It is difficult to describe the rail traffic one might see here, as virtually anything and everything can be moving. Operating patterns change, traffic that may be there one week is gone the next. So to keep this simple, very little information about specific trains is provided.
Train traffic moving from east to west frequently includes empty hopper or gondola cars headed back to the mines of West Virginia. These cars carry coal to eastern ports, power companies in North Carolina and the northeast. Depending on its destination, you may see loaded coal trains moving north or south; those are generally headed to power plants. Overseas-bound coal trains rarely traverse this section, instead moving east over the former Virginian Railway tracks about a mile south of here due to a much easier grade.
Large enclosed carriers are transporting new automobiles, usually bound for a large unloading area in Winston-Salem. North Carolina. Those trains will head south along Williamson Road. You will also see the empty auto carriers returning, headed for the manufacturing plants.
Merchandise or freight trains move all variety of cargo in all directions. You will see containers loaded on flat cars, sometimes stacked two high (double-stacks) that can be carrying virtually anything and everything. Container traffic moves both directions,
bound for both coasts and points in between.
Tank cars carry a wide variety of chemicals and liquid items. The Coca-Cola plant to the west gets tank car loads of corn syrup, usually marked "Staley." There are also tankcar loads (unmarked) of chilled Coors beer from Colorado, bound for the Coors packaging plant at Elkton, Virginia.
Covered hopper cars carry loose material that must be kept dry, such as cement, grain, fertilizer and soybeans. On most days you will see a train head north or returning with a variety of covered hoppers. These are shipments to/from the former Lone Star Cement plant (now Roanoke Cement) near Cloverdale.
Every weekday evening between 6 and 8 PM, you will see what usually consists of a single locomotive and between 6 and 9 green painted cars all alike. This is the "trash train" carrying refuse from the trash transfer station just to the east and north of the Roanoke Shops to the Smith Gap landfill located in western Roanoke County. The train carries the loaded cars out of town and returns with empty cars between 9 and 11 PM.
A viewer may frequently see strings of brand-new hopper cars passing by. Generally these are the product of the Freight Car America plant, now operating in the former N&W freight car assembly area in Roanoke Shops. They produce anywhere between 8 to 12 cars per eight hour shift for a wide variety
of customers. The cars are aluminum construction and can also be seen moving loaded with coal for specific power plants.
Unfortunately, you will not see any regular passenger trains in Roanoke, as regular passenger service ended in 1971, Amtrak ran trains between 1975 and 1980 and many excursion trains ran between 1982 and 1994.
Another rarity is a caboose on a train. Since July 1, 1988, cabooses are no longer required on freight trains. If you see one today, it is normally a local freight train working in the immediate area that has lots of local shifting or spotting of cars that require a crew getting on and off a lot.
Remember, rail traffic changes over time, what you might see today, may not be there tomorrow, so these descriptions are general in nature, by virtue of them possibly changing in a week!
Warning: Remember that trespassing on railroad property is a crime and violators may be prosecuted.A good general rule is never cross any tracks, climb on any equipment or structure, take your photos from parking lots, overhead bridges or the viewing area nearby.
All Photos unless otherwise credited: Kenneth L. Miller ©2006Panel Design and Content by Miller Design & Photograpy ©2006