in 1859 the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad (blue) served Portsmouth, and the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad (red) served Norfolk
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the state of Virginia (by Lewis Von Buchholtz, L. V., Herman Böÿe, Benjamin Tanner, 1859)
Prior to the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal allowed boats to get from the Roanoke River and the Chowan River to Norfolk. They have remained in business due to Federal government subsidies, but after the Civil War railroads replaced them for transport of freight. The canals today serve recreational boaters almost exclusively.
By 1906, multiple railroads connected Portsmouth and Norfolk to the hinterland in the Coastal Plain and far beyond, into the Piedmont and Appalachian Plateau coal fields.
in 1906: green=the Western Branch Railway/Norfolk & Carolina Railroad/Atlantic Coast Line, yellow=Norfolk and Petersburg/Norfolk and Western, blue=Atlantic and Danville/Southern Railway, red=Portsmouth and Roanoke/Seaboard and Roanoke/Seaboard Air Line
Source: Library of Congress, Post route map of the states of Virginia and West Virginia (1906)
three railroads linked directly to Norfolk in 1896 (yellow=Norfolk and Western, red=original Norfolk Southern, blue=Norfolk, Virginia Beach & Southern Railroad
Source: Library of Congress, Post route map of the state of Virginia and West Virginia (1896)
The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad (red line, above) built the first track to bring freight and passengers to Portsmouth, extending the Western Branch Railway from Drivers. It connected to the Roanoke River at Weldon in 1837. Tobacco and other products being floated down the river no longer had to take the slower route via the Dismal Swamp Canal, and had an alternative to the Petersburg Railroad connection which had reached Weldon in 1933. In fierce competition between the wo railroads, the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad was forced into bankruptcy. It was reorganized in 1846 as the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, and in 1900 was formally merged into the Seaboard Air Line.
The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad (yellow line, above) was completed in 1858, after overcoming resistance by Petersburg and Richmond business leaders to getting a charter and financing. it became part of the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad after he Civil War, and in 1881 was incorporated into the Norfolk and Western Railroad.
In 1890, the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad (green line, above) connected the interior of North Carolina via Tarboro, rather than Weldon, to shipping piers at Pinners Point on the Elizabeth River. Similarly, the Suffolk & Carolina Railway (purple line, above) brought wood from Carolina's Coastal Plain to Suffolk's mills and other agricultural products to Chesapeake Bay ports
The Atlantic and Danville Railroad (blue line, above) intercepted the Roanoke River trade much further upstream from Weldon. It paralleled the Virginia-Carolina border west to Emporia and ultimately reached Danville in 1891. After gouing through bankruptcy in 1894 and being renamed the Atlantic and Danville Railway, it was leased by the Southern Railway in 1899.
Passenger traffic was significant, in addition to freight. Two rail lines carried tourists from Norfolk to resort areas. The Norfolk and Ocean View Railroad (brown line, above) took vacationers north to Ocean View on Willoughby Spit, on the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay. The Norfolk Southern Railroad (light blue line, above) carried vacationers due east to the Virginia Beach resort area on the Atlantic Ocean, while other track brought agricultural products from North Carolina into Norfolk.
In 1895, Norfolk and Portsmouth were major transportation centers due to railroads, canals, and shipping terminals on the Elizabeth River.
multiple railroads built piers and wharves along the Elizabeth River
Source: U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, United States - East Coast Virginia Cape Henry to Currituck Beach Light (1916)
Today, four railroads service the shipping terminals in Hampton Roads where cargo is loaded/unloaded from ocean-going vessels: the Norfolk Southern, CSX, Commonwealth Railway, and the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad. The Buckingham Branch supports barges at Little Creek; the Chesapeake and Albemarle Railroad connects to the Norfolk Southern in the City of Chesapeake.
the Norfolk Southern (red), CSX (blue), Commonwealth Railway (green), Buckingham Branch (brown), Chesapeake and Albemarle (purple) and the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad (yellow) are still active today
Source: Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad, Hampton Roads Rail Roads
The Commonwealth Railway and the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad are short-lines that link Hampton Roads terminals to the long-distance Class 1 freight railroads (Norfolk Southern and the CSX) and to two other short-lines in the region (Bay Coast Railroad and the Chesapeake and Albemarle).
Norfolk Southern and the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line provide rail access to Norfolk International Terminals (NIT)
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment (Figure 2-3)
Since the 1830's, railroad and port development have been closely intertwined. Portsmouth grew at the expense of Petersburg, after the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad connected the Hampton Roads port to traffic floating down the Roanoke River. The port at Newport News was spurred by the decision of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to build a new line and send its coal to docks located downstream from Richmond, in order to access a deeper channel.
Virginia has sought to maximize the percentage of shipping cargo carried to/from the terminals by railroad. The Port of Virginia advertised in 2017:1
rail shipments from the Port of Virginia can reach Chicago in 50 hours
Source: Port of Virginia, Rail Map
The Commonwealth of Virginia has funded rail improvements for the state's shipping terminals, including some projects as far away as the West Virginia border, to improve service and reduce truck-related delays.
Due to decisions that date back to the 1800's, the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads have different levels of access to different shipping terminals. Norfolk Southern has control over rail access at the Virginia Inland Port (VIP), plus a competitive advantage at Norfolk International Terminal (NIT).
CSX and the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line provide rail access to Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT)
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment (Figure 2-5)
CSX has control over rail access to the Newport News Marine Terminal (NNMT), plus a competitive advantage at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) and the Richmond Marine Terminal (RMT).
CSX acquired Seaboard Air Line, and maintains direct rail access to Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) at Pinner Point
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Rail access at the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) is equitable. The Commonwealth Railway brings all loaded rail cars from the terminal to a marshalling yard in Suffolk. CSX and Norfolk Southern have equal opportunity to hook their locomotives to trains there.
primary Virginia rail corridors for Port of Virginia cargo
Map Source: Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Master Rail Plan for the Port of Virginia (Figure 8)
The Heartland Corridor project enlarged Norfolk Southern tunnels through mountains in Virginia/West Virginia, facilitating traffic headed west from Norfolk and Portsmouth. Removing the physical constraints of the narrow, low tunnels enabled the Norfolk Southern "double-stack" the rail cars in Hampton Roads. Putting one container on top of another doubled the number of containers a train could carry between Norfolk and Columbus (Ohio), and to Chicago.
trains using Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor carry containers from Hampton Roads cross through the Blue Ridge at Roanoke, then go up the New River parallel to US 460 through West Virginia
Map Source: Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Master Rail Plan for the Port of Virginia (Figure 32)
Norfolk Southern trains can also carry cargo via the Crescent Corridor to the Virginia Inland Port and other destinations to the south in Tennessee and North Carolina.
trains going north on Norfolk Southern's Crescent Corridor carry containers from Hampton Roads through Manassas, before crossing the Blue Ridge on the "B Line" parallel to I-66
Map Source: Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Master Rail Plan for the Port of Virginia (Figure 32)
Government funds have also improved the CSX National Gateway, primarily to enhance north-south transport. Faster transport by rail, both at the port and inland, have made the Port of Virginia terminals more competitive against rivals at Savannah, Charleston, Baltimore, and New York/New Jersey. Virginia even contributed $24 million to upgrade the Virginia Avenue rail tunnel in Washington, DC.
The Virginia Avenue Tunnel in the District of Columbia, a four-year project started in 2015, added a second track and made it possible for double-stacked trains to get through that former bottleneck. Widening the Long Bridge railroad crossing over the Potomac River from two to four tracks, a project not yet funded, will allow CSX to bid even more competitively to haul containerized cargo to/from the Port of Virginia.2
The CSX National Gateway project, including the Kilby Rail Yard in Suffolk, also enhanced access to Virginia's ports. CSX stopped offering intermodal service to the Newport News Marine Terminal (NNMT) at the end of 1988. Twenty years later the railroad refocused on Hampton Roads, after the APM/Maersk terminal (now Virginia International Gateway) was completed and container operations moved there from the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT).
upgrading the CSX National Gateway including improving the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Washington, DC so it could accommodate rail cars with double-stacked containers
Map Source: Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Master Rail Plan for the Port of Virginia (Figure 30)
Shippers using Virginia Port Authority terminals benefit from rail competition. Since 2012, both CSX and Norfolk Southern (NS) have been able to build trains at Virginia International Gateway (VIG) without the expense of drayage to an off-site rail yard. However:3
the short-line Commonwealth Railway (CWRY) and Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line (NPBL) ensure shippers using Port of Virginia terminals have access to both CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads
Map Source: Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Master Rail Plan for the Port of Virginia (Figure 7)
Shippers are attracted to ports that offer competition between railroads, allowing for negotiations to improve service and reduce costs. The Maersk Line shifted its business from Norfolk Southern to CSX in 2012 and started to ship containers to the CSX Intermodal North Baltimore terminal near Toledo, Ohio.
"Fair access" to the Port of Virginia terminals may not be in the interest of competing railroads. As a result of railroad mergers, Norfolk Southern ended up in control of the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad. One clue to the dominance of that railroad: the Belt Line managers used Norfolk Southern email addresses and did not use the "@npblrr.com" domain.
The trains assembled and hauled by the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad had to use Norfolk Southern tracks to access the Norfolk International Terminals (NIT). In 2018, CSX sued Norfolk Southern and the Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad, claiming its traffic was delayed unfairly and charged excessive rates by the Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad:4
if rail costs are high due to limited competition, shippers using trucks as the alternative have to fight Norfolk/Portsmouth traffic bottlenecks such as the Midtown Tunnel
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Midtown Tunnel, under the Elizabeth River, Rt. 58. Portsmouth side
The ports at Savannah, Baltimore, and New Jersey/New York are close to major metropolitan centers. Hampton Roads offers less of a local market for shippers, so the Port of Virginia emphasizes in its marketing how rail connections provide access to customers in Ohio, Illinois and the rest of the Midwest. Port officials made clear in 2016 that the growth in demand would continue to be rail shipments to the Mississippi River watershed:5
in 2016, the Bay Coast Railroad (BCR) still served Virginia Beach/Norfolk
Source: Norfolk Southern, Norfolk Southern System Map (2016)
in 2019, Hampton Roads terminals were served by CSX. Norfolk Southern, and four short line railroads
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia State Railroad Map (2019)
A $20 million Federal grant in 2020 helped fund expansion of the Central Rail Yard at Norfolk International Terminal (NIT), adding two new bundles of four tracks plus loading space. The terminal was increasing its capacity to handle more containers, and needed to increase its ability to transport the additional containers away. Port officials said their goal was to have 40% of containers moved by rail.6
Virginia's ports offer better rail connections and greater intermodal transport than competing ports in other states ("TEU" = "twenty-foot equivalent units," half the length of trailers commonly loaded on rail cars now)
Map Source: Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Master Rail Plan for the Port of Virginia (Table 1)