Track and train ownership are key to strong passenger-rail program

April 4, 2013

CHICAGO (April 1)—Jacksonville, N.C., is not exactly a name on everyone’s lips. It’s a town of 66,000 on the eastern coastal plain between Wilmington and New Bern probably best known as the gateway to the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.

Nor is the Jacksonville Daily News a major source of reporting and opinion to which the rest of the nation’s media look for guidance.

But the Daily News was dead right with its March 18 editorial “Amtrak becoming a viable N.C. option.”

The paper opened its essay by confessing that historically it had not been a supporter of Amtrak service in North Carolina or anywhere else.

“Amtrak…“has long been a whipping boy on Capitol Hill—often accused of being a ‘bloated bureaucracy’ with little ridership, poor service and wasteful spending,” the paper said, adding, “some of those accusations have surfaced in this very editorial space.”

But the Daily News did a turnaround after the editor read the March 1 Brookings Institution report showing Amtrak ridership up 55 per cent since 1997 and ridership on North Carolina’s home-grown intrastate trains, the two daily Charlotte-Raleigh Piedmont round trips, up 278 per cent.

What could possibly account for such an astonishing growth rate?

“…the Piedmont, which began in 1995, is unique to other routes,” the Daily News said, “because the N.C. Department of Transportation designed and owns the cars and operates the tracks under the auspices of the state-owned North Carolina Railroad Co., which also leases the tracks to Norfolk Southern Railroad for freight services…North Carolina has been able to meet higher demand for service on the Piedmont because it is responsible for its own tracks and improvements via a public-private partnership.”

Bingo! At a time when so many members of the mainstream national media continue to misunderstand passenger-train economics and finance, it’s refreshing to see a small paper get it right.

North Carolina’s passenger-rail program is indeed unique—and for the very reasons the Jacksonville Daily News identified: The state owns the railroad as well as the trains. While most state-supported passenger-train programs must rely on a privately owned freight railroad for right of way and on Amtrak cars and engines for rolling stock, North Carolina rolls its own. Amtrak conductors and engineers run the trains, but everything else is done with state assets and state-selected private contractors.

It started with the track. Because 19th-century Northern capitalists shunned investing in Dixie, the state of North Carolina financed its own railroad from Charlotte to the sea and has owned it since it opened in 1854. The North Carolina Railroad is leased to the Norfolk Southern freight railroad, and NS contributes much of the capital invested in the line, but title rests with the state, and so does the authority to plan how the property will be used—including creating more capacity for passenger trains.

And when it comes to rolling stock, North Carolina has been rolling its own since it started its first Charlotte-Raleigh passenger train, the Piedmont, in 1995.

“It all has to do with control,” said NCDOT Rail Operations and Facilities Mgr. Allan Paul. “We buy used equipment and have it rebuilt, and it’s good as new—absolutely.”

The state-owned fleet is up to 10 coaches, plus a combination coach-baggage car and three lounge/baggage cars. All four baggage cars are equipped with bicycle racks to accommodate the growing number of cyclists who use the train to reach a bike path, of which North Carolina has some of the most scenic in the nation.

“We don’t charge for the bicycles and we don’t require that bicycles be boxed, as Amtrak does,” Paul said. “On some weekends we run out of bike space.”

And while North Carolina continues to invest in rail infrastructure improvements, including double track, highway grade separations and a new Charlotte station being built by a public-private partnership, it continues to buy up and rebuild 1950s-vintage passenger cars to support growth on the Piedmont route.

“We have six more cars under rebuild now—these are new to the fleet—to support our fourth and fifth frequencies between Charlotte and Raleigh,” Paul said.

The state plans to add a fourth and fifth daily Charlotte-Raleigh round trip in 2017 once the current track and signal improvements have created increased capacity. The new trains will make Charlotte-Raleigh one of the busiest intercity passenger-train corridors between the coasts. A westward extension of service to the popular Smokey Mountain resort city of Asheville also is planned, but track improvements and rolling stock for the extension still await funding.

And NCDOT continues to scan the used-rolling-stock-markets for more cars it can rebuild and press into service as demand for seats continues to build.

“We’re getting a little concerned with the dramatic increase in ridership that occurred when we added the third frequency,” Paul said.

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