Roanoke, VA (RNK)
The station is located in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of major attractions including the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Taubman Museum of Art and the City Market area.
55 Norfolk Avenue, SW
Roanoke, VA 24011
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2021): 34,110
- Facility Ownership: Amtrak
- Parking Lot Ownership: N/A
- Platform Ownership: Amtrak
- Track Ownership: Norfolk Southern Railway
Located in a valley of the same name nestled in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke regained Amtrak service on Oct. 31, 2017. Prior to the launch of twice daily Northeast Regional service (Roanoke-Washington-Boston), the city had not enjoyed regularly scheduled passenger rail service since 1979 when the Hilltopper (Catlettsburg, Ky.-Washington-Boston) was discontinued. One day earlier, an inaugural train ran from Lynchburg, Va., the previous route terminus, to Roanoke to celebrate the expansion of service. A second daily roundtrip was added in July 2022.
The new Roanoke station, consisting of an accessible, high-level platform with a canopy, is located in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of major attractions including the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Taubman Museum of Art and the City Market area. Numerous Valley Metro bus routes also run through downtown within blocks of the station.
Amtrak, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), and the city of Roanoke partnered to bring intercity passenger rail service back to the city. Since 2009, DRPT has overseen popular service expansions to Richmond, Lynchburg and Norfolk. Northeast Regional service within Virginia is funded in part through grants made available by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Roanoke Valley, located between the better-known Shenandoah Valley to the northeast and the New River Valley to the southwest, was first explored by European-Americans as early as the late 17th century – six decades after the founding of the English colonial settlement at Jamestown some 200 miles to the east. Settlement did not begin in earnest until the mid-18th century; people of English descent moved westward from the coast in search of new agricultural lands, while German and Scotch-Irish settlers moved south from Pennsylvania and Maryland by following the series of interconnected valleys located west of the Blue Ridge.
Although Roanoke did not develop into a major urban center until the arrival of the railroads in the late 19th century, the valley supported several small communities where trails west to Kentucky and Tennessee and south to the Carolinas intersected. These settlements, established in the early 1800s, included New Antwerp, Gainesborough and Old Lick. The last took its name from area salt deposits that attracted buffalo, elk, deer and other animals.
In 1852, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (V&T) arrived westward from Lynchburg by following the Roanoke River, which had carved a path through the Blue Ridge. The new community of Big Lick sprung up in what is now downtown Roanoke. The railroad, through its connections, offered access to Petersburg and the port of Norfolk, opening up new sources of trade; important products carried over its rails included salt and lead.
The V&T would continue westward to reach Bristol on the Virginia-Tennessee border in 1856. The railroad was later subsumed into the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (AM&O) along with two other railroads. Due to financial difficulties resulting from the Panic of 1873, the Philadelphia-based Clark brothers bought the AM&O in 1881 for $8.5 million; they changed its name to the Norfolk and Western Railroad (N&W).
The Big Lick depot, which was located near the present-day intersection of Gainsboro Rd. and the railroad tracks in downtown, attracted some commercial activity, but at the time of the Civil War, the settlement only boasted about a dozen commercial and residential buildings and a tobacco factory. During the war, Union forces attacked the V&T numerous times to disrupt supply lines. In April 1865, they burned the Big Lick depot and destroyed the tracks.
While the V&T provided east-west access for Big Lick’s residents and merchants, the Shenandoah Valley Railroad was chartered in 1870 to open a north-south route west of the Blue Ridge. Eleven years later, the line stretched from Hagerstown, Md., to Waynesboro, Va., about 90 miles northeast of present-day Roanoke. At Hagerstown, an important connection was made to the Pennsylvania Railroad and its Main Line linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
A junction between the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and the AM&O seemed likely to occur in the Roanoke Valley. Residents of Big Lick, then numbering about 600, lobbied for the connection to occur in their young community. An offer of cash, land and tax exemptions won over the Shenandoah Valley Railroad in 1881, and the junction was planned for just east of Big Lick.
Victorious, the community offered to rename itself after Frederick Kimball, president of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and chief operating officer of the new N&W. He declined the offer, and in 1882 the town was named after the Roanoke River just as the long-awaited junction was completed.
The Shenandoah Valley Railroad and the N&W moved their offices to town, and the former was acquired by the latter in 1890. Roanoke quickly developed into the booming rail hub of southwestern Virginia, a mantle it claimed for the next century. The railroad brought not only needed transportation access, but meant that Roanoke was home to facilities that supported the N&W’s growth, including a railroad hospital and the Roanoke Machine Works where steam locomotives and other equipment were built and repaired.
As was common at the time, the railroad built a hotel near the depot to accommodate rail travelers. Located on the north side of the tracks (just northeast of the modern Amtrak station), the original Queen Ann-style Hotel Roanoke opened in 1882 and featured generous wraparound porches. Much enlarged through subsequent remodeling and additions, the landmark took on a Tudor Revival flair by the 1930s. It became a social and civic center for the community where generations of Roanokers celebrated special occasions. Today, the lobby is noted for murals by Hugo Ohlms depicting Virginia colonial-era scenes such as the founding of the Jamestown settlement. The hostelry later became famous for its peanut soup, dreamed up by cook Fred R. Brown.
The N&W became the vital artery for a new empire based on black gold—coal. It was heavily involved in the development of the Pocahontas coal field in southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. By the mid-1880s, the N&W shipped tons of coal to Norfolk, which became one of the world’s largest and most important coal transshipment ports. The low-volatile, low-sulfur, “smokeless” bituminous coal from the Pocahontas field was sought-after for use in steamships, giving it the moniker of “steam coal.” By 1889, the N&W’s new port at Lambert’s Point in Norfolk processed more than 1 million tons of coal a year. Today, the Lambert’s Point Coal Terminal continues to operate under successor railroad Norfolk Southern.
In the 1890s, the N&W expanded into the Midwest and North Carolina. Aligned with this growth, Roanoke’s population skyrocketed to 5,000 residents in 1884 and then quadrupled to more than 21,000 in 1900 – ranking it the largest city in southwest Virginia. By the start of the 20th century, Roanoke boasted a busy downtown graced by numerous banks, insurance companies, department stores, a city market, courthouse and other businesses and civic institutions that served the wider region. As downtown boomed, new streetcar lines allowed for the growth of nearby suburbs.
Eyeing the success of the N&W in moving profitable West Virginia coal, the Virginian Railway was completed in 1909 to provide another link between Hampton Roads and the mines. It built a new depot in Roanoke about a mile south of the N&W station. Fifty years later, the N&W absorbed the Virginian Railway.
To serve the growing city, the N&W opened a new depot in 1905 directly southeast of the Hotel Roanoke. It replaced a Queen Anne-style structure built in 1882 that was located in the same area but sandwiched between the Shenandoah Valley Railroad tracks to the north and the N&W to the south. The new neoclassical brick depot featured a center block with hipped roof flanked by two lower wings. Large round-arched windows allowed ample light to flood the waiting area, and a central portico with Ionic columns created a grand, ceremonial entrance while also sheltering customers from inclement weather.
In the late 1940s, the depot was refurbished and enlarged by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who had worked with railroads such as the Pennsylvania to give their locomotives and cars sleek, modern profiles. Loewy removed the classical portico and replaced it with a long porch with rectangular openings. The pared-down design remains formal but streamlined. On the south side, looking toward the tracks, Loewy added a wall of windows to showcase the railroad at work.
Art Moderne design emphasized the use of modern materials in new applications, here reflected in a curving ticket counter of brown and red Formica, whose form was echoed in a shallow dome above. Behind the counter, a 28-foot wide map depicted the N&W network. A multi-colored terrazzo floor was embedded with a large sundial; tan colored ceramic tile and marble covered the walls; and the ceiling was painted a bright yellow. Stainless steel columns and glass railings added a bit of sparkle. In addition to a waiting room and baggage room, the depot also contained a restaurant and newsstand.
By the 1930s, the N&W’s Roanoke Machine Works – now known as the Roanoke Shops – had been largely rebuilt to produce the powerful and efficient steam locomotives for which the company became famous, including the Class A, Class Y and Class J. Skilled workers also produced freight cars and other auxiliary equipment.
When the N&W finished converting its locomotive fleet from steam to diesel power in the late 1950s, thousands of jobs were lost since the new locomotives did not require as much maintenance. In the 1960s, the N&W would absorb other railroads to further expand its reach as far west as Kansas City and north to Buffalo, N.Y. In June 1982, the N&W and Southern Railway merged to create Norfolk Southern Corporation (NS), which today remains a major freight railroad and intermodal carrier throughout the Southeast and Midwest. But Roanoke would lose the railroad headquarters to Norfolk, leading to the loss of additional jobs and residents.
Born of, and sustained, by the railroad, the city began to consider how to reinvent itself for the 21st century. The then-shuttered Hotel Roanoke, donated by NS to the Virginia Tech Foundation, was renovated to include a new conference center that opened in 1995. This momentum carried over to the reuse of the old N&W headquarters building, where institutions of higher learning now offer continuing education courses and workforce training.
Located near the Roanoke River south of downtown, the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute provides state-of-the-art facilities for molecular medicine; imaging using lasers, high-power electron beams and magnetic resonance; and much more. It is a worldwide leader in hyperscanning for interactive functional brain imaging. An associated medical school builds on Virginia Tech’s excellent programs in science, bioinformatics and engineering.
Although no longer the dominant employer in the region, the railroad still plays an important role. The old Roanoke Shops – now known as NS’s Roanoke Locomotive Shop – still operate. Instead of building locomotives from scratch, today skilled employees specialize in overhauling and repairing older locomotives.
Vacant downtown buildings have been reborn as condos and apartments, businesses, live music venues and restaurants. Numerous museums draw visitors from around the world. Two of the biggest attractions at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located in the old 1918 N&W freight station, are N&W steam locomotives: The Class A No. 1218 and the Class J No. 611, considered by many as the most advanced passenger steam engine ever built. Visitors can also see more than 50 pieces of rolling stock, including electric and diesel locomotives.
Occupying the old N&W station are the O. Winston Link Museum and the History Museum of Western Virginia. The former celebrates the work of prolific photographer O. Winston Link, who documented the end of the steam era on the N&W in the 1950s; his dramatically-lighted night scenes are well-known among artists and rail fans. In addition to capturing the powerful locomotives, his more than 2,000 images depict the towns, industries and people served by the railroad. The latter museum’s collections trace the history of Western Virginia through books, maps, documents, textiles, photographs, slides and other objects.
A short walk away, the Taubman Museum of Art occupies a striking building composed of intersecting glass and metal volumes whose textured surfaces sparkle in the sunlight. Designed by Randall Stout and completed in 2008, the building’s form is meant to echo the rock surfaces found in this mountainous area. The museum’s permanent collection includes pieces by John Singer Sargent, Purvis Young and John Cage. Local artists are also well represented.
Besides its cultural attractions, Roanoke is popular for its easy access to a variety of outdoor activities. North of town, the Appalachian Trail passes by as it follows its namesake mountain chain from Maine to Georgia. The city and larger Roanoke Valley host a growing network of greenways that follow the Roanoke River and extend into Mill Mountain Park and Carvins Cove Natural Reserve.
Mill Mountain is home to one of the city’s best-known landmarks: the Roanoke Star. Built atop the mountain in 1949 as a decoration for the winter holidays, it has since become a permanent symbol for the community. More than 2,000 feet of neon tubing glow and buzz throughout the night, guiding visitors and residents to the Star City.
Northeast Regional service within Virginia is funded in part through grants made available by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Platform with Shelter
- ATM not available
- No elevator
- No payphones
- No Quik-Trak kiosks
- No Restrooms
- Unaccompanied child travel not allowed
- No vending machines
- No WiFi
- Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to departure
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- No bag storage
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- Same-day parking is not available
- Overnight parking is not available
- No payphones
- Accessible platform
- No accessible restrooms
- No accessible ticket office
- No accessible waiting room
- No accessible water fountain
- Same-day, accessible parking is not available
- Overnight, accessible parking is not available
- High platform
- No wheelchair
- No wheelchair lift