A painting in the Ettrick train station’s lobby pays tribute to the small village’s railway roots.
The work depicts an old rail depot that once operated about 100 feet from Ettrick’s current stop on the Amtrak line, a red brick station built in 1955. Model trains sit on display in a glass case near the green padded seats where passengers await their ride in the lobby.
Although trains have long arrived and departed from the village of 7,000 residents in southern Chesterfield County, that link to the rail line was in doubt in recent years after a federal rail agency suggested moving the passenger train service to a new station 5 miles away in Colonial Heights because of that city’s proximity to the interstate.
But Ettrick’s train stop won’t be going anywhere soon now that the federal officials have suspended their environmental review of plans to build a replacement station in the Tri-Cities area.
“There was a lack of consensus among stakeholders on how to proceed,” Warren Flatau, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, said recently when asked why the agency suspended its review.
In the wake of that federal decision earlier this year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved spending millions of dollars to upgrade the Ettrick station’s platform, canopy and parking lot.
That’s good news for the dedicated group of residents who have said for years that the station should stay because the village and nearby students at Virginia State University need it.
“When we found out that the Commonwealth [Transportation Board] had made its decision to allocate the money, we felt like that was a good sign that they had heard our cry to take a look and see the need and the necessity to improve on the station that already exists,” said Tina McCray, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick.
McCray and her group opposed the Federal Railroad Administration’s recommendation that the service should move to neighboring Colonial Heights, saying that Ettrick is defined by its train station and by Virginia State University, where students often walk to campus from the train station.
“Most people have not heard of Ettrick, but they have heard of Petersburg-Ettrick train station,” McCray said.
Some passengers at the station on a recent weekday were pleased to hear the station won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
“They would lose money if they move it. The students depend [on it],” said Monica Brooks, a Dinwiddie County resident who stopped by the station to buy a ticket for an upcoming trip. “You have that campus. College students going home on weekends, holidays. You don’t have a campus over there in Colonial Heights.”
Over at the Ettrick Deli, owner John Saba said his business would suffer if the station moved away. Saba said he kept a petition at his business last year for people to sign to indicate they were opposed to the station moving.
“We collected probably 11 pages’ worth of signatures,” Saba said.
Not everyone wants the train station to remain where it is.
Donnell Reese, who has lived across the street from the Ettrick station for 30 years, said it’s an eyesore, adding that snakes meander through the overgrown grass in front of the station.
“There ain’t nothing pretty about it,” Reese said. “It’s a sore thumb out here.”
Reese said the station would be a better fit in Colonial Heights.
Federal Railroad Administration officials said in 2017 that they preferred moving the station to the old Nichols department store on the Boulevard in Colonial Heights because of that location’s proximity to Interstate 95, access to other transit options and other factors.
That suggestion drew criticism from local and state officials as well as members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who opposed moving train service from Ettrick. In April, the federal agency sent a letter to the Tri-Cities Metropolitan Planning Organization saying it was halting its environmental review of plans for a new station.
Flatau indicated the federal agency has not completely dropped plans for eventually having a new station in the area.
“The Federal Railroad Administration informed the Tri-Cities Metropolitan Planning Organization in April that the agency does not intend to take further action developing an environmental assessment at this time,” Flatau wrote in an email. “We have not abandoned plans to evaluate the feasibility of building a new station and will continue to discuss next steps with the Tri-Cities MPO.”
Doug Smith, the Colonial Heights city manager, said his locality had been unable to secure federal funding to put the facility there.
“Certainly we would have loved to see the station located here in Colonial Heights,” Smith said. “It’s still going to be close to Colonial Heights.”
In June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved spending $5.7 million for improvements to the Ettrick station, including platform upgrades for people with disabilities. The money would also pay for paving work in the parking lot.
“The station needs improvements regardless of its future,” said Christopher Smith, director of policy, communications and legislative affairs with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “It’s a vibrant station. It’s walkable to the university.”
The station’s traffic has also been on the rise, increasing from 21,000 in 2008 up to 30,700 in 2017, according to Amtrak data.
In addition to the money approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board for work at the train station site, Chesterfield officials plan to spend $3 million for work around the station, including sidewalk improvements for pedestrians walking from the station to River Road in front of the VSU campus, said Jesse Smith, the county’s transportation director.
Steve Elswick, vice chairman of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, said keeping the station in Ettrick would help revitalization efforts in the village.
“I think all we want to do is make it a better, more viable station, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Elswick said.