A North Raleigh rail line could one day host commuter trains

The Wake Transit Plan that voters endorsed when they approved a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects two years ago calls for beginning commuter rail service along the N.C. Railroad corridor between Garner, Raleigh, Cary and Durham by 2027.

But the state Department of Transportation is also interested in fostering commuter rail between downtown Raleigh and Wake Forest and perhaps to Apex on a little-used freight line owned by CSX, says Jason Orthner, director of NCDOT’s Rail Division.

Speaking at a forum on transportation challenges facing the region Wednesday night, Orthner said the state is interested in buying the line from CSX. The state would then develop the corridor for freight trains as well as commuter and eventually Amtrak passenger trains.

“That’s something that we’re very seriously considering, with the intent of looking at what brings economic vitality to that corridor,” Orthner said after the forum at the N.C. Museum of History, part of The News & Observer’s Community Voices project. “We want to see freight increase on the corridor, in addition to providing an opportunity to relieve congestion.”

Most of the railroad tracks in North Carolina are privately owned, which Orthner noted makes rail different from any other part of the state’s transportation system. But the NCDOT has acquired about 107 miles of railroad corridor scattered around the state, usually from railroads that found them no longer profitable to maintain. The state would rather preserve that right-of-way than see it abandoned, Orthner said.

“The policy that we operate under is well, if we lose a railroad, we basically lose it forever,” he said. “Because it’s difficult to build a new one.”

The CSX line that runs north from downtown Raleigh and south from Cary toward Apex is in no danger of being abandoned, but it is “under-utilized,” Orthner said. Long-term, North Carolina and Virginia would like to see the line used for high-speed passenger trains between Raleigh and Richmond, which would reduce travel times between the Triangle and the Northeast. Toward that end, NCDOT is poised to begin eliminating some railroad crossings in North Raleigh and Wake Forest by building bridges, starting with Durant and New Hope Church roads later this year.

There’s no firm timetable for the state to acquire the rail line from CSX or to help establish passenger rail service on it, Orthner said.

Orthner was among five speakers at The N&O forum, which touched on a range of transportation issues, from scooters and greenways to bus rapid transit and self-driving cars. Several of the panelists noted that any strategy for managing traffic in the region must include development and land-use policies that encourage dense development that doesn’t sprawl and is more easily served by mass transit.

“We need to be really intentional, thinking in the long-term, about where are jobs, where is growth, and how can put them closer together,” said Kym Hunter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill.

And while big projects like Wake’s commuter rail and the failed Durham-Orange light rail line get a lot of attention, the first tangible improvements to the Triangle’s mass transit system are new and more frequent bus service, made possible by new local transit taxes, said Jeff Mann, head of GoTriangle, the regional bus agency. Mann noted that before the Wake Transit Plan was approved, there were only 17 miles of bus routes in the county served by buses every 15 minutes; soon there will be 83 miles, he said.

Wake County commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a long-time advocate for greenways and bike trails, said he’s also a fan of the electric scooters that showed up suddenly in the Triangle last year and have proven popular with riders and irritating to some drivers and pedestrians. Despite the threats by scooter companies to leave Raleigh because of the city’s fees and regulations, Hutchinson said he thinks scooters “are here to stay.”

“One comment I’ve heard from a bike advocate is that the scooters have made cycling safer, because by scooters being on the road people are more wary and so they’re watching,” he said. “This is what we need is people, particularly in urban settings, to slow down and to be aware that there’s different modes out on the street.”

At one point, moderator Ned Barnett, The N&O’s opinion editor, asked if high-speed computers would make telecommuting more common to the point that the region’s traffic problems would be solved by people simply staying home. Hutchinson replied that we are social animals and that being with other people is what makes us human.

“When your best friend is Oprah, then you’ve got a problem,” he said. “We need to get out. When we’re interacting with friends… this is what we love, this is what we ultimately want to create. Get out of your car and find more cool places to hang out. That’s what we want.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.