The trains riders want: More, better, faster

Commuters eagerly await what N.C.'s $545 million in stimulus funds will buy.

Staff WriterFebruary 14, 2010 

  • About the reporter

    Bruce Siceloff has been a News & Observer reporter and editor since 1976. He covers traffic and transportation in print and on the Crosstown Traffic blog at newsobserver.com. His Road Worrier column is published each Tuesday in Triangle & Co.

  • Here is a rough breakdown on spending plans for most of the $545 million in federal stimulus funds approved for high-speed and intercity passenger rail in North Carolina. Some figures will change after state and federal officials set construction timetables and resolve multimillion-dollar details.

    $237 million to finish restoring double tracks on the remaining 35 miles between Greensboro and Charlotte. The work includes closing some road-rail crossings and building bridges for others.

    $152 million in Charlotte to expand a rail maintenance facility and build a bridge separating tracks that cross at a clogged major rail hub downtown - a four-way stop where 50Norfolk Southern and 20 CSX trains cross paths each day. The money also will support freight expansion, a planned rail transit line and a future Amtrak and transit station.

    $32 million in Durham and Wake counties to eliminate at-grade rail crossings for Hopson Road and Morrisville Parkway. The work also will straighten curved tracks and add a 2-mile passing siding near Hopson Road. Both grade separations will serve Triangle plans for commuter trains and light rail.

    $25 million for four universal crossovers - which turn parallel tracks into passing lanes - in Wake, Northampton and Nash counties. The money will make it easier for a fast Amtrak train to pass a slow freight train, which will ease rail backups in West Raleigh and northeastern North Carolina.

    $20 million to rebuild or rehabilitate five locomotives, buy two used locomotives, buy four passenger cars and rehabilitate 10 passenger cars.

    $16 million to close or make safety improvements at 15 private-road rail crossings between Raleigh and Charlotte.

    $11 million in Alamance County for a 2-mile passing siding that will relieve a 22-mile bottleneck and boost train speed limits from 55 mph to 79 mph.

    $7 million in Rowan and Davidson counties for bridges and straighter tracks.

    $6 million in Raleigh to expand NCDOT's Capital Rail Yard.

    $5 million to improve rail stations in Cary, Burlington, High Point and Kannapolis. Cary parking and the building will double in size, and Amtrak employees will be added to the previously unstaffed station.

    $5 million in Guilford County to eliminate road-rail crossings and realign Carmon Road.

    $3 million at nine rail stations for video security, backup generators, and video and audio technology for hearing- and sight-impaired travelers.

    Source: NCDOT Rail Division

John Robertson of Morrisville, a Wells Fargo Bank executive, likes taking the train for regular business trips to Charlotte.

And he figures he'll like it more after North Carolina spends $545million in federal stimulus funds intended to make rail service faster, more frequent and more dependable.

Robertson values the time to make phone calls, use his laptop or just relax on the morning train from Cary to Charlotte.

But he must fit his work around a skeletal train schedule that is inflexible and sometimes unreliable.

He boards the southbound Amtrak Piedmont at 7:02a.m. in Cary, stays overnight in Charlotte, and catches the 5:30 p.m. train home the next day.

"If there were improved service, I could get more done on a day-trip basis," said Robertson, 55. "I wouldn't have to spend the night there."

The state-subsidized train makes one daily round-trip between Raleigh and Charlotte on its arc through North Carolina's Piedmont crescent. Amtrak's Carolinian adds a second daily run, continuing north from Raleigh to New York.

The first big benefit of new federal rail funds will come this year - the date has not been announced - when North Carolina adds a third round-trip to the Piedmont schedule. The new trains will leave Charlotte and Raleigh at midday.

And when a fourth round-trip is added in 2012, North Carolina will have trains stopping every three or four hours during the day at Raleigh, Charlotte and seven stations in between.

"I think when they have four trains, they can get more people commuting," said Yuh-Lang Lin, 60, a physics professor at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, who takes the train each morning from his home in Cary.

"Right now the schedule is more convenient for people commuting from Raleigh to Greensboro. But it's not so convenient in the other direction or between Charlotte and Greensboro."

$5.3 billion was requested

North Carolina was in the second tier of big winners last month when theObama administration distributed $8billion to start building a national network of high-speed and intercity passenger trains.

California got $2.3 billion and Florida $1.2 billion to start building new lines for trains that will go faster than 150mph. Most of North Carolina's money will upgrade a Raleigh-to-Charlotte route the state has improved steadily since 1990. Top speeds are planned at 90 mph, but the average Raleigh-Charlotte trip eventually will be reduced nearly an hour from the current 3 hours 10 minutes it takes to cover 172 miles.

North Carolina won a small part of its total $5.3 billion request. The state hopes in coming years to receive the rest of the money to complete the Raleigh-Charlotte improvements, extend trains west to Asheville and east to Wilmington, and blaze a 110-mph shortcut north from Raleigh to Richmond, Va.

The Obama administration awarded more fast-train money to North Carolina than to the entire northeastern United States, home of the nation's fastest and busiest trains.

Karen Rae, deputy director of the Federal Railroad Administration, said North Carolina is being rewarded for 20years of work to build fast tracks from Charlotte to Washington.

Federal officials now are reviewing a fresh environmental analysis of the proposed Raleigh-to-Richmond leg, Rae said - but, in contrast, the northeastern states have not updated crucial environmental studies in 31 years.

"North Carolina has a proven track record of being able to get good rail projects on the ground, and doing it expeditiously and cost-effectively," Rae said in an interview. "Along with California, North Carolina has one of the best DOTs that have been able to do this."

Pat Simmons heads the state DOT Rail Division, with about 60 employees. He said he can't announce timetables for the rail expansion projects until a lot of details are worked out with Rae and other federal officials. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires North Carolina to sign contracts spending its share of the money by September 2012, and to finish the work by September 2017.

Some Triangle projects will get under way in the next few months, he said. They include a Cary rail station expansion and a safety upgrade that will eliminate a deadly car-train crossing at Hopson Road in Research Triangle Park.

"We want to be putting people to work this year," Simmons said. "That's a primary goal of this program and a primary goal of Gov. Perdue. So we are absolutely going to do that."

DOT highway engineers and project managers will be enlisted in the rail expansion projects, and a lot of the work will be farmed out to private firms.

Attracting more riders

North Carolina will spend most of the $545 million to open up clogged rail facilities in Charlotte and to finish building double tracks to reduce delays on the busy 93 miles between Charlotte and Greensboro.

Double tracks and faster, more frequent service should broaden the train's appeal, Robertson said.

"You get delayed when you have to pull over on a siding and wait for another train to come through," Robertson said. "That can make things very unreliable, depending on how long you have to sit there and wait.

"I think if the reliability were improved and the speed was improved along with it, it probably would attract additional riders."

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

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