The new Amtrak train is ready, but Raleigh Union Station isn't

You can now catch an Amtrak train between Raleigh and Charlotte four times a day, with the addition Monday of another run of the Piedmont train, but you can’t do it yet from the new Raleigh Union Station.

More than a month after hundreds gathered in the station’s great hall to celebrate its completion, Raleigh Union Station still isn’t ready for passengers. David Eatman, the city’s transit administrator, said he can’t say yet when the station will be available, only that the city’s goal is to have it open sometime this summer.

“We’re so close,” Eatman said. “Just really down to the fine details.”

The station was expected to be ready for the start of a third daily round trip of the Piedmont, a train financed by the state and operated by Amtrak. The Piedmont and a single daily round-trip of the Carolinian, which begins and ends in New York City, follow the N.C. Railroad main line across central North Carolina, with stops in Cary, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis.

The added Piedmont train fills a couple of gaps in the Amtrak schedule in North Carolina. The new westbound train departs Raleigh at 3:15 p.m. to get people home “at a decent hour,” said Allan Paul, deputy director of the N.C. Department of Transportation Rail Division. The new eastbound train leaves Charlotte at 7 p.m., giving people time to grab an early dinner or stay to the end of a 1 p.m. Panthers football game.

“We think that train will be popular with folks who want to spend a little more time in Charlotte before heading home,” Paul said.

Paul said passenger surveys have shown a desire for more frequent rail service and that other states have found that when the train is more convenient, more people ride it. Four daily round trips mean someone can catch a train between Raleigh and Charlotte every four hours.

“Then you have that kind of flexibility that allows business people to go to Charlotte or to Raleigh for the day and have a half-day meeting,” Paul said.

Ridership on the two daily round trips of the Piedmont actually peaked in 2014, at 170,400. Last year, it had fallen to 148,000.

But Paul said that’s because the Piedmont actually made fewer runs in the last three years because of construction along the tracks. In early 2014, the U.S. government gave the state $535 million to upgrade rail lines throughout the state, resulting in the cancellation of trains, Paul said.

“Pretty much for the last 3 1/2 years we’ve been in what we refer to at DOT as the orange barrel phase,” he said.

With that work done, and gasoline prices beginning to rise again, Paul expects ridership will rebound significantly, especially with an additional train on the schedule. Until Raleigh Union Station is ready, Amtrak trains will continue to use the existing station across the tracks, off Cabarrus Street.

The cost to ride the Piedmont varies by destination and type of ticket. The regular or “value” rate for a one-way ticket from Raleigh to Charlotte is $32.50, and the train is scheduled to make the 173-mile trip in a little more than three hours. “Flexible” and “business” class tickets cost more.

To add a daily round trip of the Piedmont, the state spent $15 million to buy two refurbished locomotives and seven refurbished rail cars. Payments to Amtrak to operate the trains and to the two freight railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that control the tracks come to about $1.2 million per year, Paul said.

If demand for the passenger service picks up the way NCDOT expects it will, the state plans to add a fourth round trip of the Piedmont in two years. Including the Silver Star trains that run between New York and Miami, 12 Amtrak trains a day would then make stops at Raleigh Union Station.

For more information about Amtrak trains in North Carolina, including links to the new schedule, go to www.ncbytrain.org.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling