Trains have been serving the Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton for nearly 170 years, but not this one. On a sunny weekday morning, excitement fills the air as a stainless-steel railcar glides into the town’s historic depot and I join a line to board the state’s newest passenger train, the Virginia Scenic Railway.
All aboard the Virginia Scenic Railway
When the conductor opens the door, we step into a vintage car with large windows. Comfortable chairs front small tables. The 1-car, 34-passenger diesel train has a bathroom, air-conditioning, heating, and a kitchen.
“This is a beautiful coach,” says Darrell Short, a mill shop owner who drove from Luray with his wife to ride the new train. Inside the restored 1949 Budd railcar, he admired the polished cherry and mahogany woodwork. “They’ve really done a fantastic job,” he adds.
Two horn blasts later, the train chugs out of the station as our car hostess Kristen Decker welcomes us. She says we’re free to wander the train car but warns us: “It takes a little while to get your train legs.”
The railway, which began running in 2022, has already found its footing. The operating company, Buckingham Branch Railroad, sold more than 90% of its available seats during the first week of service.
Staunton already had passenger rail service: Amtrak’s Cardinal, which runs between New York and Chicago, stops in the city 3 times a week. But this train is designed to show off the views, traveling no faster than 30 mph. The 3-hour trips start and end in Staunton, using the station in the city’s Wharf Area Historic District.
A few minutes into the trip, Short and his wife step out to the open vestibule at the back of the car, the wind whipping their hair as the scenery rolls by. “It’s like flying,” he says. “You get a different view. It’s fascinating to see the backs of homes and farmhouses.”
Virginia Scenic Railway routes
Two routes are offered Thursday through Sunday: The Alleghany Special and the Blue Ridge Flyer. Both feature Blue Ridge Mountain vistas, immersing passengers in the region’s legendary autumn colors in the fall.
The Alleghany Special route leaves Staunton at 10:30 a.m., chugging southwest past wheat fields and grazing cattle, then heads through the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. In the small town of Goshen in Rockbridge County, the train turns around to retrace its route.
At 3:30 p.m., the same train follows a different route as the Blue Ridge Flyer, heading east from Staunton toward Waynesboro and Fishersville. When it reaches the Blue Ridge Tunnel, it rolls into darkness. This passage, completed in 1944, stretches for nearly a mile under the Blue Ridge Mountains near Shenandoah National Park. The excursion continues into Albemarle County, passing through Crozet and reaching as far as the town of Ivy before starting the return to Staunton.
On 5 weekends in October and November, the Alleghany Special route will be replaced with the Shenandoah Valley Limited, offering special routes on a vintage steam engine (see “Fall foliage excursions" below). Throughout December, the railway offers shorter, more frequent runs as the Santa Scenic Railway.
Fall foliage excursions
The Virginia Scenic Railway is partnering with the Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT) to offer special fall foliage excursions on a vintage passenger train. The 1950 Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611—owned and operated by VMT as a traveling exhibit—is the last remaining Class J locomotive of 14 that were produced. The steam engine will operate twice daily as the Shenandoah Valley Limited on 5 weekends throughout October and November. Guests will board in Goshen and travel through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests into the Shenandoah Valley before returning to Goshen. Tickets start at $99 and can be purchased at virginiascenicrailway.com.
An opportunity to expand
Although this rail service is new, Buckingham Branch Railroad is an industry stalwart. It’s delivered such freight as cement, wood products, and grain across the region for more than 35 years. In the train world, it’s considered a short line—a railroad operating in a limited geographic area.
But when Virginia purchased hundreds of miles of railroad right-of-way in 2021 as part of a plan to encourage passenger service, it gave the company a chance to expand. It also lets others see what Buckingham’s engineers experience every day. “We love our railroad, and we want to share it,” says Steve Powell, the company’s president.
While planning the new service, Powell researched excursion trains around the country to see what passengers liked and what they didn’t. Three hours seemed about the right length for a trip, Powell decided—much longer and passengers get antsy.
Powell didn’t want to skimp on extras, opting to provide a meal and an etched souvenir glass. “We wanted to offer a premium product,” he says. They also provide assigned seating.
Soon after departure, an attendant confirms our lunch orders, provided by a popular restaurant called Lil’ Guss’ in nearby Grottoes. Choices include sandwiches, an entrée salad, or a child’s meal. All come with nonalcoholic drinks and a choice of tiramisu, chocolate cake, or cheesecake for dessert. Wine and beer will be available for purchase on both routes starting in October.
A recorded narration notes highlights along the way, and surprises keep rolling by. Just a few miles out of town on the Alleghany Special, we learn that we’re passing Taylor & Boody, a company that makes pipe organs for churches and concert halls around the world.
Then comes the abandoned community of Jonesboro, which former slaves developed after the Civil War. Other sights include an ornate 1890 truss bridge over the Calfpasture River and the Hummingbird Inn Bed and Breakfast near Goshen, once a 19th-century rail depot for passengers visiting nearby mineral springs.
Vicki Miller Langdon, who lives near Staunton, joined 3 friends for the trip. She says railroads used to be a bigger part of life in Augusta County. “On a clear cold day when the train came over North Mountain, you could hear the whistle all over the valley.”
As she looked out the big windows, Langdon took in a new perspective of the region. “It’s a different experience,” she says. “These are views you never see from the highway.”
When he hears a train whistle, Charlottesville-based travel writer Larry Bleiberg is ready to ride. Tickets are available at virginiascenicrailway.com. Basic trips are $120 per person.
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