The Hilltopper at Roanoke, Virginia in April 1978
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleEastern United States
First serviceJune 1, 1977
Last serviceSeptember 30, 1979
Former operator(s)Amtrak
StartBoston, Massachusetts
EndCatlettsburg, Kentucky
Distance travelled1,674 miles (2,694 km)
Average journey time26 hours 35 minutes
Service frequencyDaily
Train number(s)34, 35 (until January 8, 1978)
66, 67
On-board services
  • Sleeping car service (Boston-Washington)
  • Reserved and unreserved coach
Catering facilitiesOn-board cafe
Rolling stockAmfleet coaches
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm)
Track owner(s)Amtrak, RF&P, N&W

The Hilltopper was a passenger train operated by Amtrak in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It ran daily from South Station in Boston, Massachusetts to Catlettsburg, Kentucky. The 1,674 mi (2,694 km) run made 34 stops in 11 states and the District of Columbia.[1]


1977 map of the Hilltopper route
1977 map of the Hilltopper route

The Chicago-Norfolk Mountaineer, introduced in 1975, suffered from low ridership and high costs. Despite its failings, West Virginia senator Robert Byrd demanded that Amtrak replace it with another train on the Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) to serve his rural constituents - and that the new train would use new Amfleet equipment and serve Washington, D.C.[2]: 72  The Washington-Catlettsburg Hilltopper replaced the Mountaineer on June 1, 1977.[3] The Hilltopper retained all Mountaineer stops between Catlettsburg and Petersburg, Virginia, while the James Whitcomb Riley (which had run combined with the Mountaineer west of Catlettsburg) continued to provide a Chicago connection. Only Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia lost train service; a bus connection to Petersburg was provided.[4]

The Hilltopper had warm supporters in Byrd and West Virginian congressman Harley Staggers but it was "cited by critics as an example of everything that was wrong with Amtrak".[5][6]: 51  Beginning on January 8, 1978, the Hilltopper was combined with the Night Owl, creating through service from Boston to Catlettsburg, Kentucky.[7][2]: 73  Even with this effort to improve its farebox recovery ratio, the train averaged 33 passengers per trip in 1978, dropping to between 2 and 15 per trip in 1979. Its average speed of 37.1 miles per hour (59.7 km/h) was the lowest on the long-distance system. Farebox recovery was a dismal 25%, with the train losing $200,000 per year.[8]

The Hilltopper was one of five routes cut on October 1, 1979 as part of a reorganization by the Carter Administration, and the only of the five where no federal injunctions were obtained to keep service running.[8] Many of the train's riders were former N&W employees with lifetime passes. The Night Owl continued to be run after the cut.[8]

The end of the Hilltopper spelled the end of intercity rail service along much of its route in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia. However, one daily Northeast Regional round trip was extended from Lynchburg to Roanoke on October 31, 2017.[9]

Proposed restored service

As recently as October 2019, passenger rail advocates are pushing for restoration of east-west service from Christiansburg and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Hampton Roads area, via Roanoke, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, and Richmond with a "Commonwealth Corridor." This would be the first cross-Virginia passenger train since the Hilltopper.[10][11]


  1. ^ "National Train Timetables". National Railroad Passenger Corporation. July 29, 1979. p. 34 – via Museum of Railway Timetables.
  2. ^ a b Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34705-3.
  3. ^ "Hilltopper Begins Service". Amtrak NEWS. Vol. 4 no. 11. Amtrak. June 15, 1977.
  4. ^ "Hilltopper Begins Service". Amtrak NEWS. Vol. 4 no. 10. Amtrak. June 1, 1977.
  5. ^ Dilger, Robert Jay (2003). American Transportation Policy. Praeger. p. 91. ISBN 9780275978532.
  6. ^ Solomon, Brian (2004). Amtrak. Saint Paul, Minnesota: MBI. ISBN 978-0-7603-1765-5.
  7. ^ Amtrak National Train Timetables. Amtrak. January 8, 1978. pp. 9, 34.
  8. ^ a b c Franklin, Ben A. (October 1, 1979). "Amtrak Hilltopper Given Last 'All Aboard!'". New York Times. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
  9. ^ Sturgeon, Jeff (May 23, 2016). "Building of Roanoke's Amtrak platform expected to start this fall, state says". Roanoke Times. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
  10. ^ Wyatt Gordon, 'Greater Greater Washington,' "Virginia is planning an east-west rail route connecting the Blue Ridge Mountains to the beach," October 16, 2019 https://ggwash.org/view/74274/commonwealth-corridor-rail-route-may-run-from-the-blue-ridge-mountains-to-beach
  11. ^ Virginians for High Speed Rail, Southern Environmental Law Center, "EXPANDING VIRGINIA'S PASSENGER RAIL, CONNECTING THE BLUE RIDGE TO THE BEACH WITH THE COMMONWEALTH CORRIDOR" http://www.vhsr.com/sites/default/files/2019-09/VCC%20Report%20Final.pdf

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