Sharing the (rail) road key to transportation future

Earlier this year the 21st Century Transportation Committee began putting together its final recommendations for the 2009 General Assembly to consider for how North Carolina will meet its transportation demands. That process will surely require a new way to fund transportation infrastructure. It will also require better use of our railroad system.

It's a daunting job in a state projected to become the seventh largest by 2030, but planners have been thinking about the right things. A Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor might one day whisk passengers from the mid-Atlantic to Charlotte and beyond. A new daily round-trip passenger train between Raleigh and Charlotte may be added in 2009, giving travelers three choices of round-trip trains between the capitals of government and commerce.

Now comes the North Carolina Railroad with a visionary report on expanding commuter train service on existing tracks. The railroad, owned by the state, has 317 miles of trackage between Morehead City and Charlotte, running through the Piedmont. That corridor is 200 feet wide in most places and offers the ability for commuter and freight trains to share the tracks, plus the opportunity to build additional tracks for light rail service.

The study concludes that commuter trains could operate on existing tracks, as long as the new service doesn't affect freight operations, on five segments: Burlington to Greensboro; Burlington to Durham; Goldsboro to Raleigh; Raleigh to Durham and a line from University Station in Orange County to Chapel Hill. Total costs would top $650 million, but would not have to be built all at once. These commuter services, with up to 13 train sets hauling people, could provide work-hour access to the workplace as well as 15 colleges and three community colleges along much of the 141-mile Goldsboro to Greensboro part of the N.C. Railroad.

A similar study of the Greensboro to Charlotte segment of the railroad has not been undertaken, though the railroad says it intends to. But that part of the line already is served by about 70 freight trains and eight passenger trains daily. The Charlotte area has plans for more commuter rail.

The study – available at www.ncrr.com/capacity-study.html – should be required reading for incoming legislators as well as the next governor. If North Carolina is to continue moving forward, it must find better ways to move its people, too.