coast Line

Seaboard Air Line

Chesapeake & Ohio

Virginia Blue Ridge Railway 

Louisville & Nashville

Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 #612 (J) with what appears to be a mail/express consist outside of Shawsville, Virginia on October 23, 1952. Photographer unknown.

Much of the state's loss of trackage was through coal branches, secondary lines, and smaller railroads that were abandoned before the 1980s. For more information on Virginia railroads, in terms of route mileage over the years please take a look at the chart below.

* Railroads arrived early to Virginia when the Petersburg Railroad opened 70 miles from Petersburg to Garysburg, North Carolina in 1833.  It played an important role for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, where it received considerable damage by Union forces, and then was acquired by the much lager Wilmington & Weldon Railroad in 1891. 

The W&W went on to join a group of other systems that collectively became the modern Atlantic Coast Line, one of the South's most successful systems.  Today, the former Petersburg Railroad remains in use by Class I railroad CSX Transportation.

Passenger trains are still alive and well in Virginia with Amtrak operating the tri-weekly Cardinal along with the Crescent and Silver Service operations.

The Commonwealth also operates commuter services with the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) which has a line connecting Manassas with D.C. and another connecting Fredericksburg with D.C.

Future commuter operations include The Tide, a light rail initiative to serve Norfolk and Virginia Beach as well as the Columbia Pike Streetcar project which will link Pentagon City with Skyline, Virginia. 

A 1952 Buick "Super" gets some petrol from a classic gravity gas pump at Vesuvius, Virginia as one of the Norfolk & Western's K-2a's (4-8-2), #131, speeds past along the Shenandoah Division with northbound Train #2 in 1956. The N&W's streamlined Mountains looked almost identical to the famous J's but alas none survive. O. Winston Link photo.

If you are interested in museums, Virginia is home to several although.

Aside from the O. Winston Link collection, you can see Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 #611 on display (when not hosting excursions at other railroads) or Norfolk & Western 2-6-6-4 #1218.

Both of these locomotives were once part of Norfolk Southern's original steam program that ended in the 1994 and #611 has actually operated in its second which lasted from 2011-2015.

In all, Virginia railroads offer everything from rugged mountain railroading to intermodal and commuter rail. Depending on what kind of railroading you’re interested in, you are sure to find it in the Old Dominion State!  

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Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!