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Report shows N.C. rail's growing popularity, emphasizes economic growth from trains

nc piedmont train

A Piedmont line train arrives at the Raliegh Amtrak station. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

According to the Economic Contribution of Rail in North Carolina report released last month — conducted by the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Institute for Transportation Research and Education — NC By Train and Amtrak together carry over half a million passengers per year.

The report also showed North Carolina's 3,400-mile rail system, which generates more than $20 billion annual statewide economic input and supports 88,000 jobs. The state houses more than 100 rail industry businesses, and the state receives about 45 million tons of rail freight.

“Our goal of this study was to understand all the rail-related industries, companies, activities and operations in the state and what impact it has on supporting jobs and business revenue in the state's economy,” Daniel Findley,  associate director of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, said.

According to the Association of American Railroads, rail can ship 471 tons of freight with one gallon of fuel — making it three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks and reducing carbon emissions by 75 percent. Rail also reduces traffic on highways, both from passengers and large trucks carrying products, which protects infrastructure and reduces the emissions from vehicles on the road.

Nathan Zelenz, a UNC student, said he saw mostly students when riding the train to Charlotte for a school break. He said there are several benefits to having this mode of transportation available.

“You don't really have to worry about asking somebody for a ride with a car and it takes about the same amount of time,” Zelenz said.

North Carolina and Virginia have received a $1.09 billion grant to build the first and most complex segment of a new line from Raleigh to Richmond. The S-line, formally known as the Seaboard Air Line, is an underused existing rail corridor.

This portion of the project will connect Raleigh and Wake Forest and is estimated to be completed in 2030.

“We have successful service, but those services run on congested brake networks and they don't provide a lot of opportunity to meet those requirements of fast, reliable and frequent service,” Jason Orthner,  director of the NCDOT rail division, said. 

This project aims to revitalize the S-line to become one of the most technologically advanced railroads in the Southeast. The line will feature 110 mph passenger rail speeds, roadway grade separations that separate rail from other transportation to improve safety, and many more improvements.

The S-line would also provide transportation to many underserved regions and areas. Orthner said the NCDOT is working closely with communities across the state to bring stations, or mobility hubs, into the areas to ensure that the rail helps them grow economically.

There are some challenges to be addressed for this project to continue, such as the lack of space in heavily urbanized areas like Wake County. This results in a need for complicated construction and working around drainage systems and other infrastructure. 

“It basically creates a backbone corridor between Virginia and North Carolina and connects the states south and north of there with a new route that allows trains not just to operate in Virginia or just North Carolina, but across the whole length of the system, serving rural and urban communities in between,” Orthner said.

@AllieSadoff

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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