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Virginia Short Line Railroads

Published: April 27, 2023

By: Adam Burns

All of the short line railroads (Class 3) serving Virginia today operate lines spun off from the large, Class 1 carriers over the last 20-30+ years.  The only exception is the historic Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line, a system jointly owned by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.

Railroads played a crucial role in the development of Virginia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With its strategic location between the Northeast and the South, Virginia became a major hub for rail transportation and a key player in the transportation industry.

The first railroad in Virginia was the Petersburg Railroad, which 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.

Another important system was the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, which was established in 1834. This line connected the city of Richmond with the Potomac River (Washington, D.C.). Over the next few decades, several other rail lines were built, connecting Virginia's major cities and towns with the rest of the country.  Names like the Atlantic Coast Line, Virginian, Seaboard Air Line, Chesapeake & Ohio, and Norfolk & Western all became common fixtures across the state.

One of the most famous railroad lines in Virginia is the Norfolk and Western Railway, which was established in 1838. This line connected the coalfields of southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia with the ports of Hampton Roads, creating a vital transportation link for the coal industry. In the public eye, the Norfolk and Western was also known for its luxurious passenger trains, such as the Powhatan Arrow and the Pocahontas, which offered travelers a stylish way to travel through Virginia to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Another important railroad line in Virginia is the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, which was established in 1869. This line connected Virginia with the Chicago, points across Ohio, and later Michigan via its acquisition of the Pere Marquette Railway.  Although the C&O was always recognized as a coal line its system provided a vital link for the transportation of goods and passengers between the two regions.

The public knew the C&O for its passenger trains, names like the George Washington, Sportsman, Fast Flying Virginian and Pere Marquettes, which offered travelers a comfortable trip through Virginia and across Michigan.

Despite their importance to Virginia's economy and transportation industry, many of these rail lines declined in the second half of the 20th century as other forms of transportation, such as automobiles and airplanes, became more popular. However, in recent years, railroads have experienced a resurgence in Virginia, with new rail lines being built and existing lines expanded and upgraded.

One of the most significant developments is the expansion of the Washington Metro, a rapid transit system that serves the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The Metro now extends into Virginia, providing a fast and convenient way for commuters to travel between Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Overall, railroads have played a crucial role in the development of Virginia, and they continue to be an important part of the state's economy and transportation industry. With new rail lines being built and existing lines being expanded and upgraded, Virginia's railroad industry is poised for continued growth and success in the years to come.

Buckingham Branch Railroad

(reporting mark, BB):  This short line began service in 1989 over former C&O trackage between Bremo Bluff and Dillwyn, acquired from CSX that year.  

Today, the railroad has grown substantially and now operates two additional segments, between Clifton Forge and Richmond via Staunton/Charlottesville as well as between Burkeville and Clarksville.  Its trackage totals 275 miles over these three divisions.  It handles a variety of freight and also offers transload services.

Chesapeake & Albemarle Railroad

(reporting mark, CA):  See North Carolina.

Commonwealth Railway

(reporting mark, CWRY):  The Commonwealth Railway began operations in 1989 when it acquired about 16 miles of the former Norfolk, Franklin & Danville between Suffolk and Portsmouth from NS that year. 

It has been a subsidiary of G&W since 1996 with traffic consisting of intermodal containers and chemicals.  The short line connects with both Class I's.

Delmarva Central Railroad

(reporting mark, DCR)See Delaware.

Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad

(reporting mark, NPB):  This historic terminal line has been in operation since 1898 to serve the Port of Norfolk.  It currently operates 63 miles of track, including trackage rights, and is jointly owned by NS and CSX.

North Carolina & Virginia Railroad

(reporting mark, NCVA): See North Carolina.

Shenandoah Valley Railroad

(reporting mark, SVRR): The Shenandoah Valley Railroad, currently operated by the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley began in 1993 on original Baltimore & Ohio trackage between Pleasant Valley (near Harrisonburg) and Staunton, purchased from Norfolk Southern.  

The history of the property traces back to the same name as a subsidiary of the B&O created in 1867 and its attempt to establish a southern connection deep into Virginia.  The system primarily handles agriculture but also offers transload services.

Virginia Southern Railroad

(reporting mark, VSRR): The Virginia Southern Railroad is owned by the Buckingham Branch, operating between Oxford, North Carolina and Burkeville, Virginia.  It first began service in 1988 through the NS Thoroughbred Program over former Southern trackage.

Winchester & Western Railroad

(reporting mark, WW): See Maryland.


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