Guide To Amtrak/Passenger Trains In Virginia (2024)

Last revised: January 1, 2024

By: Adam Burns

Virginia, the birthplace of America, is not only rich in history and natural beauty but also offers a range of passenger trains that allow travelers to experience the state's wonders in a unique and leisurely way.

From bustling cities to charming small towns, Virginia's rail network connects diverse destinations, offering convenient and scenic journeys for both locals and visitors alike. In this article, we will explore the current services available throughout the state, highlighting the key routes, amenities, and attractions along the way.

Photos

3540687cjazmnwiurt544.jpgAmtrak's southbound train #89 crosses Neabsco Creek at Neabsco, Virginia on November 19, 1991. Wade Massie photo.

Amtrak

Northeast Regional

Amtrak's Northeast Regional operates over the railroad's busiest stretch of track, the Northeast Corridor (NEC) which stretches from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C.  This particular service runs the entirety of the NEC as well as links D.C. with Norfolk, Virginia (via Richmond) and Roanoke (via Charlottesville).

The history of passenger trains on the NEC can be traced well back into the classic Pennsylvania Railroad era when the once-largest such company to be found in the country dispatched dozens of various named trains along this corridor.

The future of this route under Amtrak hopes to expand further, perhaps even into North Carolina.  The history of the NEC was predominantly owned by two different companies; the aforementioned PRR as well as the New York, New Haven & Hartford (New Haven).

The former could boast a through line between New York and Washington, D.C. by around 1907 (mostly by purchasing smaller systems along the way) while the latter, the New Haven, operated a main line between New York and Boston by as early as 1888 (also by buying up smaller railroads).

In general these two companies worked together (since they were not true competitors) in providing passengers and commuters with through connections from Boston to Washington.

Due to the volume of traffic they carried then, just like now, both also listed dozens of trains, particularly the New Haven. Far too many to mention here the NYNH&H's more well known runs then included names like the Bostonian, Colonial, Merchants Limited, New Yorker, and Yankee Clipper.

For the PRR, it did not offer quite as many named trains but made up for this in the fabulous level of services, which were second to known for simply being a commuter/regional corridor!

The Senator was one of the most popular, operating all of the way from Boston to Washington in conjunction with the New Haven.

Aside from its lavish accommodations the train could complete the trip in just eight hours, more than two hours faster than today's trains offered by Amtrak!

There was also the Congressional service, a very fast commuter train running from Washington, D.C. and New York. It also offered a vast array of amenities to passengers and was powered by the iconic GG-1 electric, which could complete a trip in less than four hours; again, much faster than Amtrak.

Sadly, as they say, all good things must come to an end and as the public abandoned trains for cars and planes the Northeast Corridor lost many of these trains while those that remained were mere shells of their former selves.

Upon the start of Amtrak on May 1, 1971 some of these runs were retained (although the once-popular Congressionals were retired later that decade) and surprisingly survived for many years.

Names like the Yankee Clipper and Federal survived under the Amtrak banner for decades before finally being retired in the mid-1990s. With the release of the carrier's October 28, 1995 timetable all of these services became known as NortheastDirect.

These new trains, which all operated under that banner served the entirety of the Northeast Corridor connecting Boston, Springfield (Massachusetts), New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Newport News, and Lynchburg.

With Amtrak's April 7, 2008 timetable the name was again changed to today's Northeast Regional. Overall, the service now serves a total of 50 stations with electrified operations ending south of Washington.

The entire corridor is 630 miles in length and if one were to ride it the entire length would require 12.5 hours. Because the Northeast Regional is just that, a regional service, services aboard train are fairly light consist of Amfleet cars offering standard coach and business classes as well as a café/snack car.

293582385178572357982906093798.jpgA special excursion is operating on Amtrak between Roanoke and Vaughn Summit near Luray, Virginia. Loyd Lowry photo.

Cardinal

The Cardinal connects north-central Virginia with stops at Alexandria, Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville, Staunton, and Clifton Forge. The route showcases the beauty of Virginia's countryside and the majestic Appalachian Mountains.

The Cardinal's entire route connects the bustling cities of the East Coast with the natural landscapes of the Midwest. Spanning over 1,000 miles and operating between New York City and Chicago, it offers passengers a unique opportunity to witness the diverse beauty of the American countryside.

The train also runs through New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, southern Indiana, Illinois, and skirts northern Kentucky.

Scenic Highlights

New River Gorge: As the Cardinal makes its way through West Virginia, passengers are treated to stunning views of the New River Gorge, often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the East."

The train traverses the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, offering breathtaking vistas of the lush Appalachian Mountains and the captivating river below.

Hoosier National Forest: As the Cardinal ventures into Indiana, it passes through the Hoosier National Forest, an enchanting expanse of wooded hills, pristine lakes, and cascading waterfalls. The vibrant colors of the forest during autumn create a visual spectacle that leaves passengers in awe.

Chicago Skyline: The journey concludes with the arrival in Chicago, one of America's most iconic cities. As the train approaches its destination, passengers are treated to a stunning panorama of the city's majestic skyline, featuring towering skyscrapers and architectural marvels.

Carolinian

Amtrak's Carolinian is a popular train service that meanders through the picturesque landscapes and vibrant cities of the Carolinas, offering passengers a delightful way to explore the charm and beauty of this region. Operating between New York City and Charlotte, North Carolina, the Carolinian showcases a blend of stunning natural scenery, historical landmarks, and Southern hospitality. 

The train operates daily, providing convenient and frequent connections between New York City and Charlotte, with multiple stops in both North Carolina and South Carolina.  In addition, it makes stops in Richmond, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Quantico, and Alexandria, Virginia. 

The route covers approximately 700 miles, allowing passengers to witness the diversity of the Carolinas' landscapes and immerse themselves in the region's rich cultural heritage.

Scenic Highlights

Hudson River Valley: Departing from New York City, the Carolinian passes through the picturesque Hudson River Valley, known for its breathtaking views of rolling hills, historic estates, and charming riverfront towns. Passengers can enjoy the stunning scenery as the train winds its way south.

Piedmont Region: As the Carolinian travels through North Carolina's Piedmont region, passengers are treated to views of lush forests, serene lakes, and idyllic countryside. This scenic stretch showcases the natural beauty that defines the Carolinas.

Historic Landmarks: Along the route, the train stops at cities with rich historical significance, such as Richmond, Virginia, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Travelers can explore renowned landmarks, including the Virginia State Capitol and the historic Market House in Fayetteville, immersing themselves in the region's past.

29352358723689286909370938959.jpgAmtrak's "Auto Train" is southbound at Richmond, Virginia as it passes through the median of the Powhite Parkway. Loyd Lowry photo.

Auto Train

For those seeking a convenient and adventurous way to embark on a road trip, Amtrak's Auto Train provides a unique and hassle-free experience. Connecting the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area with central Florida, the Auto Train allows passengers to bring their vehicles along for the journey, combining the freedom of the open road with the comfort of train travel. 

The Auto Train operates between Lorton, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., and Sanford, Florida, near Orlando. Covering approximately 855 miles, the journey takes about 17 hours, providing passengers with a convenient and time-saving alternative to driving.

Benefits of the Auto Train

Convenient Vehicle Transport: The Auto Train allows passengers to bring their cars, motorcycles, SUVs, and even small boats or jet skis on board. This eliminates the need for long hours behind the wheel, as travelers can relax and enjoy the scenic views while their vehicle is safely transported.

Comfortable Onboard Experience: Passengers can choose from a variety of accommodations, including reclining seats, private Roomettes, and larger Bedrooms with sleeping accommodations. The train also features dining cars, lounges, and Wi-Fi access, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable journey.

Time and Cost Efficiency: By choosing the Auto Train, travelers can save time and money by combining transportation and accommodation costs. The overnight journey allows passengers to rest and arrive at their destination refreshed, ready to explore Florida's many attractions.

Scenic Highlights

The Carolinas: As the Auto Train ventures south, passengers are treated to picturesque views of the Carolinas' lush landscapes, including rolling hills, scenic farmland, and charming small towns.

The Sunshine State: The journey culminates in the Sunshine State, where travelers can take advantage of the convenience of having their vehicle to explore Florida's renowned destinations, including Orlando's theme parks, the white sandy beaches of Miami, and the diverse ecosystems of the Everglades.

Tips for a Smooth Journey

Reservations: Due to the Auto Train's popularity, it is recommended to make reservations well in advance to secure the desired accommodations and departure dates.

Vehicle Preparation: Prior to boarding, passengers should ensure their vehicle is in good working condition, with adequate fuel, properly inflated tires, and necessary documentation such as registration and insurance.

Packing Essentials: Pack a small overnight bag with essential items, as passengers do not have access to their vehicles during the journey. This will ensure a comfortable stay on board.

Virginia Railway Express (VRE)

Fredericksburg Line: The VRE's Fredericksburg Line is a commuter rail service that connects Fredericksburg to Union Station in Washington, D.C. This service offers a convenient option for daily commuters, with multiple stops in Virginia, including Quantico and Woodbridge.

Manassas Line: The VRE's Manassas Line serves the communities of Manassas, Burke Centre, and other towns in Northern Virginia. It provides a comfortable and stress-free commute to the nation's capital for residents and visitors.

Charlottesville: A Gateway to History and Nature

Charlottesville, located in the heart of Virginia, offers an excellent starting point for exploring the region's rich history and natural landscapes. Visitors can arrive by Amtrak's Cardinal service or other connecting routes to discover historical sites like Monticello, the iconic home of Thomas Jefferson, and the University of Virginia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Roanoke: Embracing Scenic Beauty

Roanoke, known as the "Star City of the South," is accessible via Amtrak's Northeast Regional service. Nestled in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke offers breathtaking vistas, outdoor recreational opportunities, and attractions such as the Taubman Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

Norfolk: Coastal Charm and Naval Heritage

Amtrak's Northeast Regional service connects Norfolk, a vibrant waterfront city renowned for its maritime history and stunning beaches. Visitors can explore the battleship USS Wisconsin at the Nauticus museum, stroll along the scenic Norfolk Botanical Garden, or take a leisurely cruise on the Elizabeth River.

The Tide (Norfolk)

The Tide is an efficient and eco-friendly light rail service that seamlessly connects key destinations within the city. Offering residents and visitors a convenient and sustainable mode of transportation, the service weaves through Norfolk's bustling downtown, waterfront districts, and cultural attractions, making it an ideal choice for exploring the city's vibrant offerings. 

The Tide covers a 7.4-mile route, stretching from the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Ghent to Newtown Road in Virginia Beach. The service operates with frequent intervals, ensuring minimal wait times for passengers, and runs from early morning until late evening, accommodating a wide range of travel needs.

Key Stops and Attractions

MacArthur Square: Located in the heart of downtown Norfolk, MacArthur Square serves as the main transit hub for The Tide. Passengers can easily access nearby attractions, including the MacArthur Center Mall, Nauticus maritime museum, and the USS Wisconsin battleship.

Chrysler Museum of Art: The Tide provides convenient access to the renowned Chrysler Museum of Art, home to a vast collection of American and European artwork, spanning thousands of years. Visitors can explore the museum's galleries and exhibitions, featuring works by renowned artists.

Harbor Park: Sports enthusiasts can hop on The Tide and disembark at Harbor Park, home to the Norfolk Tides minor league baseball team. Catching a game and enjoying the lively atmosphere is a favorite pastime for locals and visitors alike.

Virginia Beach: The Tide's final stop at Newtown Road connects passengers to the vibrant city of Virginia Beach, where they can enjoy beautiful beaches, lively boardwalks, and a thriving culinary scene. Exploring the iconic Virginia Beach oceanfront is made easy with The Tide.


Conclusion

Whether embarking on a scenic journey through the Appalachian Mountains or commuting from one of Virginia's charming towns to the bustling capital, these train services offer convenience, comfort, and the opportunity to experience the beauty and heritage of the Old Dominion State. So, hop aboard a train and embark on an unforgettable adventure through Virginia's enchanting destinations.

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