Aug 22, 2022 - News

Triangle leaders consider massive commuter rail projects

Riding the Piedmont.

Riding the Piedmont train. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

The next decade will be critical for whether the Triangle region will expand rail travel as part of the solution to a currently car-dependent region.

State of play: GoTriangle, the region's transit system, is studying whether it would be possible to add commuter rail along existing train lines from Clayton in Johnston County all the way to Durham.

  • The 43-mile route would make stops at critical job and housing hubs, like Raleigh's Union Station, N.C. State, Cary, Morrisville and Research Triangle Park.
  • The project would cost billions of dollars and construction could be years away. But many local leaders believe the region needs more transit options — especially after the failure of the Durham-Orange Light Rail, which could not rely on existing rail infrastructure.

What they're saying: "Commuter rail is going to be difficult, but that's why we need leadership on it and we need everybody to come together and say this is important to our region," Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin recently told Axios.

A large clock inside of Raleigh Union Station.
Inside Raleigh Union Station. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

For a $14 round trip, you can get a glimpse of what that future rail travel could look like.

  • That's the price to ride the current Amtrak trains from downtown Durham to downtown Raleigh, with one stop in downtown Cary.
  • The train allows you to bypass interstate traffic and gives you the chance to do work that is not possible while driving.

Yes, but: The current service is less frequent than the proposed commuter rail.

  • And when I tried it out, my train was half an hour late, which could potentially complicate riders’ schedules.

What's next: GoTriangle is studying how commuter rail might co-exist on the same lines as freight trains and Amtrak.

  • "We have been working with regional partners and developing the system," Jason Orthner, rail division director for the N.C. Department of Transportation, told Axios. "It's like how you have a lot of different services on a highway network. It can be the same on the rail network."
  • Orthner said existing examples include the Virginia Railway Express in Northern Virginia and the Northeast corridor between D.C. and Boston.

The big picture: The success of a commuter rail is not a given, but if positive feasibility results come back, local leaders could push for construction to start this decade.

A map of the S-Line rail corridor snaking from Sanford to Wake Forest.
Map: Courtesy of N.C. Department of Transportation.

While commuter rail could make connections between the east and west, another project could be critical for the fast-growing northern and southern portions of the Triangle.

Driving the news: The federal government awarded $58 million earlier this summer toward kickstarting a re-build of the S-Line rail corridor — a line between Raleigh and Richmond that has been out of commission for more than half a century.

  • If restored, it would allow for passenger trains to avoid a lot of freight traffic between Raleigh and Richmond and allow for speeds of up to 110 miles per hour — making trips from North Carolina to D.C. faster and more reliable.

State of play: Orthner said momentum has never been higher for getting the S-Line project off the ground.

  • Orthner, the rail division director, said initial phases of construction could happen within the decade — if funding comes through.
  • Virginia has already bought the CSX-owned rail land on its side of the border, and North Carolina is nearing an agreement for its side.

The big picture: The S-Line rail corridor could also open a path to commuter rail returning to fast-growing towns like Wake Forest and Sanford, which haven’t seen passenger trains stop there in generations.

Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones hopes new transit options can provide relief for the future.

  • "I realized — and I hope others do — that we cannot build our way out of this by building bigger roads," Jones told Axios. "That doesn't work, and it just messes up communities."

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