In South Carolina, could there be a Greenville-Charleston passenger train?

September 16, 2015

A rail map of South Carolina shows the state criss-crossed in nearly every direction by active railroad lines — some short, some long, some within the state, some leaving it. But only three carry people rather than freight.

All three of those passenger routes traverse South Carolina in a general north-south orientation, passing through the Palmetto State’s major cities — Greenville, Columbia, Charleston — but not connecting any of them with the others.

Some are hoping to change that.

The 2013 introduction of the inland port in Greer has sparked conversations among railroad advocates about the possibility of using the active Upstate-to-Charleston corridor to introduce passenger service from the mountains to coast.

It’s a conversation that involves lots and lots of money that the state isn’t in a hurry to spend. But similar projects have been accomplished elsewhere, and a recent federal push to ramp up rail service in the Southeast is fanning the flames for those who say trains are an important step in expanding transportation options in South Carolina.

You can’t get there from here

Taking a train from Greenville to Charleston is not for the faint of heart. The shortest option is a 20-hour journey that begins at 11 p.m. and ends after 7 p.m. the following day after transfers in Charlotte and Wilson, North Carolina. It’s a $130 ticket for a seat (not a bed), according to the Amtrak ticketing website.

By contrast, a Greyhound bus will run you $22 with two days’ advance planning and take 5 1/2 hours.Website Insert Turnkey Packages copy

A Spartanburg-based group, founded in 2014, has begun advocating for an east-west passenger train line, with departures from Greenville and Charleston around 6 or 7 a.m. and 4 or 5 p.m. daily.

“You’d have two trains down, two trains up,” said Frank Ezell, founder of the South Carolina Passenger Rail Consortium. “We believe we can fill the coaches with vacationers and business travelers.”

The proposed route would include stops in Greer, Spartanburg, Union/Pacolet, Columbia, Orangeburg, Summerville and North Charleston. The plan, outlined in a position paper that has been presented to the state Department of Transportation, calls for using the existing Norfolk Southern rail line that connects the inland port and the port of Charleston.

“It’s going to take money — a lot of money, as a matter of fact. But it’s something that needs to be done,” said Ezell, whose group includes business leaders, an Amtrak representative and transportation officials.

The group’s goals have gotten a shot in the arm recently with an announcement from Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, of a $1 million allocation to study passenger rail options in the Southeast. Similar to a project recently completed in the Southwest, the study will coordinate multiple state agencies to evaluate how best to expand rail service throughout the region.

“We now need to focus our attention with the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure our rail plan is included in the Southeast rail plan,” Ezell said.

Foxx’s announcement focused on rail connections between major cities like Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Raleigh and Atlanta, but officials said the study is not limited to the long sought-after Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which aims to create a passenger rail network connecting Florida to Washington, D.C., and beyond. That project is already in various phases of study across four states.

“There’s no doubt it (the study) will extend beyond that single corridor,” said Mike Booth, public affairs specialist with the Federal Railroad Administration. “If it’s something that’s of concern to South Carolina, it’s probably going to end up in the plan… Everything’s on the table at this point.”

Part of what will guide South Carolina’s contribution to the study will be the South Carolina Statewide Rail Plan, published in August 2014, said Doug Frate, director of intermodal and freight operations for the state Department of Transportation.

The rail plan makes only fleeting mention of intercity rail projects, the possibilities do include the Upstate-to-Charleston route. (Others outlined were Columbia to Charlotte and Florence to Raleigh.)Website Insert Faster is Better copy

“I do definitely feel that corridor will be one that we’ll want to look at it and see does it make sense to take a much closer look at it,” Frate said.

A feasibility study is the first required step, but SCDOT has held off on planning the study in anticipation of the recent federal announcement, he said.

No estimates about the potential cost of such a project, which would span about 200 miles, were available.

Details on when and how the federal study will be executed are in the planning stages, Booth said.

Read writer Amy Clarke Burns’ full story in by clicking here.


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