11/01/07 — Company will look at viability of commuter, freight rail

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Company will look at viability of commuter, freight rail

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 1, 2007 2:18 PM

By the middle of next year, North Carolina Railroad is hoping to know whether a commuter rail service on its line between Goldsboro and Greensboro might be feasible. But, cautioned company president Scott Saylor, residents shouldn't expect passenger trains to be running anytime soon.

He explained that the company has only commissioned a study to determine the costs and the demands of implementing rush hour rail service between the two cities. The study will focus primarily on the cost of additional infrastructure, including track, bridges and electronic signaling, to provide four morning and evening trains and one in the afternoon.

It will not take into account the additional operating costs of such a service and no specific stops have been identified.

"This type of study has never been done before," Saylor said. "Is it possible to run passenger rail on a shared track operation?

"It's a question that has been asked a lot, and our intent is to answer it definitively."

If they can, then he is hopeful the answers will be helpful to not only the company, but also to the state, municipalities and others dealing with transportation issues.

N.C. Railroad, a private company owned by the state, manages a 317-mile rail corridor between Charlotte and Morehead City -- including the 133-mile middle stretch between Goldsboro and Greensboro.

Currently, that corridor is made up primarily of a single track that is used for freight by Norfolk Southern.

The goal of the study is to determine what needs to be done to allow passenger and freight trains to run at the same time -- without compromising either. There currently are few places two trains can pass each other on the track.

"Freight and passenger trains can run on the same tracks. It's just a matter of what infrastructure we need and what capacity we need," Saylor said. "It's an important concern. North Carolina Railroad is very important to industry and economic development."

But the biggest challenge, he explained, would likely be maintaining the schedules of commuter rail.

"People think of us being able to run an infinite number of trains on a single track," he said. "But passenger trains are more time sensitive than freight."

The reason the stretch from Goldsboro to Greensboro was selected for the $400,000 study, he continued, is because that's where the market seems to be -- from the Triad to the outer edges of the greater Triangle area.

It has nothing to do, though, with the recently announced renovations to the historic Goldsboro train depot, which is on a different rail line.

The study actually was something that the company had looked into briefly about seven years ago, but dismissed because the idea of commuter service had little traction.

Today, however, with the state's population growing by leaps and bounds and the cost and difficulty of maintaining roadways increasing, the idea is becoming more popular.

"Now there's more interest in passenger rail service," Saylor said. "The question is, is there a way to leverage the railroads in an effective way for passenger service without compromising their roles in economic development?"

The study is expected to be complete by mid-2008, but even if its findings are positive, he added, funding for such a project is a long-term proposition.