Richard Stradling, The News & Observer (Raleigh)- Jul 20
The N.C. Department of Transportation and planners in Pitt County have begun to study the feasibility of running passenger trains between the Triangle and Greenville.
The study is one of several examining whether it makes sense to extend passenger train service to smaller North Carolina cities such as Wilmington, Fayetteville and Asheville. Amtrak helped fuel that interest when its proposal for expanding passenger rail service nationwide, released last summer, included both Wilmington and Asheville as potential destinations.
NCDOT will hire a contractor to carry out the Greenville study, using a $250,000 federal grant. Greenville’s regional transportation planning organization has envisioned passengers trains running between the city and Raleigh for years, according to Eliud De Jesus, the city planner who helped apply for the grant.
The application had the support of Greenville’s mayor, the chancellor of East Carolina University and the head of the Pitt-Greenville Convention & Visitors Authority. State Rep. Brian Farkas, a Democrat from Pitt County, announced the grant earlier this month.
“This major funding announcement is a big win for anyone who believes Eastern North Carolina should have access to affordable and dynamic transportation options,” Farkas said in a statement. With ECU and a population more than 180,000, “there’s no reason why Pitt County shouldn’t be a part of a statewide passenger rail system.”
The study will take 18 months and examine how passenger train service between Raleigh and Greenville would work and how much it would cost, said Jason Orthner, head of NCDOT’s Rail Division.
NCDOT will also look at the coordination required with CSX and other freight railroad companies that own the tracks.
NCDOT expects to finish a similar study for train service between Raleigh and Wilmington sometime in the next six to eight months, Orthner said. The Wilmington study is looking at two potential routes — one through Goldsboro and the other through Fayetteville.
At this point, the two studies of passenger rail in Eastern North Carolina are being done independently, Orthner said.
“I don’t see the studies competing in any way,” he said. “It just shows that there’s widespread interest in multiple areas of our state that are looking at this as a solution for connecting their communities to other parts of the state.”
North Carolina has more passenger rail service than most states outside of the Northeast. Four of Amtrak’s long-distance trains — The Crescent (New York-New Orleans), The Silver Meteor and Silver Star (New York-Miami), and The Palmetto (New York-Savannah) — each pass through twice a day, going north and south.
But none of those trains goes much east of Interstate 95 or west of Intersta
te 85, leaving large parts of the state unserved by passenger rail.
How about trains to Asheville and Fayetteville?
Also due in six to eight months is a feasibility study for resuming passenger trains between Salisbury and Asheville.
NCDOT has looked at extending passenger trains to both Asheville and Wilmington before. In both cases, the initial studies are 15 years or older and are out of date, Orthner said. Amtrak’s interest provides some impetus for updating those old studies, he said.
Another potential rail corridor that will need further study is between the Triangle and Fayetteville.
Two years ago, metropolitan transportation planning groups in Raleigh and Fayetteville completed a feasibility study for passenger trains between the two cities. The groups looked at two potential routes — one to the east through Selma and Benson and a western route through Fuquay-Varina and Lillington.
But the study didn’t come to a conclusion about which route would work best, said Kenneth Withrow, a planner with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“We were initially looking at doing a phase two of the study,” Withrow said. “But right now, we are looking to conduct that phase two at some point in the future. We’ve been in discussions with NCDOT, but there’s a lot going on now involving rail.”
For more information about passenger trains in North Carolina, go to www.ncbytrain.org/.
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