The first Amtrak train to Roanoke arrived for ceremonies on Monday and left for its first destinations yesterday, restoring passenger rail service to a city that had been without it for 38 years. Considering Roanoke’s history is based heavily on the railroad, it is only fitting that people living there, and those who would like to visit the region, could benefit from the various rails that criss-cross through town. I am especially excited to see this service realized, as it was rumored even as far back as us living in the area and because we hope to make Roanoke our permanent home in the near future.
Prior to this extension being established, a 75 minute drive or quick Smart Link bus ride could take you to nearby Lynchburg to catch the train starting in 2009, which I did many times while living in the Roanoke area. Having the option for rail travel was new to me back then and has become an automatic first option when I begin planning a trip. The world suddenly feels a little bit more accessible when train travel is an option and Roanokers who haven’t experienced this form of travel before don’t yet know how lucky they are.
For some people in Southside and Southwest Virginia, the introduction of Amtrak might have also been the first time they’d considered a trip to some cities north of Washington DC. Whether the distance and traffic were off-putting or navigating their way into new metropolitan areas for the first time felt intimidating, the idea of hopping on a train and relaxing until you’ve reached your destination takes a lot of the unknowns out of an excursion like this.
(I know some of this sounds a little silly for those of you living in well-connected Europe or parts of the US Northeast, but down here in southern Virginia, train travel has only not been a foreign concept for the past few years.)
Being that I’m an experienced Amtrak traveler and highly recommend it, I wanted to share a few tips for friends who may be considering booking their first excursions using Amtrak out of Roanoke soon.
Know Your Destination Options
The train leaving from the new downtown Roanoke station is the 176 Northeast Regional train and has many destination options, some that you may not have considered before. On weekdays, the train will leave Roanoke each morning at 6:19am and make various stops along the way to the final destination of Boston, Massachusetts. Weekday trains will arrive back in Roanoke at 9:55pm. (Train leaves at 8:40am on weekends and return times vary.)
Here is a list of the stops the 176 Northeast Regional train makes along the route between Roanoke and Boston and approximate travel times to each destination from Roanoke.
— Lynchburg, Virginia, 1 hour 19 minutes
— Charlottesville, Virginia, 2 hours 33 minutes
— Culpeper, Virginia, 3 hours 25 minutes
— Manassas, Virginia, 4 hours
— Burke Centre (Fairfax), Virginia, 4 hours 17 minutes
— Alexandria, 4 hours 45 minutes
— Washington DC Union Station, 5 hours
— New Carrolton, Maryland, 5 hours 58 minutes*
— Baltimore Washington (BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport), 6 hours 15 minutes*
— Baltimore, Maryland (Penn Station), 6 hours 25 minutes*
— Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 7 hours 36 minutes*
— Trenton, New Jersey, 8 hours, 7 minutes
— Newark Penn Station**, New Jersey, 8 hours 42 minutes*, service to EWR Liberty International Airport
— New York Penn Station, New York, 9 hours*
— New Rochelle, New York, 9 hours 38 minutes*
— Stamford, Connecticut, 9 hours 57 minutes*
— Bridgeport, Connecticut, 10 hours 27 minutes*
— New Haven, Connecticut, 10 hours 53 minutes*
— Old Saybrook, Connecticut, 11 hours 43 minutes*
— New London, Connecticut, 12 hours 3 minutes*
— Westerly, Rhode Island, 12 hours 25 minutes*
— Providence, Rhode Island, 13 hours*
— Boston South Station, Massachusetts, 13 hours 53 minutes*
*Consider the next point below when looking at these travel times!
**Be aware that multiple stations are called “Penn Station” and “Union Station” and be sure to disembark at the correct one.
You can take the Acela Express from DC to major cities on this route much quicker.
The Train Will Stop in DC for a While
It’s important to note that when the train reaches Union Station in Washington DC, the engine must be switched, adding a 40-50 minute stop to your trip (if DC is not your final destination). This is the perfect opportunity to get out and stretch your legs or run inside Union Station to grab lunch at one of the many (almost 30!) eateries there.
I have five tips to maximize your time during this stop:
- Note the train’s number and which gate you come out of; you will need to know which gate to return to to get back on your train! I always snap a photo of the number of the train car I come out of so I’ll have an easier time finding it when I return.
- Have a copy of your ticket with you. I always sneak back through the exit doors and head back down the escalator to the train that way, but if you end up having to wait at the gate with everyone else to board, you’ll have to have proof of your ticket to get back.
- Confirm the train’s departure time with an attendant. If you see an Amtrak employee standing by the train when you step off, confirm the departure time with him or her, just in case.
- Even though you have 40-50 minutes here, I recommend getting your food to go and heading back to the train as soon as possible. You can eat on the train and have just guaranteed you won’t miss your departure due to losing track of time or getting caught up in large crowds of people.
- There’s a food court on the basement level that is easiest to navigate; the main floor is a mix of sit-down restaurants, services, and shopping, with a few quick-services places scattered throughout. Look for the large double staircases toward the center of the building to head down to the food court.
The train must make this engine change due to tracks north of DC using electric engines and tracks south of DC using diesel. Another thing to note is that to change out the engine the power will be turned off, so it could get hot/cold and dark if you stay on the train.
Consider Other Trains
I know I gave quite the rundown of the stops the 176 NE Regional train makes on the way to Boston above, but consider all of the other great places Amtrak could take you (or where you could go quicker) once you get to Washington DC. You can see Amtrak’s National Route Map here.
Think of Amtrak When Planning International Travel
Amtrak might not be high on your list of things to consider when planning international travel, but hear me out. Living in Roanoke, there are very few options for making an international flight. You either fly out of Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and puddle hop to a larger international hub or you drive at least three hours to Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, or Washington DC (4 hours). Amtrak just gave you many more international airports to choose from, even it it does make your trip a little longer.
- Taking the train to Washington DC to fly out is the first obvious option. You will have to take a taxi, Uber/Lyft, or bus to get to Dulles International Airport, but Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is easily accessible by taking the Amtrak to Arlington and using public transit.
- Baltimore-Washington International just south of Baltimore has an incredibly convenient Amtrak setup. Simply book your trip to the BWI station (6 hours 15 minute train ride from Roanoke) and use the free BWI Shuttle from the station to the airport. Considering most international travel begins after noon, the 12:30pm arrival time here is perfect. Trains depart BWI at 3:45pm heading to Roanoke, so you may have to spend the night upon arrival to catch the next day’s train if you choose to do this.
I flew from BWI to Amsterdam via Icelandic budget airline WOW Air in 2016 and wish we had taken the train to the airport instead of driving! We would have had to spend the night to catch the next day’s train, but with the time change and such long flights we should have done that anyway. Plus you can spend your morning checking out Baltimore.
Related Post: Flying with WOW Air
- Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) is fairly easy to get to from the Amtrak stop at 30th Street Station. Philly’s SEPTA trains go all over the city, including to each terminal at the airport using the Airport Line. Click here to see the SEPTA station maps and plan a trip using the Airport Line schedule.
- New York City has various airports you could fly from, and they usually have the cheapest fares to most cities in Europe. The Newark Penn Station, New Jersey stop connects you directly to the AirTrain to Newark Liberty International (EWR). To fly to and from JFK in Queens you’ll need to make New York Penn Station your Amtrak destination and use the New York Subway or taxis to get to that airport. At a 9 hour trip by train to NYC, you’ll need to start weighing the pros and cons between adding two extra days for travel vs paying more for flights closer to home…but hey, a day or two in New York City never hurts!
- Being that it’s closest to Europe, Boston Logan International has incredible fares worth looking into. Of course, at almost 14 hours of train travel, this would have to be the deal of the century to consider it, unless you just want a tour of the Northeast on your way. You can use public transit to get to the airport from the train station if this is something you choose to do.
Book Early & Look for deals
This might be a given, but the earlier you book, the better your fare. Amtrak has four fare levels for the service to/from Roanoke: Saver, Value, Flexible, and Premium. Saver fares will go first and will definitely get you the best price. Prices are listed for one way, so be sure to add each leg of your trip to your cart to see the total trip cost. Remember that more people travel by train once you’re north of Washington DC, and those passengers are competing with you for your seat and the best fares.
You can also check out their deals section on their site for sales and promos. There are also several every day discounts for some: Senior citizens over 62 receive a 15% discount every day, as do students with a student ID; Military personnel and their families save 10% while kids under 12 always ride for 50% off regular fare prices.
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I have used Amtrak to travel to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City multiple times and highly recommend it over driving. (We’re actually heading to NYC via Amtrak again in December!) If you are considering using this service and want to ask me any questions, please reach out to me by email! I love helping people plan travel and it honestly brings me joy when people ask for my help or recommendations.
We may not be living in Roanoke at this moment, but I am so happy to have this option once we’re there!