Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: NC rail plan not high speed, but it’s better and better

We’re not building high-speed rail in North Carolina – and, for now, that’s a good thing.

As California has discovered, high-speed rail takes a long time.

High-speed rail is what the Golden State expects to have one day in a program that costs more ($68 billion at last count) and falls farther behind schedule every year. The planned 500-mile system appears unlikely to fulfill its promise of hauling riders on its first 29-mile leg by 2022.

What North Carolina is building instead might be called better and better rail. Much of this federally funded work is delivering benefits already, and that includes two of its three main Triangle projects.

The Department of Transportation is in a furious pitch of construction this year all along the N.C. Railroad tracks between Raleigh and Charlotte, in an umbrella effort called the Piedmont Improvement Program.

By the time the $520 million program is finished in late 2017, DOT will have closed nearly 40 street-level rail crossings to make train and car travel safer. Crossings on a dozen roads will be replaced with bridges.

Two more trains will begin making the daily round trip between Raleigh and Charlotte – bringing the total to five.

That means the state’s two biggest cities, and seven stops along the way, will be linked with Amtrak service running every three hours during the day. With those expanded options, we can expect a continued rise in ridership for a route that now serves 450,000 travelers a year.

Stations at four cities along the way have been overhauled to provide better passenger service.

Since Cary’s remodeled depot opened in 2011, doubled in size and staffed with ticket agents, it has become the preferred station for many Raleigh Amtrak travelers. (Raleigh’s long-awaited Union Station, also being built with state and federal help, will open in 2017.)

In Research Triangle Park, commuters and other drivers on Hopson Road no longer stop for 12 freight and Amtrak trains each day. A new bridge began carrying trains over Hopson last summer – eliminating a dangerous crossing where three people died in a car-train crash in the early 1990s.

In Morrisville, a street-level crossing on Morrisville Parkway was closed Monday, and replaced with a detour that will be in effect for six months, for a similar project. A new rail bridge is under construction, and Morrisville Parkway will be rerouted to a tunnel under the tracks.

Obama’s high-speed rail plan

It was six years ago that President Barack Obama’s administration distributed $8 billion to start what he called a national network of high-speed trains. North Carolina was in the second tier of the top-dollar states with $545 million. California took home the grand prize, $2.89 billion.

California expects to have high-speed rail someday: A train that will take riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than half the six hours they now spend making the trip by car. Part of the line will have top speeds of 220 miles per hour.

North Carolina has increased its top train speeds from 59 to 79 mph in the past 20 years, cutting an hour off the travel time from Raleigh to Charlotte. That’s down now to 3 hours, 10 minutes – making trains a reasonable alternative to cars for growing numbers of travelers.

And the ongoing improvements will allow DOT and Amtrak to knock more minutes off the schedule in the next couple of years.

Better and better speed. Not high speed, but frequent service at pretty good speed.

“We shouldn’t sell it as something it isn’t,” said Paul Worley, the DOT rail director. “It’s improved rail. We want it to be high-performing rail, and a very safe and reliable trip. A 79-mph, car-competitive trip is a good thing, but it’s not true high-speed rail.”

Faster is probably in the future here, too. But it could be expensive.

Moving to a top speed of 90 mph between Raleigh to Charlotte would require North Carolina to comply with new standards that include more safety technology and more maintenance spending. For example, Worley said, faster trains require railroads to be more stringent in keeping the track width consistent – and that means more attention to replacing old crossties.

North Carolina and Virginia officials have proposed top speeds of 110 mph for a short-cut track they are planning between Raleigh and Richmond. The higher speed and reduced distance could cut up to two hours off the travel time for trains between North Carolina and New York.

But that would cost about $4 billion. Nowadays, Worley and his Virginia counterparts have removed the three middle words from the name of a project they used to call the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

They’re studying options for a slower start on the route to Richmond – a less expensive way to launch train service on the new track at top speeds of, say, 79 mph. Then in the future, when faster speeds might make more economic sense, make it better and better.

DOT rail improvement highlights

Using federal funds awarded in 2010, the state Department of Transportation Rail Division expects to complete its $520 million Piedmont Improvement Program by October 2017, including:

▪ Two daily passenger train round-trips added between Raleigh and Charlotte with seven stops in between – bringing the daily schedule to five round trips

▪ Passenger stations renovated at Cary, Burlington, High Point and Kannapolis

▪ 12 bridges built to carry trains over or under automobile traffic at crossings

▪ 38 street-level rail crossings closed

▪ 31 miles of double track (between Greensboro and Charlotte) and passing sidings (between Raleigh and Greensboro) to carry more freight and passenger trains and reduce delays

▪ More miles of tracks realigned to straighten curves, allow faster train speeds and reduce trip times

Source: NCDOT