Scenes from a Train

The inside track on life aboard Amtrak’s new service from Norfolk

Norfolk's New Amtrak Station

Photography by Mike Mercker

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When I arrive at the Norfolk Amtrak Station around 4:30 in the morning on an April Thursday, it’s still dark, but I feel excitement in the air. For the first time in 35 years, passenger service originates from downtown, right next to the Harbor Park Tide light rail station.

I meet Mike Mercer, a photographer for HRM, and we climb the short steps of one of the eight passenger cars on Amtrak #174 and have our choice of wide, comfortable seats.

But first, we have a look around. We’re just next to the cafe car, and though it’s empty this early in the morning, I’m already looking forward to relaxing with a drink and watching the scenery go by.

“The service has been popular,” says Kimberly Woods, the media relations manager from Amtrak. “People in Hampton Roads like having another option for travel if they want to go to Richmond, D.C. or even further north.”

She’s especially excited about the upcoming summer season. “This will be our first summer departing Norfolk,” she says. “People could take advantage of the tourist attractions in D.C. without sitting in traffic on I-64 or I-95. And it’ll also be great for the folks in New York and D.C. who want to come down here for a summer vacation.”

The train cars begin to fill with early morning Norfolk passengers, and many of them immediately plug in their laptops. There are outlets at each seat, and free Wi-Fi is offered throughout the train.

The engine’s mighty air horn sounds, and we smoothly begin to pull out of the station, heading over a railroad bridge that spans the Elizabeth River. Downtown shimmers in the early morning light. As we pick up speed, we pass brightly lit shipyards and the quaint, sleepy neighborhood of Berkeley as we make our way toward Petersburg.

After settling in at our seats conductor Jerry Reed comes by to check our tickets. “There are 36 on the train this morning out of Norfolk,” says Reed, a 33-year employee of Amtrak. “Saturdays and Sundays have many more people travelling, but ridership has increased since we started.”

He is the supervising conductor on the train and will disembark when we get to Richmond, when another chief conductor will join the train for its journey north. Reed beams when speaking about how people have responded to the new service. “The passengers love it. Folks from the Southside are excited they don’t have to take the bus to the Newport News Station anymore. We get a lot of business travelers and a lot of people going on vacations and trips. For a family with small children the train is very convenient; instead of having to worry about driving a car, they get to spend quality time together, and they next thing they know, they’ve arrived.”

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