North Carolina DOT launches new Web site to promote—and brand—its passenger trains as state products

November 15, 2013

by F. K. Plous

When the North Carolina Department of Transportation rolled out a new and improved Web site for its state-supported passenger trains November 7 it included a subtle but important change in the site’s address.

Before November 7 visitors seeking information about North Carolina’s passenger trains accessed the site by inputting the URL www.bytrain.org.

But on November 7 the URL got two new characters to become www.ncbytrain.org.

The new name makes it clear that the two daily Piedmont service round trips between Charlotte and Raleigh are sponsored, funded and managed by NCDOT and are a uniquely North Carolina-provided service.

The Piedmonts are operated by Amtrak as a result of the state’s operating agreements under Section 209 of the Federal Passenger Rail Infrastructure and Investment Act. That means the engineers and conductors on the Piedmont trains are Amtrak employees. And per the act, known in passenger rail circles as “PRIIA,” North Carolina trains have the flexibility to operate over any freight railroad.

All the other elements of the service package, including the cars, locomotives, stations, the food service and car and locomotive maintenance, are designed, owned and funded by the state of North Carolina or operated by its private-sector contractors.

“We added ‘nc’ to the Web address because we wanted to brand the service,” said NCDOT Rail Division Director Paul Worley. “We want people to think about North Carolina when they ride on these trains. We’re making a special effort to distinguish the Piedmont service as a product of North Carolina.”

Make no mistake, the Piedmonts are a success, and North Carolina has earned the right to take credit. Ridership on the two daily round trips grew 4.7 per cent—to 170,266 passengers—during Fiscal Year 2013, and revenues grew even faster—by 8.1 per cent—to more than $3.3 million. Those numbers make the Piedmonts among the fastest-growing trains in the Amtrak network.

But while the ridership and revenue increases are published monthly as part of Amtrak’s operating results, the driving force behind the trains’ popularity has been North Carolina, which has invested its own funds in the locomotives, coaches and food-service cars on each train and is spending more than $500 million in 2009 Recovery Act funds to build additional track, signaling and grade-crossing improvements that will improve reliability and safety for both the passenger trains and the freight trains with which they share track. This work, along with work to rebuild more coaches and locomotives, will provide the capacity to add two additional Piedmonts so frequencies can be doubled to four round trips a day by 2017.

“We just bought seven retired locomotives that came from GO Transit in Toronto, and we’re going to turn five of those into non-powered cab-control units,” Worley said. The diesel engines, he said, will be removed from those units, which will then be rebuilt as dummy engines—with a throttle and air-brake controls but no prime mover—so that each Piedmont train can be operated from either end.

“When that program is finished the Piedmonts no longer will have to be turned on a wye at the end of each trip,” he said. “They will be push-pull shuttle trains that will be able to return to their starting point immediately. They will unload, board new passengers and start back on the return trip.”

Worley said that if the trains were not converted to shuttle operation it could take five separate train sets to operate four daily round trips. By making the trains into double-ended shuttles NCDOT saved the cost of an entire train set.

As it did with the first two Piedmont train sets, NCDOT has stocked up on 1950s-vintage streamlined coaches that it will have rebuilt and modernized so that the service can be expanded to four Charlotte-Raleigh round trips by 2017.

“We have our Recovery Act funding place to pay for the rebuilds,” Worley said. “We’re looking at every option we can to attract more riders, earn more revenue and reduce costs so we can minimize the state cost of the service,” he said.

NCDOT has other strategies to help advocate for consideration in the budget process.

In late 2015, for the first time, rail improvements will be considered as a part of the overall transportation funding process in North Carolina. Funds for capital improvements, operations and maintenance will be taken up by legislators as as part of the Strategic Transportation Initiatives, or House Bill 817, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Pat McCrory last summer.

“We have a very engaged legislature, and they have been interested in knowing more about the rail program,” Worley said. “Several of them ride the train between their districts and Raleigh and want to see transportation investments that are objective and data driven.

“We even we make a point of inviting members on familiarization trips or even cab rides to see the work along the corridor.”

But it’s not the cab rides that build legislative support for the NCDOT passenger-rail program.

“It’s when they see the people riding,” Worley said. “They walk through the trains and see that the coaches are full of their constituents.”

In the coming year, NCDOT will conduct an assessment of its passenger operations and explore more efficient ways of delivering service and increasing passengers and revenues. Such recommendations may take advantage of the flexibility that Section 209 of PRIIA offers.

“Our objective is to provide cost-effective and reliable service for our customers over given corridors, and get them to the places they want to go,” said Worley. “As a Department of Transportation we have a number of tools at hand to improve freight and passenger rail service between our state’s business centers, providing needed economic development and creating jobs.”

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