You don’t have to board a tourist train to be treated to a view of some spectacular West Virginia scenery by rail. Amtrak bills the route of its Cardinal as one of the most scenic in its system.
The three-day-a-week Cardinal travels between New York City and Chicago via a 1,146-mile route, with a key portion of its route stretching across West Virginia. It’s a successor to the New York Central’s (later Penn Central) James Whitcomb Riley and the Chesapeake & Ohio’s iconic George Washington regional trains.
As it makes its way through West Virginia, the Cardinal follows the route of the C&O’s old main line. From the east, the train enters the state near White Sulphur Springs, proceeds to Hinton, passes through the New River Gorge towns of Prince and Thurmond, and continues to Montgomery, Charleston and Huntington. Separate eastbound and westbound versions of the train travel through West Virginia on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.
The Cardinal snakes past some of the state’s most historic small towns, scenic landscapes and unparalleled natural wonders.
When it enters the New River Gorge, referred to by some as the Grand Canyon of the East, its tracks follow the New River approximately 1,300 feet below the canyon rim.
If they look up, riders can get a quick look at something only the river’s white-water rafters ordinarily see — the arching underbelly of the New River Gorge Bridge. As the train travels along, you catch glimpses of history in the old train stations built in the coal boom towns of yesteryear. In the fall, the trackside forests blaze with color and the train usually sells out to leaf-peepers.
But the Cardinal has a checkered past — and faces an uncertain future.
In 1974, Amtrak merged the James Whitcomb Riley and the George Washington, forming a single long-distance route running between Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The train was renamed the Cardinal in 1977 as the cardinal was the state bird of all five states through which it ran. Eventually the Cardinal was extended from Washington, D.C., to New York City in an effort to increase its ridership, but the train was discontinued on Sept. 30, 1981. A congressional mandate initiated by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., resurrected the train on Jan. 8, 1982, but limited it to running three days a week. In 2010, Amtrak released a report indicating it planned to increase the Cardinal’s service from three trains a week to daily service. That never happened.
A local group, the Friends of the Cardinal, has urged that the Cardinal be returned to daily service. But now that’s gone from being improbable to apparently impossible.
In June, Amtrak said that starting Oct. 1 most Amtrak long-distance passenger trains will operate only three days a week. The downsized operations come as Amtrak prepares to cut up to 20 percent of its staff in response to the financial crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amtrak estimates that its ridership in the next fiscal year may drop to 16 million, or roughly 50 percent of its pre-pandemic level.