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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Rail study estimates Wilmington-to-Raleigh passenger service would be $810M, connects through Goldsboro

A graph showing the supported rails for passenger service planned from Wilmington to Raleigh. (Courtesy Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — An updated feasibility study is complete regarding the viability of passenger rail between Wilmington and Raleigh.

READ MORE: Passenger rail from Wilmington to Raleigh takes another step forward, federal funding available

ALSO: Federal rail grants posted this November, NC leaders support Raleigh to Wilmington corridor

CATCH UP: Wilmington to Raleigh rail corridor awarded $500K as first steps of future project

According to the newly released draft report, conducted by WGI Inc. engineering firm of West Palm Beach, the price from the last study — completed in 2005 — to bring passenger rail from the Port City to the Triangle has increased six times or more. Once slated to be between $65 and $185 million, today it has ticked up to $810 million.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation released the Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study earlier this month. It assessed an eastern route and a western route to serve Wilmington passengers, but determined the former would be better suited for increased ridership and decreased costs — by roughly $170 million.

Estimated Wilmington riders have gone from 45,000 two decades ago to 80,000 or more. The Wilmington-to-Raleigh route will bring a second rail line to the area (freight rail is already in place), with proposed stops to include Clayton, Selma, Goldsboro and Wilmington. At least two more locations will be hashed out in a detailed service plan, decided upon further along in the process. 

Eastern Carolina Rail — a nonprofit group advocating to bring back rail on the North Carolina East Coast — is hoping to add stops in Burgaw, Wallace and Warsaw. It’s been hosting gatherings in the last few months to gauge interest from residents in those locations. 

“This report shows we are finally on our way,” Gene Merritt, co-founder of Eastern Carolina Rail, said in a press release.

According to the draft, NCDOT used Berkely Simulation Software Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) modeling to determine the 134-mile route between Raleigh and Wilmington will take around two hours and 36 minutes to travel; that’s roughly 30 minutes or more than taking a vehicle. The western route, which would have moved through the Fayetteville area, would take an hour longer.

Trains are expected to run 79 miles per hour and the study looked at potentially three round trips a day, with the goal to first put two in place and add in a third; frequencies will be adjusted as service becomes operational. It could be up and running in the next decade if funding is procured.

NCDOT has been exploring the possibility of intercity passenger rail service, with the goal to strengthen connectivity from rural and suburban areas to urban destinations. This will help a growing population gain access to jobs, healthcare, education, and improve tourism to area beaches, businesses and historical spots in the Cape Fear. Thus, the study determines the addition of passenger rail will provide an economic boon for the region, though it doesn’t estimate by how much. 

Fares are suspected to cost roughly $24 ($0.17 per mile) to Raleigh, though that may change by the time the railway opens when considering inflation. The connectors in the Triangle could also lead travelers to Virginia, D.C. and New York.

Ticket revenue is forecast to bring in between $2.2 million and $4 million, with operating costs expected to be around $44.67 per train mile. The total net for operating and maintenance are listed between $12 and $14 million. These expenditures are based on analysis NCDOT conducted on Piedmont and Carolinian services currently operated by Amtrak.

Passenger rail trips would run on existing active and inactive lines and require infrastructure upgrades and new construction to help with capacity. This includes adding to 105 miles a Positive Train Control system — to prevent train collisions and monitor speed, as to avoid train derailments. PTC costs around $262,945 per mile.

Most tracks between Raleigh and Wilmington are single and would need to be brought up to Class 4 standards; the report said this amounts to providing a smooth ride for trains traveling 80 mph. Also, highway rail crossing and signals would have to be upgraded. 

Locally, a 27-mile line between Wallace and Castle Hayne would need to be restored; it connects to the CSX freight line and could potentially become an additional line of economic growth. Currently, freight runs to Wilmington through Lumberton. An additional line would serve a “more direct connection” to the Port of Wilmington, the CCX Intermodal facility, and the CSX network in the mid-Atlantic and midwest, the report states.

“In past studies, the Department of Defense has expressed interest in restoration of the corridor to provide direct and redundant access to the port,” the study states.

The Cape Fear River Bridge, a swing bridge, in that area would also have to be replaced to support the additional line.

“Movable bridges are subject to periodic malfunctions associated with weather, boat strikes and machinery failure that may cause the bridge to be unusable,” according to the study.

Another benefit to the route is providing more affordable transportation for underserved communities or for people without a car; a Greyhound bus line is the only way to travel to Raleigh currently from Wilmington. The eastern route also would provide an additional evacuation option during major storms and hurricanes and be useful to ferry in supplies if needed.

A new station and tracks would need to be constructed in Wilmington, which the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has been discussing in recent years. It would be built near the new multimodal transportation station and WMPO headquarters — the latter of which is under construction at 525 N. 4th St. in the Brooklyn Arts District. These costs are included in the study’s budget, though upfit for other stops on the eastern route are not.

“NCDOT has partnered with communities to pursue grants to help with construction of stations. In addition, through agreements with towns and cities, NCDOT has helped fund ongoing maintenance of station buildings,” the study continues.

Eastern Carolina Rail is hoping the NCDOT also will look at connecting to the Wilmington International Airport, located a little more than 2 miles from the station and WMPO headquarters.

The historic Union Station in Goldsboro, which its town own and has been void of rail use since 1968, is being fundraised for currently to undergo needed renovations.

The study also includes connecting a corridor from Fayetteville to Raleigh.

The next step in the project is to devise a service development plan, which requires a 10% state match to 90% federal funding. It will determine objectives and exhibit the operational and financial viability of bringing passenger rail to the southeastern North Carolina corridor.

If area MPOs and RPOs agree to pursue the project, it can be submitted as part of the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), a data-driven formula to determine what transportation projects get funded. 

NCDOT has pursued federal funding and already submitted an application to the Federal Railroad Administration for the Raleigh-to-Wilmington and Raleigh-to-Fayetteville corridors to be included in the newly created Corridor Identification and Development Program (CID); it funds intercity passenger rail.

Last year, the project received $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of a $3.5 million grant to help with seven North Carolina rail projects.

According to Steve Unger, co-founder of Eastern Carolina Rail, it will continue to advocate for local financial and political support.

“Internally Gene and I are putting together a steering committee,” he said, including multiple projects and events needing volunteers. “We have an ongoing relationship with the NCDOT but we will continue to track funding, the transition into phase two (specific planning), continuing to sponsor symposiums and create some additional special events to highlight community interest.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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