The Best Kept Travel Secret in West Virginia

by Mark Totten

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please! Arriving momentarily on track number one is Amtrak train number 50, with service through the beautiful New River Gorge, Hinton, Clifton Forge, Charlottesville, Washington, Baltimore, New York, and all points in between…” The announcer’s voice is not from a period movie scene, nor is it a reenactment by actors in vintage clothing. This nostalgia-inducing public address can still be heard ahead of an eastbound passenger train’s arrival beside the South Side Bridge, three mornings per week at the former Chesapeake and Ohio Railway’s passenger station in Charleston.

Approximately 12 hours later, the same announcer echoes equivalent destinations ahead of the evening passenger train, before pausing at the station platform in sight of the gold-domed state capitol, then continuing westbound toward Huntington and across the Ohio River for an overnight run to Chicago. Together, trains #50 and #51 comprise Amtrak’s Cardinal, the best-kept travel secret in West Virginia, and the voice belongs to Station Agent Matt Crouch, the last Amtrak stationmaster in West Virginia.

Unbeknownst to many in the region, the travel service behind our stationmaster’s ritual is not limited to fall foliage or holiday rail excursion trains. Charleston enjoys passenger rail access through Amtrak’s Cardinal train with a year-round, thrice-weekly service to Chicago, Washington, and New York that, by its route passing south through West Virginia, allows Charleston residents the benefit of direct rail travel to these (and other) destinations. This mode of transportation gives Charleston and the surrounding region a unique status symbol and transportation option that not all cities enjoy.

In addition to the travel benefits, riding the train enables people to intersect in a way that few experiences allow. Like a constantly-moving main street, complete with coffee, people watching, and good food, the Cardinal can be a social experience, just as much as a way to get where you’re going. If I’m especially lucky on a trip, I’ll be traveling on board with my favorite Amtrak train attendant, Janice Adams, a host whose stories, combined with her customer service, elevate any trip for her passengers.

The destinations reached directly from Charleston by rail, which range from Thurmond, West Virginia (population: 5) to midtown Manhattan (population: 1.63 million) by the end of the day, are as different as the people you can meet on board, all of which is reachable by just setting foot on the Cardinal in West Virginia and enjoying the ride.

My experiences taking the Cardinal for long-distance travel needs started after repeated dissatisfaction with air travel and airports like Dulles and LaGuardia. Getting to someplace like New York by train, rather than air, had always been a “bucket list” trip to take, and eventually I gave the experience a long-overdue chance. The resulting memories from a day traveling on the train are unparalleled. Arriving after a few meals and a nap, rail travel eliminated frustrations like lack of comfort and many restrictions on baggage, and added scenery you miss from the air or while driving.

The two trains’ morning-and-evening schedules also makes same-day return trips possible to eastbound destinations like White Sulphur Springs or Clifton Forge, Virginia, enabling West Virginia travelers to return home without being away overnight. For a quick trip out of town with a friend or with family, it is hard to beat one that begins with breakfast on the train, continues with lunch or shopping at The Greenbrier, and winds down with evening conversation in the café car. Infused with the experience of seeing Appalachia from the window of a passenger train, an unforgettable day on the rails can start and end in Charleston.

If passenger rail service returns to Charleston on a daily basis, as is being advocated by other cities represented on the Cardinal route, as well as the local volunteer group Friends of the Cardinal, the opportunities for lives and places to cross any day of the week while we travel to and from Charleston are endless.

If a single- or multi-day Cardinal trip interests you this summer, visit the Charleston station by the South Side Bridge at 350 MacCorkle Ave., SE, and buy a ticket from Station Agent Matt Crouch. Around the train’s arrival times, be sure to listen for his signature address to travelers, “Amtrak wishes you a safe and comfortable journey and we thank you for patronizing our trains…all aboard!”