State Politics

Two states see slow start for fast trains between Raleigh and Richmond

Instead of wishing and hoping for the whopping $4 billion they would need to build a fast-train shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond, leaders from North Carolina and Virginia want to find a less costly way to start rolling sooner with slower trains – and build up speed later.

They want to stick with the gradual, incremental approach that has characterized North Carolina’s rail service upgrades over the past two decades.

While California prepares to spend $68 billion for a new track to carry bullet trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco, North Carolina is using a $545 million federal grant to straighten curves, add tracks and trains, and shave minutes off trips between Raleigh and Charlotte.

A planned 163-mile route from Raleigh to Richmond would bring North Carolina nearly two hours closer to Washington, D.C., and points north, with trains that could run as fast as 110 mph on a track 35 miles shorter than the current Amtrak path through Rocky Mount. But it would cost an estimated $4 billion to lay new rails over much of the route, and to build 100 new bridges needed to run the tracks under or over all the roads that cross them now.

Officials from both states are not optimistic about raising all that money at once. Instead, they have agreed to develop a plan for upgrading a CSX freight line from Raleigh to Norlina near the Virginia border, and restoring the tracks that were removed in the 1980s from the rail bed between Norlina and Richmond.

By 2017 they want to have a plan for starting with trains that could run at speeds up to 79 mph, and a long-range timetable for phasing in improvements that would allow faster trips in the future. A study will weigh project costs against expected ridership and other benefits.

“We’ll accept whatever incremental gains we can, because we’re not going to get it all at once,” said Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, co-chairman of the North Carolina-Virginia Interstate High-Speed Rail Compact Commission, which met Thursday in Raleigh. “Even without a speed increase, there would still be a savings of nearly an hour just by making that transition.”

North Carolina is working with Virginia on prospects for adding more passenger train service between Greensboro and Washington. The state also is exploring prospects for better freight rail service into South Carolina, and for extending high-speed passenger trains south into Georgia.

Leaders from both states still envision 110-mph trains between Raleigh and Richmond as a key part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Washington to Atlanta. Shirley Williams, strategic initiatives coordinator for the NCDOT Rail Division, told members of the two-state commission that it probably will have to be built in phases.

“We’re going to see if there are options for eating that elephant one bite at a time,” Williams said.