The N.C. Board of Transportation has formally approved a lease agreement between the N.C. Department of Transportation and Iowa Pacific Holdings/Piedmont Railway for rail service on N.C. DOT’s Piedmont & Northern rail corridor in Gaston County.
Under terms of the agreement, Iowa Pacific’s Piedmont Railway subsidiary will operate, maintain and market freight service on the 13-mile rail line that serves Mount Holly, Belmont, Ranlo, Lowell and Gastonia.
The railroad also may have the opportunity to provide passenger rail services, including excursion, tourist, diner and holiday season trains, according to the N.C. DOT’s Rail Division.
Built in 1911 by tobacco and electric power mogul James Buchanan Duke, the Piedmont & Northern Railway hauled passengers between Gastonia and uptown Charlotte before shutting down in the 1950s.
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It then became a freight route that eventually played out in Gaston County and was scheduled for abandonment. In 1991, the N.C. DOT bought the unused portion between Gastonia and Mount Holly from CSX Transportation, preserving it until the time was right for revival.
Eight years later, at the direction of the state legislature, N.C. DOT began an approximately $6.5 million restoration of the corridor. Gaston County contributed $500,000 toward the project.
Patriot Rail Corp., a privately owned, short-line holding company now based in Jacksonville, Fla., had the winning bid to operate the revived railroad and began freight operations in 2012.
But Dan Freeman, Patriot Rail vice president, told the Observer last fall that business on the line hadn’t met expectations, and the company wouldn’t renew its lease, which expires in November. The company had only four active customers, and they didn't ship consistently, he said.
Gaston officials met last year with Gov. Pat McCrory to pitch rail tourism as a possibility for the line, in addition to freight service.
“Our No. 1 primary objective is to maximize the line with freight traffic,” Gaston commissioners Chairman Tracy Philbeck told the Observer last fall. “We're looking for an operator that can develop the line and also have a travel and tourism component. We have an opportunity to directly impact Gaston and the region if we have an operator that understands a short line.”
At the meeting with McCrory, Gaston leaders floated such rail tourism ideas as a diner car and Polar Express rides to Christmas Town USA. Running a train from Gaston to uptown Charlotte for Panthers' games “might be a long shot,” Gaston Travel and Tourism Director Walt Israel said at the time. “But it would be so much fun and a great way to manage traffic flow.”
Another possibility is a bed-and-breakfast operation in vintage train cars from the 1930s and 1940s, parked on the rails near someplace like downtown Belmont where people could eat and shop.
Israel said that while McCrory appeared to see the viability of rail tourism, “he also sees the liability. That’s something we’d have to deal with.”