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In vision for high speed rail service, North Carolina seeks 'missing link'

Advocates hope restoration of passenger train service on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad's S-Line could spur high-speed rail development.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Seven North Carolina communities are receiving a collective $3.4 million to help fund mobility hubs that one day could sit alongside high-speed train service through cities like Petersburg, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has announced. 

NC DOT and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) are working to restore passenger train service between Petersburg, Virginia and Raleigh, North Carolina. This route, along what is known as the "S-Line," travels through Norlina, North Carolina and is the most direct path between the two cities. This railroad corridor runs a similar route to Interstate 85.

Currently, passenger train service takes a longer route along the "A-Line," which travels a path along Interstate 95 and goes through cities like Rocky Mount, North Carolina. On current Amtrak service, northbound passenger trains from Raleigh travel east before heading back north.

A push for high-speed rail

Credit: James Brierton (left) and Southeast Corridor Commission (right)
Left: A high-speed Amtrak Acela train waits to depart. Right: A map from the Southeast Corridor Commission shows current and proposed passenger rail services.

The Southeast Corridor Commission, a group consisting of departments of transportation from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C., is looking for new ways to expand train service in the region.

Reinstating train traffic along 95 miles of the S-Line between Raleigh and Richmond could not only create new commuter rail service in the Triangle, but also become the "missing link" for new Amtrak service and a proposed high-speed rail project throughout the Southeast, according to NC DOT.

New transit hubs

The $3.4 million RAISE Grant announced last week by the NC DOT will allow Norlina, Henderson, Franklinton, Youngsville, Wake Forest, Apex and Sanford to build transit hubs. The hubs will connect different types of travel, such as bike trails, buses and other transportation services, to future passenger train stations, according to the NC DOT.

“It’s a real new emerging concept, where we plan not just for a rail stop but for the last mile solutions as well. So we’ll land there coming off the train and then all of your micro-transit, your traditional transit, your scooters, your bike, your walking will all be available to you to finish your trip" NCDOT Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation Julie White said in a released statement.

The studies of the hubs are expected to be complete in winter 2024.

Next steps

Credit: James Brierton (left) and NC DOT (right)
Left: A boy cheers on an approaching Amtrak train. Right: A map of proposed passenger rail service along the S-Line in North Carolina.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced earlier this year over $368 million in Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program funds to 46 projects in 32 states and the District of Columbia. 

Among those projects was up to $57,900,000 for the S-Line project. The money is being used to perform surveys and complete preliminary engineering for the project.

Anticipating an increase in future train travel, some of the money is already being used to reduce street-level railroad crossings, a measure typically performed to allow trains to travel safely at higher speeds and to reduce traffic congestion on local roads.

If plans come to fruition as expected, travel times on Amtrak's existing Silver Meteor train, which travels between New York and Miami, could be reduced between Raleigh and Washington, D.C. With high-speed trains expected to travel at 110 mph, advocates anticipate travel times between Raleigh and Washington, D.C. would be improved by as much as an hour and a half if the service were ever launched.

The S-Line Transit-Oriented Development Study kicked off in Summer 2021 and will finish in Fall 2022, according to the NC DOT. Key reports include the Transit-Oriented Development Readiness Report, Market Study, Vision Summary and Implementation Plan.  

Virginia and North Carolina have been exploring such plans since 1992.

Railroad history

For decades, both the S-Line and A-Line have been owned by CSX Transportation. CSX was formed in 1980 and included predecessor railroads Seaboard Air Line Railroad and Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which were the original architects of the S-Line and A-Line respectively. During the height of rail travel in the 20th century, Seaboard Air Line Railroad and Atlantic Coast Line Railroad ran similar competing services. 

Eventually, CSX consolidated operations would move both freight and passenger train service onto the A-Line. The S-Line in Virginia would be abandoned and most of the remaining tracks in North Carolina see only limited freight traffic today.

Some existing rail service still uses corridors originally developed by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Seaboard Air Line Railroad. The names of these predecessor railroads can still be seen around the Carolinas, including with Seaboard Street locations in numerous cities including Charlotte, Raleigh, and Myrtle Beach. Modern-day businesses, including Seaboard Brewing and Taproom in Matthews, North Carolina, have reused the name. It sits adjacent to CSX tracks once part of the earlier railroad.

Other proposed North Carolina rail service

When Amtrak announced its 2035 vision last year, it included additional passenger train proposals for North Carolina.

The proposal included the restoration of passenger rail service between the North Carolina mountains and the Atlantic beaches. The idea would be to run service between Ashville and Wilmington using tracks, including some of which are operated today by Norfolk-Southern between Salisbury and Asheville.

The proposed plan would also create a new service between Charlotte and Atlanta. 

Charlotte is currently constructing a new station for Amtrak. Once complete, Gateway Station will offer Amtrak, bus, and CATS's gold line street car service directly within Uptown Charlotte. Currently, passengers board and disembark Amtrak trains from a station north of Uptown Charlotte along North Tryon Street.

North Carolina is currently serviced by rail service operated by Amtrak and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Some of those trains operate within the state while others continue out-of-the-state through the rest of Amtrak's national network, including with service to destinations like Washington, DC, and New York. 

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