Dream of Western North Carolina Passenger Trains Still a Sound in the Distance

Published Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 11:17 am

By Michael Gebelein / Carolina Public Press

Bringing 21st century passenger train service to Western North Carolina faces an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dream.

When Steve Little was an 11-year-old camper at Ridgecrest in Buncombe County, he couldn’t sleep some nights because of his excitement about what the next day would bring. He would lie awake in his bunk, and one of the sounds he remembers most vividly is the Norfolk Southern trains that were coming up the grade from Old Fort as they would downshift.

The N.C. Department of Transportation passenger train “City of Asheville,” sits on the tracks in Raleigh. But Asheville and other Western North Carolina communities are not currently served by passenger rail service. Courtesy of NCDOT.

The N.C. Department of Transportation passenger train “City of Asheville,” sits on the tracks in Raleigh. But Asheville and other Western North Carolina communities are not currently served by passenger rail service. Courtesy of NCDOT.

“That is such an ethereal sound that just captivated my attention,” said Little, an attorney who now serves as the mayor of Marion in McDowell County. “I remember I would imagine what it would look like if I was a star and could look down on the train.”

Little’s boyhood fantasies started what became a lifelong fascination with trains and their impact on Western North Carolina. Little has written books on the subject and currently serves as co-chairman of the Western North Carolina Passenger Rail Corridor Committee, a group of public officials and rail enthusiasts who hope to one day bring passenger rail service back to the region.

The committee, which has been in existence since the 1990s, is battling the harsh economic reality that passenger rail service isn’t profitable for most large-scale carriers and that the state isn’t enthusiastic about funding a proposed passenger train project between Salisbury and Asheville, estimated by the Comprehensive State Rail Plan the Department of Transportation released in August to cost more than $400 million.

All the parties involved admit that passenger rail in WNC is a long-term goal — the state says expansion of passenger rail could happen sometime between 2020 and 2040.

But that hasn’t prevented Little and Ray Rapp, a former state representative, professor at Mars Hill University in Madison County and the other co-chairman of the committee, from shifting the group’s focus in an effort to make passenger service more palatable to the state and carrier companies.

Rail committee broadens vision

“We presented a new vision … reflecting the changing nature of the rail business today,” Rapp said.

That vision includes expanding freight rail service in an effort to make passenger rail viable for carriers, and increasing the number of excursion trains to get the public used to viewing rail as a travel option. Rapp said the committee is also exploring the idea of excursion trips related to the beer and wine industry in the region.

Those excursion trips could also serve as another way to bring in tourists while eliminating the problems of limited parking and additional cars on the road.

“Sightseeing tours come up the mountain and stop in Biltmore Village, and you have 300 people getting off and stopping to eat,” said Jeff Joyce, director of public policy at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “That’s 300 people who didn’t have to find a parking space to shop and hang out.”

Joyce also said the re-emergence of rail travel could have a positive impact on the environment and the region’s infrastructure.

“We’d been ecstatic to think that, for people who are choosing more and more to not have an automobile, they could get to Asheville and not be reliant on a car,” he said.

“When more trains run, we’re going to see less impact on the roads, and the more people we keep off the roads, the more sustainable the roads will be.”

Before trains begin regularly hauling passengers to and from Western North Carolina, the state Department of Transportation has proposed expanding Amtrak’s Thruway bus service between Asheville and the train station in Salisbury. The NCDOT Comprehensive State Rail Plan, released in August 2015, said bus service was supposed to begin sometime this year, but a spokeswoman told Carolina Public Press in a May 2016 email that “Amtrak has no plans to start Thruway Service between Asheville and Salisbury at this time.”

That hasn’t stopped proponents from imagining how it might work.

“The idea is to build up a volume of traffic,” Rapp said. “You’d be buying an Amtrak ticket for bus that leaves from Asheville and puts you on a train in Salisbury. It’d be building up traffic so that the natural next step is to run trains between Asheville and Salisbury.”

According to the Rail Plan, the purpose of the bus line would be to “build ridership for future expansion of passenger rail service along new corridors.”

Expansion would be costly

The Rail Plan proposal says passenger rail service in the region “would include two daily round trips between Salisbury and Asheville,” with connections to northbound and southbound trains in between and stops in Statesville, Conover, Valdese, Morganton, Marion, Old Fort and Black Mountain.

The state estimated 24,000 riders on the line in its first year, though the state admits that those figures may need to be updated since they’re based on a 15-year-old study.

But for the vision of trains loaded with passengers traveling from Salisbury to Asheville to become a reality, it’ll take a sizeable, ongoing financial contribution from both the state and the cities and counties along the route, according to Rapp.

Track improvements will have to be made before a commercial carrier will even consider running passenger trains through the area, and the price tag for the project overall, according the Rail Plan, is $405.3 million.

“No matter what happens, communities along the route will have to subsidize that passenger service,” Rapp said. “That means a commitment by the state and communities to say, ‘We think this is important from economic development and tourism standpoint and we want to support it.’ ”

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