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Roanoke’s new passenger train platform teemed with railroad buffs Halloween morning, two hours before the sun crested the horizon.
Many had arranged or rearranged their schedules for the week so that when an Amtrak train left a Roanoke station for the first time in 38 years, they could say they were on board.
“I’m here this morning to ride this first train,” said Walt Stringer, a 67-year-old railroad retiree from San Diego, California. “I’m impressed by the crowd here.”
Amtrak sold 151 tickets for train 176, departing Roanoke at 6:19 a.m. Tuesday.
By 6 a.m., the train had coasted quietly into place. Amtrak Police Department K-9 teams patrolled the platforms on two feet and four. Passengers flowed toward the entrances.
A conductor shouted “All aboard” and soon after the eight-car train rattled forward. A Valley Metro bus kept pace on a road paralleling the tracks, eventually falling behind, the view through the windows growing pitch dark. “Good morning,” said a voice from the intercom. “Welcome to Amtrak.”
Some passengers opened their laptops and went to work. Others pulled up blankets and went to sleep.
Anissa Ollie, 47, a human resources consultant with Carilion Clinic, bought a ticket mainly so she could travel comfortably to a business convention in Washington, D.C., but said she was a rail fan in her own way.
“I just think it’s convenient for us to see other areas,” she said, “but there’s also opportunity for other people to come and see what a great city Roanoke is.”
Her sentiment was echoed by a passenger on his way to his day job in D.C. “Now you can take a train to get to Roanoke from other parts of the country,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke.
He posited the notion of rail tourists disembarking in Roanoke to visit the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the O. Winston Link Museum, both within walking distance of the platform. “Where this station is located, right downtown, is really convenient for folks.”
Goodlatte described working across the aisle with former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher to push for Amtrak’s return. “It’s long overdue. I’ve been working for it for a very long time.”
About 20 members of the Roanoke chapter of the National Railway Historical Society were scattered throughout the train. Several of them recalled taking the final ride of the Hilltopper, the last Amtrak train to stop in Roanoke. Eddie Mooneyham, 42, of Blue Ridge, cited the date from memory: Sept. 30, 1979.
Mooneyham’s father dropped him off at the Roanoke station so he could take the ride and picked him up in Bedford. During the Hilltopper’s final trek, he remembered seeing his dad flash his headlights on U.S. 460 as the train went past.
Between the last ride on the Hilltopper and the first Roanoke-based ride on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, Harold Castleman, 71, packed in an entire railroad career. Now living outside Philadelphia, Castleman worked as a Franklin News-Post reporter in 1979. A year later, he took a job with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, where he worked 35 years. A locomotive engineer, he worked on a wire train, equipped for replacing overhead wire. “I saw the railroad 30 feet at a time.”
“I’ve ridden all over the United States,” said George Allen, 72, of Charlottesville. “I’ve been everywhere that Amtrak goes, just about.”
This article first appeared on www.roanoke.com
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