In this first blog of a two-part series, we are examining how West Virginia’s senators and congressmen worked to save passenger rail service through the state in the 1970s and 80s.
In 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known by its operational name, Amtrak, was created to use federal funding to aid declining passenger rail service throughout the United States. For West Virginia, one of the railroad lines incorporated into the new Amtrak system was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which traversed the eastern panhandle and northern regions of the state. However, when Amtrak’s operation of this line began in the spring of 1971, service west of Martinsburg (located in the eastern panhandle of the state) was discontinued.
Amtrak acquiesced to Staggers’ pressure and developed the West Virginian, a passenger service line which operated on the Baltimore and Ohio rails connecting Washington DC with Parkersburg, West Virginia. The West Virginian became Amtrak’s first use of the Baltimore and Ohio, one of the nation’s oldest railroad networks, founded in 1827. Critics of the line, citing the declining populations and industries in the region it would serve, labeled the train “Harley’s Hornet” and the “Staggers Special.”
In 1972, Amtrak introduced the TurboTrain to the West Virginian line on a trial basis. Developed in Canada, the TurboTrain was an early high speed train that had been used in limited instances in the United States prior to its use by Amtrak. Some critics asserted that Congressman Staggers had pressured Amtrak to use this equipment on the West Virginian line even though the mountainous route precluded the trains from obtaining their maximum service speed of 120 mph. Staggers denied the allegations. The trial only lasted for three months before Amtrak returned to using standard equipment on the line.
However, Amtrak had more reasons to discontinue the service than the low ridership. Since its inception, the West Virginian’s ending point of Parkersburg was a point of criticism since no other major lines converged there to provide access to other destinations. Congressman Staggers himself had urged the extension of the line west to Cincinnati, Ohio where other rail lines were accessible. Amtrak declined to do this, fearing that it would jeopardize ridership on another of its passenger service routes which reached Cincinnati via Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad lines (which crossed through south-central West Virginia).
Despite the efforts of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, Amtrak suspended service on the line in the summer of 1973. Parts of the former West Virginian route were served by other Amtrak trains such as the Shenandoah which operated between Parkersburg and Cincinnati. The Capitol Limited line which connects Chicago and Washington DC serves a part of the route once covered by the West Virginian. As the last passenger trains departed from West Virginia’s stations in May 1973, the Clarksburg Telegram reported that “northern West Virginia will be without passenger service, except for the brief lapse immediately before Amtrak, for the first time since the early 1850s when the B&O was driven across the mountains to Grafton, then to Wheeling and later to Parkersburg.”
The West Virginian was not the only Amtrak experiment to impact the state. Next week, we’ll look at two of Senator Byrd’s efforts: the short-lived Mountaineer and the more successful Cardinal lines.