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Exploring North Carolina's Possible Eastern and Western Amtrak Expansions

With the hopeful prospects of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passing, Amtrak has its sights on a major network expansion - and North Carolina is poised to see a significant expansion in service and cities served.

In addition to the already planned Raleigh-to-Richmond segment of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor, expansion from Raleigh southeast to Wilmington and westwards from Salisbury to Asheville are being looked at for new service.  These two plans are not anything new, NCDOT began studying these corridors in the early-2000s, but this is the first time a serious funding mechanism could put these two in place.

The 2021 Infrastructure Bill commits $66 billion to Amtrak for expansion and infrastructure improvements and over $911 million to North Carolina for public transportation.  While this amount is not solely directed to or will cover the entirety of these projects, they will be a massive step forward.

So let's take a look at the two proposed routes, what Amtrak is thinking, and what hurdles and opportunities are along the routes.

Southeastern Expansion to Wilmington:

The proposed Amtrak expansion from Raleigh to Wilmington. (Amtrak Connects Us)

Amtrak's plan would connect Raleigh and Wilmington via the existing Selma/Smithfield station, Goldsboro, Warsaw, and Wilmington.  (NCDOT had studied a possible Raleigh/Fayetteville/Wilmington Route, but it appears this is now the preferred alternative.) The estimated time for the trip is 2 hours and 48 minutes.  This is about 45 minutes longer than the direct route via Interstate 40.

However, this can be a good alternative to Interstate 40 - specifically on weekends and holidays where traffic is known to back up between Benson and Raleigh.  Wilmington is a very popular tourist destination for both in-state and out-of-state travelers; when you consider points further west like Greensboro - the train can be an excellent alternative to Interstate 40.  

Amtrak doesn't propose a train frequency.  However, I would believe that they will start with a daily round trip (The Charlotte-to-Raleigh Piedmont has three daily round trips) and then increase based on demand.

In order for passenger rail to reach Wilmington - new track will have to be placed on the abandoned right-of-way in Pender County.  (NCDOT - Rail Division)

Construction of the route will take time.  From Wallace southwards to Castle Hayne - pretty much all of Pender County - the track has been removed.  Fortunately, the right-of-way is still preserved and owned by NCDOT.  However, this will be a significant gap that will need to be closed.

Burgaw's Historic Rail Depot would most likely be returned to a passenger station.

Next is the matter of stations, the historic Burgaw Depot, built in 1850, has been well preserved and most likely would serve as its stop.  Goldsboro's Historic Union Station, which dates to 1909, would be utilized as the Goldsboro stop.  NCDOT purchased the station in 2007 and has been the centerpiece of a multimodel transportation center.  In 2013, Goldsboro received $10 million in TIGER V transportation grant funding to complete the first phase of the project.  Union Station is still in need of over $6 million in renovations to be operable for non-train use.  When rail service returns to Goldsboro - the station will be home to both rail and local and intracity bus service.

From Raleigh to Goldsboro, the track is owned by North Carolina Railway. (Norfolk Southern operates freight trains along the NCRR.)  South of Goldsboro, the railroad is owned by CSX.  At this time, I am not sure of those track conditions or if there will be any operational issues.  However, upgrading the track for increased speeds will be needed.

Salisbury to Asheville:

Amtrak's proposed Salisbury to Asheville Route. (Amtrak Connects Us)

This route runs along existing Norfolk Southern track and is estimated to take 3 hours and 45 minutes.   It is just over 2 hours to do the same via car.  Stops would be along most of the larger towns along Interstate 40 - Statesville, Hickory, Morganton, Marion, Old Fort, Black Mountain, and Asheville.

Like the Southeastern extension - this western expansion was also studied by NCDOT in the early 2000s.  Over the past two decades, there has been a push to begin Thruway Bus Service connecting Asheville to the Salisbury Station; however, they have not been successful.  

The beautifully restored Old Fort Rail Station would again see passenger service if a western extension to Asheville is built.

The foothills towns along the route have vibrant downtowns.  Rail service would be another attraction for them.  The smaller mountain towns of Old Fort and Black Mountain would be definite tourism stops as another mountain getaway option to Asheville.

What's a train ride without a tunnel - the Salisbury-to-Asheville line would utilize this tunnel between Old Fort and Black Mountain.

As expected, there are questions regarding how Norfolk Southern would share the route.  Amtrak also does not have a proposed schedule for this route, so I would again assume one daily round trip - and the necessary upgrades are the typical hurdles.  Asheville would need to locate and construct a new train station.

Commentary:

I am not a "railfan" by any means; however, I am very supportive of increasing our transportation options and providing connectivity to underserved areas.  Amtrak's North Carolina rail expansion plans may seem optimistically aggressive. Yet, they have been on the minds of North Carolina transportation planners for over two decades.

Many questions will need answers. How much will North Carolina subsidize these projects?  They currently support the Raleigh-to-Charlotte Piedmont line - a service that they have heavily invested in to improve safety and speed.  The route is well-traveled between the two cities. With Charlotte's Gateway Station under construction, travelers will soon make the trip from Downtown Raleigh to Uptown Charlotte in under three hours. 

Will Norfolk Southern and CSX be willing to cooperate with Amtrak for passenger rail?  Norfolk Southern has essentially stopped any progress on Charlotte's Red Line Heavy Rail along Interstate 77.

What are the costs?  Though NCDOT has been proactive in purchasing stations for future rail expansion.  Stations are in various needs of repair or may not currently exist. Track upgrades are needed - how much will be double-tracked - are passing sidings needed? Or can they wait?  And then you have the Pender County gap on the way to Wilmington.

Will NCDOT prioritize these projects or the high-speed rail line from Raleigh northwards to Richmond first?

I hope to see the expansion of passenger rail service throughout North Carolina.  A strong rail network is just as good as a strong highway network - and expanding rail from Mountains-to-Sea is another positive step forward here.

All photos taken by post author - unless otherwise noted.


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