Washington & Old Dominion RR GE 95 Tonner 57 at B&O Riverside Yard, Baltimore, MD on January 19, 1969 by Roger Puta licensed under Creative Commons.

Today, the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) is a paved trail used for fun and commuting across Northern Virginia. Of course, originally the Washington & Old Dominion was a railroad — one with a long and convoluted history that helped form Dunn Loring, Reston, Herndon, Sterling, Ashburn, and other communities that still exist to this day.

Before it became the Washington & Old Dominion, the rail line that originally ran from Alexandria to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Loudoun County was called the Richmond & Danville Railroad. Then it became the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railway before being leased by the Southern Railway. (You can catch up on that history with Part One of the series here.)

The Dunn Loring station and freight train, circa 1957. Photo by H. H. Harwood, Jr.

The Washington & Old Dominion abandoned steam for electric

The leased railroad consisted of two disjointed pieces: the Bluemont Division and the Great Falls Division. In 1912, they were connected by building a track in Arlington County at a point called Bluemont Junction. The Southern Railway owners renamed their now-unified system as the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad.

Washington & Old Dominion train Number 41. Photographer unknown.

Passenger trains increased in frequency. A 1916 timetable shows more than 120 daily trains operating on both divisions, with a frequency of 15 to 30 minutes apart in some cases. These were clearly commuter trains, and many of the riders were undoubtedly government employees.

Uniquely, the owners also decided to unify the operating system of their new railroad. They decided to electrify the Bluemont Division to the same standard used for the Great Falls Division. Electric wires were strung all the way to Bluemont, and a second parallel track was added too.

Image by Arlington County.

Thus the Washington & Old Dominion was one of the first railroads to abandon steam power in favor of electric power and transform itself into an interurban operation. New equipment was purchased too, with new trolley cars and several unique home-built locomotives added to the roster. The company owned a power plant in Rossyln and thus could generate their own electricity too.

In 1923 the Aqueduct Bridge was replaced by the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The W&OD decided against keeping their Georgetown Terminal and instead agreed to let Capital Traction Company operate trolleys across the bridge into Rosslyn in exchange for a new terminal building. Capital Traction completed the new terminal in Rosslyn, and that became the official terminus of the railroad. Trains left Rosslyn, turned at Bluemont Junction, and continued west to Leesburg and beyond.

The Leesburg Station and passenger train, circa 1951. Photo by H. H. Harwood, Jr.

Paved roads marked the beginning of the end

Unfortunately, as was the case elsewhere, railroads began losing riders when paved roads replaced dirt. The public used the automobile in ever increasing numbers, and revenue fell as a result. By the time of the Great Depression, the W&OD was worn out and broke. It entered bankruptcy in 1932, and it ceased all passenger traffic on the Great Falls Division in 1934. The tracks were removed and the right of way was sold to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which used it to construct Old Dominion Drive. Riders had the choice of using a bus or driving themselves to Washington.

Prior to World War II, the railroad deenergized the electric wires and switched to using small diesel locomotives in 1941. Declining passenger traffic caused further cutbacks and downgrades, to the point where the railroad was using gasoline powered self-propelled cars to cater to the few passengers who still rode the train. Despite a brief attempt in 1943 to revive commuter trains for wartime workers, the line focused on freight traffic.

The end of the line in 1951. Photographer unknown.

In 1951 the Washington & Old Dominion ceased running passenger trains entirely. Car culture had fully captured the public’s imagination and despite a rail line running through the heart of the region, no one wanted to ride a train when they could easily drive themselves. Declining customers and the slow transformation of the rest of Northern Virginia into suburbia spelled the end of the W&OD as a railroad. The 1950s and 1960s were not kind, as businesses switched to trucks to haul freight.

A brief glimmer of hope appeared in 1956 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway purchased the W&OD in the hope that a new coal-fired electric power plant would be built on the Virginia side of the Potomac. The C&O would supply the coat for the plant. However, the power plant was built at Dickerson on the Maryland side instead.

The C&O owned the W&OD. Photographer unknown.

The W&OD struggled and limped along, but the end was clear. The C&O abandoned the Rosslyn trackage in 1963 and sold it to the Virginia Department of Highways, which used the segment to construct Interstate 66.

All train service ended on the Bluemont Branch in 1968. The whole line was sold to the Department of Highways, which immediately resold it to the Virginia Electric Power Company (VEPCO, now called Dominion Power). Electric transmission towers now follow the former right of way. The right of way through Arlington towards Falls Church was again repurposed for Interstate 66 and the new WMATA Orange Line.

In 1979 VEPCO, while retaining ownership, allowed the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to pave the former roadbed for recreational use by the public. Over the ensuing years, the Park Authority paved more sections, finally completing the paving project to Purcellville in 1988.


The Washington & Old Dominion had a hand in making Northern Virginia what it is today. Familiar place names and towns were served by the railroad: Rosslyn, Cherrydale, Rock Spring, McLean, Falls Church, Vienna, Dunn Loring, Ashburn, Herndon, Leesburg, and Purcellville.

Over the years, the railroad’s various owners had big dreams of connecting the region to places far and wide. Those never materialized, but frequent reliable train service provided Washington with fresh milk, brought commuters to work, and played a part in developing the rest of the region before the automobile ended it in 1968.

The W&OD Trail today in Falls Church. by rcannon100 licensed under Creative Commons.

The W&OD makes an interesting “what if” conversation. What if the coal power plant was built in Virginia and trains still rolled? Would VRE be using it? What if WMATA had decided to use the line for transit use, or if the line’s owners had somehow managed to keep the line as a viable transit corridor? How different would the region be? Could the former W&OD be converted back to transit use? If it can be converted, how could this be done, and if not, why not?

There was a lively discussion about reactivating this as a transit corridor several years ago on GGWash. On a map it makes perfect sense to put trains or other transit vehicles on a right of way that passes through the heart of Ashburn, Sterling, Reston, Falls Church, north Arlington, north Alexandria, and into Potomac Yard. It could be considered akin to the Purple Line in Maryland, and have great benefits for those inclined to ride instead of drive.

However, the intervening years between 1968 and 2018 make reactivating the line as a transit corridor a dim prospect. Construction costs would be exorbitant, and much of the original right of way is now occupied by I-66, especially in Arlington County. A surface line running through western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun would be noisy and would likely spark a stiff opposition effort, assuming the money to build it could be secured and everyone could agree on it.

Northern Virginia’s own little railroad lasted for 121 years, and through its life it and its owners transformed the region into what we know and live in today.

But…what if…?

Read Part One of this series here.

Gregg Otten is a civil servant, a transportation aficionado, a history buff, and an amateur chef. He has lived in the Washington region since 1982. He graduated from American University, and currently resides in the West End of Alexandria, Virginia.