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NCDOT Rail Plan builds on freight and passenger train momentum

Passengers prepare to board the #75 Piedmont Raleigh to Charlotte train at the Cary Amtrak station on 211 N. Academy Street.
Passengers prepare to board the #75 Piedmont Raleigh to Charlotte train at the Cary Amtrak station on 211 N. Academy Street. JULI LEONARD News & Observer file photo

In its Comprehensive State Rail Plan for developing better freight and passenger train service over the next 25 years, the state Department of Transportation aims to extend the momentum it has built up in 25 years of undeniable improvement.

Even as more trains carry more North Carolinians up and down the tracks – rider counts have doubled in a decade, to nearly 1 million in 2013 – crashes at rail crossings have fallen sharply, from 200 in 1990 to 51 last year.

The state is making use of $545 million in stimulus grants from the Obama administration for construction projects to straighten curves, add double tracks and passing sidings, upgrade passenger depots and increase train speeds between Raleigh and Charlotte.

The new DOT Rail Plan, released last month, builds on this work. It focuses priorities on future projects to make trains an appealing option for more riders and shippers, reducing highway congestion and promoting economic development.

On the freight side, a lot of DOT’s attention is turned to the needs of container shippers in the realm known as “intermodal,” because it breaks down the barriers that separate competing forms of transportation.

“That’s really where the industry is going, as far as moving containers from ship to train to truck,” said Paul Worley, DOT Rail Division director.

Most of the containers that arrive by ship at the Wilmington port leave it on trucks. DOT wants to improve the port’s rail connection so that more of those containers can move out on trains. A container with anything from bulk grains to UPS packages can be shifted from one train to another before completing its journey on the back end of an 18-wheeler.

The Rail Plan envisions new rail routes at both ports – possibly relocating N.C. Railroad tracks in Morehead City, and adding a new Cape Fear River bridge into Brunswick County from Wilmington – to improve rail shipping for port customers. At the same time, DOT wants to find ways to reduce train-related delays for motorists in the port cities.

More highlights from the Rail Plan:

Asheville and Wilmington passenger service Studies have projected that 24,000 riders, in just the first year, would take advantage of proposed train service to western North Carolina, linking Asheville to the Amtrak routes that pass through Salisbury. About 29,000 are projected in the first year for a proposed train route for southeastern North Carolina, to Raleigh from Goldsboro and Wilmington.

These upgrades are proposed for sometime between 2020 and 2035. As a preliminary step, DOT plans to extend Amtrak’s Thruway Bus Service from Asheville to Salisbury in 2016 and Wilmington to Raleigh in 2018.

More trains on the Piedmont timetable After the stimulus projects are finished in 2017 to beef up passenger and freight capacity between Raleigh and Charlotte, DOT plans to add a fourth train to the daily schedule in 2017 or 2018, and a fifth in 2019.

More Amtrak stations New depots are planned or proposed in Hillsborough (2018) and Lexington (2020 to 2035). Also in view is a station at Harrisburg in Cabarrus County, not far from UNC-Charlotte. The biggest planned station improvements are at both ends of the line. Raleigh’s Union Station is expected to open in 2017, while Charlotte’s downtown Gateway Station is pegged for sometime after 2020.

Better train and crossing safety DOT has improved signals at more than 1,000 crossings since 2002, so drivers are more likely to stop for an approaching train, and another 189 crossings have been closed since 1992. More crossing upgrades are planned. But, while crossing deaths have decreased to single digits in the past few years, DOT faces tougher challenges in so-called “trespasser” deaths – usually people sitting or walking along the tracks – which have stayed around 20 per year.

Eight locomotives and other units will be equipped in 2016 with technology that automatically slows or stops trains in danger of crashing or derailing.

A gradual approach for the Southeast Rail Corridor This interstate line, formerly known as “high-speed,” is envisioned to provide faster train service from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., and the Northeast – and, later, from Charlotte to Atlanta and points south.

Most of the planning work has been completed on the key section – a 35-mile shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond, Va., using the old CSX “S” line. DOT’s aim is to eliminate every at-grade crossing on the road – bridges for some, closings for the rest – for trains that could move as fast as 110 miles per hour.

But that won’t happen without an estimated $3.8 billion to $4 billion in federal funds. Rather than wait forever for this money to materialize, DOT has begun looking at a more incremental approach.

Worley said he will look at what it would it cost to acquire the entire “S” line and put in new tracks and stations – enough to introduce standard-speed train service to Richmond – without all the bridges and other improvements needed for faster trains. Another option might involve starting out with service along just part of the line – from Raleigh to Franklinton or Henderson.

“We’ve never looked at the options,” Worley said.

Studies have shown that the proposed Southeast Rail Corridor could generate enough money in passenger fares to cover its operating costs. And DOT rail planners say that could make the rail line an appealing candidate for takeover by a private, for-profit railroad.