Passenger rail rolls closer to reality

Published 9:49 pm Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Norfolk-Southern engine prepares to take local dignitaries and other visitors on a train ride from Norfolk to Petersburg and back. The trip left from Harbor Park in Norfolk Thursday.

Shipyard workers paused to wave at the passengers aboard a Norfolk Southern Railway passenger train as it made a slow start through the backyards of Chesapeake homes and over the waters surrounding the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The grey and blue piles of freight soon turned to a blur of green and red — the colors of summer turning to fall — as the train picked up speed through the Great Dismal Swamp and continued over Lake Cohoon and through miles of cotton and soybean fields.

It had been more than 30 years since the public had boarded a passenger train and witnessed the turn of fall while traveling from Norfolk to Petersburg along the lines of the Norfolk Southern Railway.


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That is an opportunity, however, that could soon be commonplace.

On Thursday morning, the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce brought a group of more than 200 people aboard the train for a tour of the passenger service it hopes to open in less than three years.

“We wanted to raise visibility in the Hampton Roads community in light of the advancements of passenger rail soon to be restored to the area,” said Ira Agricola, senior vice president of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. “We’re just a few years from having it here, and we want to encourage people to think about passenger rail as an alternative to using the highway.”

The Commonwealth Transportation Board set aside $93 million for passenger rail service along the Route 460 corridor.

The money would be used for improvements to the existing Norfolk Southern lines, which currently are used for freight, to allow Amtrak passenger trains to run on the tracks.

The track covers 154 miles, beginning at Harbor Park in Norfolk. It cuts through Chesapeake and Suffolk, goes behind the Suffolk Golf Course, over Route 58 and runs parallel to Route 460 all the way to Petersburg.

Passengers would be able to continue their journey on Amtrak to Richmond, Washington D.C., and up the East Coast.

The resurrection of passenger rail from Norfolk to Petersburg holds exciting possibilities for the City of Suffolk, in particular, officials said.

In July, City Council members passed a resolution to ask the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to consider placing a passenger rail stop in Suffolk on the rail line. In Suffolk, the track runs parallel to Railroad Avenue and Hall Avenue.

A committee is considering a variety of possibilities for the so-called “western stop.”

“The goal of a western stop would be to reduce congestion,” said Thelma Drake, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “We don’t want people from Great Bridge or beyond driving into Norfolk to take the train to Richmond. It creates unnecessary congestion, which is exactly what we’re trying to reduce by putting in passenger rail. It doesn’t make sense for people to drive east to take a train west.”

An ideal western stop would have “good road access” and a “good population,” Drake said.

Besides the City of Suffolk, Drake said Isle of Wight County also submitted a request to be considered as the western stop.

Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson and Suffolk City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn, who were both present on the ride, said a western stop in Suffolk could be a catalyst for a host of advancements.

While the passenger service would make life easier for commuters and travelers, more than one passenger on Thursday’s ride proved that the trains aren’t all about business.

Mills Staylor, a Suffolk resident, remembers when the Norfolk & Western trains passed through his backyard and left coal dust on the windowsills.

“When I was a boy, I would stand on a six-foot picket fence and watch the trains go by,” Staylor said, waiting for one of his favorite views from the tracks as the train passed over Lake Cohoon.

“I just love trains. I collect model trains, and my grandfather was an engineer. I would love to see a stop in Suffolk. I would be using it for enjoyment, but I have sons in D.C. who would benefit from it, and it would bring business to the city. It’s an exciting thing to see happening again.”