DURHAM — North Carolina will take another small step toward pretty fast train service Thursday, when dignitaries break ground on a $10.9 million project to close two dangerous rail crossings, straighten a curved track to allow faster train speeds, and lift the trains on a new bridge over Hopson Road in southern Durham.
It is the first in a string of rail upgrades planned between Raleigh and Charlotte over the next few years, paid for with $520 million in federal economic stimulus money.
The Hopson Road project near Research Triangle Park is a small part of the big plan, but it is expected to make noticeable improvements in safety and traffic flow for cars as well as trains.
Its one of those projects that at first blush doesnt look really sexy but from a pragmatic standpoint, it just accomplishes so much, Joseph Szabo, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an interview Wednesday. Hell be in Durham to wield the ceremonial shovel at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.
When the N.C. Railroad track is realigned to flatten a sharp curve, the speed limit for passenger trains here will rise from 55 to 79 mph.
The new rail bridge over Hopson will eliminate a deadly crossing where three people were killed in a 1992 train-car crash. RTP commuters no longer will have to stop there for freight and passenger trains at rush hour.
The work also will divert nearby Church Street, closing its outlet onto N.C. 54 and linking it to Hopson Road through a new extension of Keystone Park Drive.
Big plan for fast trains
North Carolina already has spent a few chunks of its stimulus money on small projects, including improvements at the Burlington and Cary passenger stations. Stimulus funds helped the state launch a third daily round-trip train between Raleigh and Charlotte in 2010.
But the big rail stimulus projects are just now getting under way. Most of the half-billion dollars will be spent to finish double-tracking the train line between Greensboro and Charlotte and to make big improvements in Charlotte: a new train maintenance yard and a big rail-over-rail bridge to eliminate a four-way stop where Norfolk Southern and CSX freight trains cross paths each day.
Also scheduled are projects to add four miles of side tracks in Durham and Alamance counties, so trains can pass each other on the single track between Raleigh and Greensboro. And construction will start in 2014 on a $15 million project in Morrisville to lift the tracks over Morrisville Parkway.
The state Department of Transportation designed these jobs as pieces of a big plan to complete the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor between Charlotte and Washington. The aim is to have trains running eventually at 90 mph between Charlotte and Raleigh.
Thats nothing like the 200 mph trains running in Asia and planned in California. Federal officials dont call North Carolinas plan high-speed any longer. Instead, they put it in a modestly speedy category called regional express service.
Youve got strong markets there that can support regional service between 90 and 125 mph, Szabo said. Its part of the pragmatic vision the NCDOT has been executing over the past decade, in making these incremental improvements.
Shortcut to Richmond
The crucial link is a planned higher-speed short-cut between Raleigh and Richmond, Va., where trains would travel at 110 mph on a path 35 miles shorter than the present route. That would trim 90 minutes off travel times for train trips from North Carolina to Washington and the Northeast.
State DOT engineers have won federal funds to finish planning the Raleigh-Richmond line. But before they schedule a ground-breaking ceremony, theyll have to find an estimated $3.8 billion to build it. That wont be easy in the near future, because congressional leaders have indicated an unwillingness to spend more money for fast trains.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/