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North Carolina Intercity Rail Transit

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On 4/24/2019 at 10:57 AM, tozmervo said:

As much as I want true high speed rail networks here, I do not want to achieve that goal using China's methods, most notably the ability to just take whatever land you need. We shouldn't kid ourselves about the unfortunate ways China can achieve this kind of system. 

I couldn't agree more. That said, they did something. We've done nothing. What passes for high speed in the US is a sad joke. Other countries manage this without making it a land grab. We as a country don't have the fortitude to invest the money we need to make our infrastucture worthy. Instead we see it as nothing more than a sunk cost. We squandered the post-war investemts made by our grandparents.

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Building off the conversation in this thread and others, I want to ask - what do you see in the medium- and long-term future for rail service in NC? In the short term, the Piedmont Improvement Project is just about finished. I have not seen this spelled out, but I assume that the promised fifth frequency of the Piedmont is contingent on the completion of the new platform and track work at Charlotte Gateway Station. But once that is in place, then what? SEHSR is still stuck in future limbo - Long Bridge expansion in DC seems to be a prerequisite, and it could be years before that project is in service.

Personally, I think now is the time to begin some truly ambitious long-range planning for expanded rail service within the state. NC has urbanized tremendously in my lifetime, and that trend seems destined to continue and accelerate in the future.  If highway-centric transportation policy continues to hold, the Piedmont region could turn into a sprawling, traffic-choked nightmare - like a 180-mile-long Atlanta. But, I don't think it's too late to choose a different path. Our urban geography, with a large percentage of the state's population along a single linear corridor, sets up well for succesful rail service. I-40 and I-85 can't be widened indefinitely, so I think it is absolutely necessary to invest in frequent, high-capacity rail service to meet the travel demand along that corridor in the future.

In the medium term, I would love to see Brightline-style higher speed service between Raleigh and Charlotte. Punctual, reliable, travel time roughly 2:45 end-to-end, with departures at least once an hour throughout the day, maybe 16-20 trains each way per day. I think a service like this would be a very competitive alternative to driving and would make a real impact on traffic and development patterns.

In the long-term, I think the biggest priority should be securing the NCRR for primarily (if not exclusively) passenger use. If I read the lease agreement between NCRR and Norfolk Southern correctly, the current deal runs through 2029, at which point NS can renew for 15 more years. But, in 2044, the deal should be up for renegotiation. At that point in time, the line will have more value to the state as a corridor for transporting people than for freight, and the state should leverage its asset accordingly. If this were to happen, it would open the door for a whole host of improvements, such as additional regional and local service, electrification, higher speeds, and so on.

What do you envision for the future? And what steps need to happen now to make that future a reality?

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^ I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about this stuff.

The 5th Piedmont frequency should arrive sometime next year. AFIK it is not dependent upon trackwork at Gateway, but I am not sure what the holdup is. I will say that it is truly pathetic that NC spent $500 million of ARRA money on track capacity improvements between Raleigh and Charlotte and all we got from that was two additional Piedmont frequencies. I suspect that NS is not playing fair with their lease agreement.

You are right about SEHSR, it will be a while. However, Virginia is very serious about solving the Long Bridge problem and they are showing signs of moving quickly on that project (more importantly they look like they will find the necessary money for it). So I suspect we will have a new Potomac bridge within the decade. The S Line reactivation is ready to go (I think the final EIS is just months away from completion?) and just waiting for funding. I suspect the project will be at the front of the line for federal rail money when the political winds shift back to valuing passenger rail (it is the kind of project that will help to make the new tunnels under the Hudson River more politically palatable). So timing on the S-Line is more fuzzy than Long Bridge, but it could move quickly after the revolution comes.

Longer term, I agree. NC has no choice but increasing its reliance on passenger rail. In addition to congestion, NC faces a 'global city' problem -- none of of city's are big enough to capture attention globally. If we want to be a place that attracts human capital and investment from global corporations we must make our cities appear to be bigger. The easiest way to do that is a frequent enough rail network between Charlotte and Raleigh (via Gboro and Winston) that the cities become a single labor market. This would solve lots of problems: a) congestion on I-85; b) high housing costs in Charlotte (people could easily live in Rowan and commute into town if they want land); c) human capital attraction (dual-career households could live in Gboro and one could commute to the Triangle for work while the other goes to CLT); and d) amp up university research output by making collaboration between faculty and grad students more seamless. From a geographic perspective this is totally realistic, megacity commuters travel just as far by rail on a daily basis (see below, the Swiss utilize rail transport more intensively than just about anyone else in the world). But politically this transformation will be problematic -- finding money to pay for this system (the bulk of which was already paid for by the ARRA funds) will be complicated in a state where the periphery wants their $$$ first. The other issue is last mile transportation, outside of Charlotte, NC's cities appear to be in no hurry to densify and build decent local transit.

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^ Switzerland has a ton of rail commuting between Zurich and Basel (and Bern). And also a bunch of commuting between Geneva and Basel/Bern. There are fewer daily commuters between Zurich and Geneva (but there is also a language gap separating the two ends of the country). NC could see tens of thousands of daily rail riders between CLT and Greensboro (and Winston if the passenger network were extended) and also between Raleigh and Greensboro, I could imagine lots of non-daily commuters between Charlotte and Raleigh (trips to connect bankers in Charlotte to startups in Durham, or grad students in Charlotte taking 2 day per week classes in the Triangle etc.)

I am not really on board with making the NCRR passenger only. First, there isn't really a need for it, the ROW is wide enough for eight tracks between Raleigh and Charlotte. Second, there are still significant economic benefits to maintaining robust freight access to industrial users in the rural Piedmont. Finally, maintenance of a Class VI railway (which the NCRR would need to be for 110mph passenger service) is expensive, having a tenant in place who can pay for most/all of that maintenance is a really handy thing (and the Swiss example shows us that freight and passenger rail are not incompatible on a nationalized railway -- given our unusual ownership structure for the NCRR it is not so different from the SBB). The NCRR lease certainly should be renegotiated with a firm hand (NS will be in a poor negotiating position) and I do see a time when the NS / NCRR will need to build separate freight tracks on the NCRR right of way but we have gobbs of capacity on the existing tracks that is just not being used efficiently (the BNSF Metra line in Chicago sees 94 commuter trains per day on a freight line which is busier than the NCRR).

TLDR: NC can (and should) be more like Switzerland. The only thing preventing that from happening is political will.

Edited by kermit
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Glad to see these increases! We are taking the train to Raleigh from Charlotte in a few weekends!  Can’t wait to see the new Union Station.  Also using the new Piedmont frequency on the way back, it fills a much needed afternoon spot. 

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So, what's the next logical service for the Piedmont? Late evening train?

E.g., RAL>CLT 8:00 PM - 11:10 PM (or later?)

Could probably bump up the northbound 78 from Charlotte.  I'm assuming it's scheduled to avoid the Silver Star between Cary and Raleigh? That can be avoided at both stations now.

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Also, out of curiosity I wanted to see how high speed rail in Europe compared to a similar distance trip in the states. Paris and Marseille are about 480 miles apart and it's a 3.5 hour trip on the TGV. Raleigh to New York is roughly 500 miles and 10+ hours on Amtrak.... Paris to Lyon/Raleigh to D.C. = 280 miles. It's a 2 hour trip on the TGV.

Imagine the impact that would have on the east coast.

Edited by cowboy_wilhelm
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It has probably been discussed many pages back, but what is preventing higher speeds between Charlotte and Greensboro? Many grade crossings have been eliminated, it's double-track and Positive Train Control is (maybe?) in place. Does there have to be more signal upgrades? More track improvements? Or is it Norfolk Southern? I think it was mentioned on here that they'll never allow anything more than 90 mph on shared track.

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2 hours ago, cowboy_wilhelm said:

It has probably been discussed many pages back, but what is preventing higher speeds between Charlotte and Greensboro? Many grade crossings have been eliminated, it's double-track and Positive Train Control is (maybe?) in place. Does there have to be more signal upgrades? More track improvements? Or is it Norfolk Southern? I think it was mentioned on here that they'll never allow anything more than 90 mph on shared track.

The ARRA grant was written as an initial step towards SEHSR so engineering was done for tracks with 110 mph top speed passenger service with 86mph average speeds (mostly Class 6 track).  NCDOT (and Amtrak) is operating its service as if it is on Class 4 tracks (80mph top speeds).   My theory (I have no inside information) is that NS 1) balked at dispatching trains traveling at such disparate speeds as their freights (I think their excuse was built around the lack of a complete PTC installation); and 2) NS (who performs all of the maintenance on the NCRR) told NCDOT what the maintenance and inspection costs were going to be for Class 6 track (NCDOT has to pay the difference in maintenance for Class 6 vs Class 4) and NCDOT said no thanks, we will just run at 79mph for the moment.

We were also supposed to be at 6 (?) Piedmont's a day by now thanks to the new capacity but NS has been whiny about that as well. I think a significant part of NS's intransigence with increased frequency has been related to the Charlotte station situation (a passenger consist on the platform blocks one track on their main). 

I don't now how much of this has been NS being a bad tenant on the NCRR versus how effectively NCDOT negotiated all this when putting the grant proposal together (versus delayed PTC). The NCRR lease is pretty clear that NCRR can operate as many passenger trains per day as it wants to, provided that they don't interfere with NS movements. Since track capacity from Greensboro to Charlotte was basically doubled by the ARRA I don't think NS has much of a legit complaint. Unfortunately NCDOT has been unwilling to push NS to live up to the terms of its lease. To be fair NCDOT has been slow to install PTC equipment on their consists (the recieved a grant for the equipment back at the first of this year) and I don't believe that NS has made much progress on their equipment either (although AFAIK landside PTC has been fully installed along the NCRR).

TLDR: Both NCDOT and NS have been unwilling to use the full value of our $1/2 billion rail upgrades.

Edited by kermit
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On 7/21/2019 at 12:43 PM, kermit said:

The ARRA grant was written as an initial step towards SEHSR so engineering was done for tracks with 110 mph top speed passenger service with 86mph average speeds (mostly Class 6 track).  NCDOT (and Amtrak) is operating its service as if it is on Class 4 tracks (80mph top speeds).   My theory (I have no inside information) is that NS 1) balked at dispatching trains traveling at such disparate speeds as their freights (I think their excuse was built around the lack of a complete PTC installation); and 2) NS (who performs all of the maintenance on the NCRR) told NCDOT what the maintenance and inspection costs were going to be for Class 6 track (NCDOT has to pay the difference in maintenance for Class 6 vs Class 4) and NCDOT said no thanks, we will just run at 79mph for the moment.

We were also supposed to be at 6 (?) Piedmont's a day by now thanks to the new capacity but NS has been whiny about that as well. I think a significant part of NS's intransigence with increased frequency has been related to the Charlotte station situation (a passenger consist on the platform blocks one track on their main). 

I don't now how much of this has been NS being a bad tenant on the NCRR versus how effectively NCDOT negotiated all this when putting the grant proposal together (versus delayed PTC). The NCRR lease is pretty clear that NCRR can operate as many passenger trains per day as it wants to, provided that they don't interfere with NS movements. Since track capacity from Greensboro to Charlotte was basically doubled by the ARRA I don't think NS has much of a legit complaint. Unfortunately NCDOT has been unwilling to push NS to live up to the terms of its lease. To be fair NCDOT has been slow to install PTC equipment on their consists (the recieved a grant for the equipment back at the first of this year) and I don't believe that NS has made much progress on their equipment either (although AFAIK landside PTC has been fully installed along the NCRR).

TLDR: Both NCDOT and NS have been unwilling to use the full value of our $1/2 billion rail upgrades.

I was wondering about this part. Is it really worth the cost for maybe 5-10 minutes saved? On the other hand, would the marketing behind 90-110 mph service! spur increased ridership and demand for more service?

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I am hijacking this from the Charlotte Gateway Station thread (thanks KJHburg!). This surprised me, but it seems like a clear first sign that commuter rail CLT-SAL is moving forward.

1 hour ago, KJHburg said:

Not sure if this right place but land is being secured for the new Harrisburg Amtrak station.

https://harrisburgnc.org/CivicAlerts.aspx

Edited by kermit
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2 hours ago, kermit said:

I am hijacking this from the Charlotte Gateway Station thread (thanks KJHburg!). This surprised me, but it seems like a clear first sign that commuter rail CLT-SAL is moving forward.

Would love to see regional rail happen along the NCRR in Charlotte, the Triad, and the Triangle.

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Also, regarding the new Harrisburg station, I am a little surprised at the location that was selected. I had expected it to be closer to 485, perhaps right near the top of the ramps from outer 485. That location would have had the potential to attract riders from the northern/eastern suburban areas for whom it would be more convenient than Gateway or Kannapolis. It also could have allowed for a short-ish extension of the Blue Line so Amtrak riders could transfer directly (useful for people bound to/from UNCC). The proposed location is good for a regional rail stop, but I think the intercity station would have been better at 485.

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1 hour ago, jthomas said:

Also, regarding the new Harrisburg station, I am a little surprised at the location that was selected. I had expected it to be closer to 485, perhaps right near the top of the ramps from outer 485. That location would have had the potential to attract riders from the northern/eastern suburban areas for whom it would be more convenient than Gateway or Kannapolis. It also could have allowed for a short-ish extension of the Blue Line so Amtrak riders could transfer directly (useful for people bound to/from UNCC). The proposed location is good for a regional rail stop, but I think the intercity station would have been better at 485.

I do agree that a 485 / UNCC station would have made a very nice suburban station with plenty of parking (something Gateway won't have). It would have been our equivalent to the Cary station.  There has been talk of putting a commuter rail station in the area, unfortunately CATS has not considered this very logical blue line extension (their eyes are on extensions along US 29 to the CMS).

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