Passenger rail funds will speed Raleigh’s Union Station and add more daily trains to Charlotte

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comOctober 1, 2013 

— The reallocation of federal fast-train funds will give Raleigh more money to build a new Amtrak depot and enable the state to schedule more daily round-trip trains between Raleigh and Charlotte.

The state Department of Transportation said Monday that Raleigh will get an additional $15 million for its project to convert an old red-brick warehouse into Union Station, envisioned as a crucial anchor for new development in the city’s downtown warehouse district. That means the city has nailed down $66.25 million in state, federal and local money for the $73 million project.

DOT already had planned to launch a fourth daily round-trip passenger train between Raleigh and Charlotte in 2017, and the new funding shift will allow the addition of a fifth train as well.

“Raleigh Union Station will spur economic growth and continue the revitalization of an historic area of downtown,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in statement. “Also, the additional rail projects will better connect the Triangle to Charlotte and many points in between.”

The money is part of $546.5 million in stimulus funds awarded by the Obama administration for high-speed rail and related improvements in North Carolina.

State and federal rail officials agreed in September to shelve plans for a big component of that grant program, a freight rail crossing in uptown Charlotte. Paul Worley, the state DOT Rail Division director, said they realized it would take longer and cost more than expected to tunnel an east-west CSX track underneath a north-south Norfolk Southern track, to eliminate a grade crossing where CSX engineers now are required to stop for Norfolk Southern trains.

This decision made $117.6 million in unspent money available for other rail needs. Part of the money will cover overhead expenses and $61 million in cost increases for a string of track improvements between Raleigh and Charlotte, Worley said.

The rest will go to Raleigh’s Union Station, pay for some refurbished passenger train cars, and complete a rail maintenance yard in downtown Charlotte, similar to one in Raleigh.

Amtrak now operates three trains each day between Raleigh and Charlotte, with stops along the way at Cary, Durham, Greensboro and four other cities. The shifted funds will make it possible to start two more round-trip runs in 2017, instead of just one, Worley said.

“You’ll have a very robust service when you’re talking about five round trips between Raleigh and Charlotte,” Worley said. “That’s very good service.”

Ridership on the Raleigh-Charlotte line has increased in recent years.

Amtrak’s two daily Piedmont trains, which travel between Charlotte and Raleigh, carried 163,000 riders in fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2012. The Carolinian, which makes the same stops on its longer run to New York City, counted 306,000 riders on the portion that is subsidized by North Carolina’s DOT, between Charlotte and Washington. Preliminary figures for fiscal year 2013, which ended Monday, showed increases for the year of 4.3 percent for the Carolinian and 5.7 percent for the Piedmont.

State and federal rail officials had announced in September 2012 that DOT would divert $15.1 million to Union Station from the federal stimulus grants, but state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in June that this promise had been a mistake. He said DOT officials from the previous administration had failed to win federal permission for the shift.

Worley said last year’s faulty promise was not related to the CSX rail crossing project in Charlotte. The Federal Railroad Administration agreed only recently to shelve that project and spend the money elsewhere, he said.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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