$520M puts fast trains on fast track

Charlotte, Raleigh, D.C. routes to benefit

Staff WriterJanuary 28, 2010 

  • The corridor is a proposed route, about 475 miles, for fast and frequent trains from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., via Greensboro, Raleigh and Richmond.

    It follows active rail lines between Charlotte and Raleigh and between Richmond and Washington. The path between Raleigh and Richmond would revive an abandoned CSX corridor through Norlina and South Hill, Va., where there is no train service now.

    How fast would it be?

    The proposal calls for top speeds of 110 mph and an average 86 mph, with the prospect for faster trains in the future. Amtrak trains now in North Carolina have a top speed of 79 mph and average 48 mph.

    How much would travel times improve?

    Current times from Raleigh: 3 hours, 12 minutes to Charlotte; 3 hours, 30 minutes to Richmond; 5 hours, 50 minutes to Washington.

    Target high-speed times from Raleigh: 2 hours, 15 minutes to Charlotte; 2 hours to Richmond; 3 hours, 55 minutes to Washington.

    Why not faster?

    A 1997 USDOT study said that, at top speeds of 110 mph, the trains would generate enough in fares to repay operating costs. Faster train service would be less cost-effective, requiring more straight tracks and more expensive electric trains.

    How much would daily passenger service increase?

    Now: Two round-trip trains daily between Raleigh and Charlotte (with a third planned to start this summer), and two daily between Raleigh and Washington.

    Proposed by 2020: Eight daily round trips Raleigh-Charlotte, and four Raleigh-Washington. Some trains would stop at every station; others would be express runs.

  • The corridor is a proposed route, about 475 miles, for fast and frequent trains from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., via Greensboro, Raleigh and Richmond.

    It follows active rail lines between Charlotte and Raleigh and between Richmond and Washington. The path between Raleigh and Richmond would revive an abandoned CSX corridor through Norlina and South Hill, Va., where there is no train service now.

    How fast would it be?

    The proposal calls for top speeds of 110 mph and an average 86 mph, with the prospect for faster trains in the future. Amtrak trains now in North Carolina have a top speed of 79 mph and average 48 mph.

    How much would travel times improve?

    Current times from Raleigh: 3 hours, 12 minutes to Charlotte; 3 hours, 30 minutes to Richmond; 5 hours, 50 minutes to Washington.

    Target high-speed times from Raleigh: 2 hours, 15 minutes to Charlotte; 2 hours to Richmond; 3 hours, 55 minutes to Washington.

    Why not faster?

    A 1997 USDOT study said that, at top speeds of 110 mph, the SEHSR trains would generate enough in fares to repay operating costs. Faster train service would be less cost-effective, requiring more straight tracks and more expensive electric trains.

    How much would daily passenger service increase?

    Now: Two round-trip trains daily between Raleigh and Charlotte (with a third planned to start this summer), and two daily between Raleigh and Washington.

    Proposed by 2020: Eight daily round trips Raleigh-Charlotte, and four Raleigh-Washington. Some trains would stop at every station; others would be express runs.

North Carolina is expected to receive $520 million today as part of $8 billion in federal economic stimulus funds President Barack Obama will distribute in 31 states to start building a national high-speed rail network.

The president touted high-speed rail in Wednesday night's State of the Union Address, and he and other administration officials are fanning out across the nation today to announce the funding. Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will come to Durham's new Amtrak station to discuss North Carolina's allotment in an event scheduled for 1:15 p.m.

U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, disclosed North Carolina's funding share. "From Raleigh to Charlotte in the near term, and Raleigh to Washington in the long term, we're in that charmed circle of routes where train travel can really make sense," he said.

The state will use its share to add and upgrade tracks, trains and stations and to provide faster and more frequent rail service between Charlotte and Raleigh. The effort is part of a planned Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor that will continue north from Raleigh to Richmond and Washington, D.C.

North Carolina and Virginia have planned the corridor since the early 1990s. North Carolina has spent about $5 million a year, working with railroads to straighten curves, add double tracks and increase train speeds - cutting an hour from travel between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Now, the state Department of Transportation will push a plan to cut that time by another hour. Train speeds are expected to reach 90 mph between Charlotte and Raleigh - and, eventually, 110 mph between Raleigh and Richmond.

Obama will be in Tampa, Fla, this morning to announce his plans for the $8 billion funds to support projects in 13 rail corridors across the nation. Florida, California and Midwestern and Northeastern states are expected to be among the big winners.

A down payment

North Carolina leaders hope the $520 million will be a down payment on their plan to build out the Southeast corridor. In all, the state last year asked the Obama administration for $5.3 billion - with most of that money, about $3.7 billion, earmarked for a new rail shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond. Virginia seeks about $1.7 billion for improvements between Richmond and Washington.

Much of the money will be spent to buy right of way, replace curved tracks with straighter tracks, build passing sidings or double tracks where there are single tracks now, improve stations or build new ones, and build bridges over roads to eliminate at-grade crossings. North Carolina's proposal includes new rail stops in Lexington and Hillsborough, a new station in Charlotte and planning for a new Raleigh station.

In addition to $8 billion included in last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act appropriation, Congress put another $2.5 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects in this year's federal budget. North Carolina is expected to seek a share of that money in the next few months and to pursue more federal rail funding in coming years.

Eugene Conti, the state transportation secretary, declined to confirm North Carolina's share of the money but promised to make good use of it. "We think whatever the number is is going to give us a good start on a program that's going to pay many dividends over the years for our state and our country," he said.

Price said North Carolina will have to make a good case for more rail funding.

"The best proof of the worth of that will be to make this Raleigh-to-Charlotte train a crackerjack run. Make these trains succeed," Price said.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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