Railroad upgrades on track

N.C. Department of Transportation officials say future rail improvements affecting Harrisburg residents are inevitable, and construction of new bridges and updates to three track segments removed in 1963 could begin as early as 2014.

Marc Hamel has been with N.C. DOT's rail division for more than 20 years; the rail environmental project manager said town officials are working hard to find alternatives to the grade separation - or bridge - design DOT has proposed.

The DOT plans to add a second track along a 12.2-mile stretch of the existing track, which runs parallel to N.C. 49 in Harrisburg. The project will be fully funded by federal stimulus money as part of the America Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

The single-track stretch connects two areas with double tracks, which are laid to the north near Rocky River Road in Concord and to the south near Orr Road in Charlotte. The single-track stretch in the middle causes trains to jam up on either side of the corridor, which has the state's highest volume of train traffic.

The additional track will allow more passenger and freight traffic and accommodate trains traveling in opposite directions. The project is expected to improve the tracks' capacity, modernize the corridor and improve safety. The project also includes construction of bridges to replace the closing of several grade crossings that require motorists to cross tracks.

From Hamel's perspective, the improvements focus on the safety of the public, the train and its operators and passengers.

"Trying to find solutions where people aren't affected is not impossible, but challenging," he said. "We're always looking to have least impact while doing the most good. We want to reduce impact on the public while providing safety and enhancements and town officials are doing a good job speaking on behalf of the residents.

"But the federal government wants to see this built because it's (part of) the heaviest traveled railroad corridor in North Carolina."

Hamel said they have to replace the old track segments to help the traffic load, which recently peaked at about 60 trains (freight and passenger) per day. That's about five trains per hour from Charlotte to Greensboro.

Three years ago, traffic sagged with the declining economy, said Hamel, but it's increasing again and today serves about 30 trains per day.

The town council met last week with Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, members of N.C. DOT's rail division, the N.C. DOT Division 10 director and deputy directors, as well as members of the public and others to get project updates from rail officials.

"We discussed the impacts of the crossing closures, which have been mitigated except for Shamrock Road," said Michele Reapsmith, Harrisburg's town administrator, in a e-mail. "The Shamrock closure was discussed at length and it was agreed that the town staff and the N.C. DOT rail engineers would continue to seek alternatives for the closure. We have two large businesses that this closure would impact and we are committed to doing all that we can to assist."

Hamel said there are relatively little opposition to the project, and some of the main issues concern the bridges over the track segments that will replace closed crossings.

The town and N.C. DOT's rail division have agreed to meet periodically and the mayor is expected to coordinate with the agencies for a meeting in January, said Reapsmith. A public hearing is expected in April.

Reapsmith said the town has a plan for bridge closures at Blackwelder Road, Roberta Road and Caldwell Road and an understanding that the condition of traffic flows will not be worse than current conditions. Proposed road enhancements, such as traffic signals and turn lanes, will be determined by the rail division after traffic studies are complete.

"We are very interested in how the project is progressing and the impacts on Harrisburg residents and visitors now and in the future," said Reapsmith.

Collisions between a vehicle and train have occurred on Pharr Mill Road and vehicle-to-vehicle collisions have occurred on Shamrock Road near N.C. 49. A train-to-train collision also has occurred along the corridor, said Hamel.

The new tracks will have improved curves, bridges and other safety features, and the design will eliminate public contact with trains through crossing guards. Hamel said he doesn't see an alternative to closing Shamrock Road, which he said is an ongoing concern.