North Carolina by Train
(photos by Devender Sellars & Jordan Green)
People who love trains really love them.
A lady with a small digital camera snapped pictures of the approaching Amtrak Piedmont train on the platform behind the Depot in Greensboro, and a man raised his cell phone to do likewise. One of the conductors boarded passengers, directing them to the left or right depending on their destination and then came down the aisle to punch their tickets.
It was about 8:30 a.m. when the train departed for Charlotte, maybe 12 minutes behind schedule. Some people slept in the “Gray Squirrel” car, which took up the rear. Others talked softly on cell phones. Near the front of car, a mother chided her children for running back and forth between the cars, but it didn’t seem to be a problem for either the adult passengers or the two conductors.
Kevin Otos sat with his parents, Cliff and Sandy, and with his school-aged daughters, Hannah and Grace. They had boarded in Burlington at 7:53 a.m. and were headed to Charlotte to spend the day at the Discovery Place science museum. The father and son, who were making sorties to the lounge car for coffee, wore expressions of expectancy and wonder, perhaps even more so than the girls.
A theater professor at Elon University, Kevin Otos worked for Amtrak part time as a college student, and he was eager to find out what riding the train was like todayin North Carolina.
Practical considerations — avoiding the aggravation of navigating an unfamiliar city and getting gouged on parking — factored in their decision, but for the Otoses taking the train was also conscientious choice reflecting their social values.
“I like trains,” Kevin Otos said. “I think any serious transportation policy needs to have trains. With fuel prices going the way they are, we’re going to need to develop better alternatives to gasoline-fueled vehicles. That requires leadership. It’s costly because it requires right-of-way and steel to improve a system that hasn’t been improved in 100 years.”
The trip from Greensboro to Charlotte on the Amtrak Piedmont train is an experience in smooth, air-conditioned comfort. The seats are plush and spaced to afford ample leg space, and each one comes with a 120-volt electrical outlet handy for powering laptop computers and recharging cell phones. Each of the train’s two coach cars is equipped with a set of booth tables. Bicycles can be stowed on board free of charge. The lounge car — dubbed “Albemarle Sound” — comes stocked with bottled water and hot coffee, both gratis.
The train zipped along the backside of UNCG, past rows of student apartments and then modest singlefamily homes. It turned southward and cruised past mountains of scrap metal at DH Griffin’s headquarters on Hilltop Road, and then barreled past stands of Leland pines and trailer parks, blowing its whistle as it approached the Mackay Road grade crossing. Then it made a quick dash past downtown Jamestown — no stop — and in 16 minutes the train came to a halt at the station in High Point.
The railroad made Greensboro, initiating its status as a transportation hub and bestowing its nickname, Gate City. It was only because of the political pull of Gov. Motley Morehead, a resident, that the railroad came through Greensboro instead of, say, the more centrally located Asheboro. Morehead raised the funds to lay the initial track, and later became the president of the North Carolina Railroad Co. If not for the railroad, there would not have been a textile industry in Greensboro.
Similarly, High Point was so named because it lay at the highest point of the railroad between Charlotte and Goldsboro, where it intersected a major east-to-west plank road.
Rail is undergoing a renaissance in the highly populated central Piedmont section of North Carolina. The stretch of rail line between Charlotte and Washington, DC, which also includes Virginia, has been called “one of the fastest growing corridors in the nation” by the federal High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. Ridership doubled in 2010 on the Charlotte-Raleigh corridor, of which Greensboro is more or less the midpoint, according to the feds.
The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor — primarily in North Carolina and Virginia, with future development into South Carolina, Georgia and northeast Florida — is among six that received major federal investments in January 2010. The Southeast corridor, by far, received the largest pool of federal funding: $692 million. A northeast corridor connecting small cities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont ranked a distant second, at $287 million.
Before the federal funds had been obtained, the NC Rail Division had already double-tracked the segment between Greensboro and High Point to allow passenger and freight trains to pass each other with ease. The Greensboro-Charlotte leg will eventually be double-tracked in its entirety. The federal money will also be spent to straighten about 35 curves between Greensboro and Charlotte and elevate the track on earthen banks to make the grade more consistent so trains can travel faster and more smoothly.
The Raleigh-Greensboro leg is designated for significant upgrades to improve capacity and enable higher train speeds. Much of the corridor follows the original alignment of the railroad from when the track was initially laid in the mid-1800s and designed to accommodate maximum speeds of 45 mph. Planned improvements to this leg include additional passing sidings — essentially the rail equivalent of a passing lane — near the village of Haw River in Alamance County and between Durham and Morrisville. The state is also building additional highway bridges, which benefit the safety and mobility of auto users considering that trains operating at full speed are physically incapable of stopping for cars.
So how fast is high-speed rail? Currently, the highest speed passenger trains reach in the Charlotte-Raleigh corridor is 79 mph, and NC Rail Division Director Patrick Simmons said when the federal money is spent the maximum operating speed will be 90 mph.
It takes roughly the same amount of time to travel between the major cities of North Carolina’s central Piedmont, regardless of whether one goes by train or car, and current fuel prices actually make it slightly cheaper to travel to Charlotte or Raleigh in a compact car that operates at 29 mpg on the highway than by train. I paid $17.50 for my ticket from Greensboro to Charlotte. The same trip would have cost me $10.86 traveling on Interstate 85. Of course, if the trip time is used for wage-earning activity or catching up on rest then the train might be a cheaper prospect.
Either way, it takes about an hour and a half to get from Greensboro to Charlotte, which comes out to about 60 mph. Simmons told me that the investment in improvements to the corridor can be expected to shave off about six minutes from the trip.
Simmons emphasized that travel time is as much a function of calibrating the system to ridership needs as it is of engineering improvements to the trains and track: The fewer stops a train makes, the faster it will reach its destination, but if the train makes no stops it will have no passengers.
The Piedmont corridor between Charlotte and Raleigh currently includes stops in Kannapolis, Salisbury, High Point, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham and Cary. Simmons said the rail division has received requests from Lexington and Hillsborough for station stops. Along with Jamestown, Thomasville, Elon and Mebane also lack stops even though the track passes through the heart of their downtowns.
Simmons said that as capacity improves and ridership increases, the system will provide more options for riders, including express service with likely stops in the Charlotte area, the Triad and the Triangle.
Increasingly, train stations are seen as economic activity centers for cities. Simmons said 80 to 90 percent of the cost of improvements to train stations — overdue in both Charlotte and Raleigh — are typically funded by the federal government. Cities must come up with at least 10 percent of the capital investment and then pay for ongoing maintenance costs. Cities also bear the responsibility of leveraging economic development and multimodal transit opportunities from their train stations.
For example, both Amtrak and the bus system run out of the Greensboro Depot, an impressive 1927 structure. The raised platform at the train station affords a striking view of the downtown skyline. A green “Welcome to Greensboro” sign provides a cordial touch for passengers — a first impression for some — as they descend an escalator to a tunnel leading to the vaulting waiting room.
Durham’s Amtrak station opened in 2009 in a renovated tobacco warehouse situated across the street from the gleaming, modern Durham Area Transit Authority hub. Among other amenities, the train station boasts a wine bar.
“In Durham, it’s part of a larger urban retail and residential mixed-used development,” Simmons said. “In Salisbury, it’s an anchor for these older warehouses around it that have been turned into retail. In Kannapolis, it houses the city council. Others house community meeting areas. The train is only there [at the station] for a couple minutes. Outside of that, it’s really up to the community to make of it what they make of it.”
Last week, two UNCG students took the train out of Greensboro to embark on a vacation to Florida. A Taiwanese family arrived in Greensboro by train to visit American friends. Two accountants returned home to the Triangle from a work trip to Charlotte. A Charlotte bassist who plays Latin music passed through Greensboro en route to a gig in Miami Beach, Fla.
Dorothy Singleton, an author who is working on a book about unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, took the train to Charlotte to visit her grandson.
“I love it,” she said as she waited for her luggage at the Charlotte station. “I don’t like to drive. This is convenient. I can spend my time reading. I make sure I have time to write. I work on the chapters of my book. I use my Kindle.”
Luckily, Singleton’s son would be picking her up. In contrast to the Durham and Greensboro stops, Charlotte’s train station has little to offer pedestrians.
Walking the littered stretch of sidewalk along Tryon Street through underpasses reeking of urine seems like an invitation to criminal victimization. Or, as the NC Rail Division website puts it, “[T]he station’s small size and location do not present the best image for passengers arriving in the Queen City.”
Catching the CATS bus downtown requires one to cross the four-lane thoroughfare. As an indication of the prospects for success in that venture, a sign at the egress of the station reads, “The safest thing you can do at this point is enter Tryon St. safely. Have a safe day.”
I walked a mile towards downtown, encountering a number of people who appeared to be strung out on drugs. I was approached by a young man carrying his belongings in a paper grocery bag who said he had just been released from a hospital and a guy covered in tattoos with a biker beard who offered me a pair of free boots. A mile, incidentally, is exactly the distance between the train station and the nearest stop of the Gold Rush rubber-tire trolley, the city’s free downtown circulator service.
Notwithstanding the comfort and convenience, Amtrak travel in North Carolina is not without its occasional hitches, and trains can certainly cause havoc to people and wildlife that come into their path.
In Greensboro, a clerk urged customers to quickly print out their tickets at the Quik-Trak Self-Service Ticketing Kiosk because the system was about to go down.
In Raleigh, the kiosk was out of service.
Also, on my ride back from Raleigh on the Carolinian train, the air conditioning was out in one of the cars; the conductors and an elderly volunteer host relocated them to an adjacent car.
Two hundred and twenty-four people were killed by trains in North Carolina from 1990 to 1994 while trespassing, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association article. The study found that the fatalities typically involved “unmarried male pedestrians 20 to 49 years of age with less than a high school education,” many of whom were intoxicated by alcohol at the time. A macabre example of a train fatality, as reported by CNN last August, involved a Charlotte man who was standing on the Bostian Bridge near Statesville at about 3 a.m. hoping to encounter the apparition of a deadly 1891 passenger train crash when he was struck by a real train.
´[T]he station’s small size and location do not present the best image for passengers arriving in the Queen City.´
During a trip on the Amtrak Piedmont train last week, we ran over a deer in eastern Guilford County. It sounded like twigs snapping.
The train stopped near Gibsonville, and the driver and one of the conductors got out to inspect. Afterwards, the conductor provided a detailed explanation over the intercom.
“The deer went under the train and knocked some hoses loose,” he said. “We repaired the problem and will be on our way shortly.
“It couldn’t be helped,” he added. “The deer wandered onto the tracks, and didn’t want to get out of the way.”
Otherwise, the day passed pleasantly and languorously. The rain fell in Durham, and I took a cell phone call from my wife. We pulled into the station in Raleigh. I picked up a newspaper and walked downtown. I returned to the station and chatted with fellow from a local clothing company who was orchestrating a fashion shoot. We were back in Greensboro before dusk, and my car was waiting for me in the parking lot at the Depot.