Though owned and leased by the same two entities, the NCRR corridor is actually several different railroads. The far eastern segment of the line is mostly rural and single track, with a low freight traffic volume (and no passenger trains). The segment from Greensboro to Charlotte is part of NS’s major north-south route between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. That segment is mostly double track.
The middle segment between Greensboro and Selma (east of Raleigh, where the NCRR crosses a north-south CSX main line and where Amtrak trains turn north toward Washington on CSX), has received most of the attention.
North Carolina officials, from the governor on down, through several recent administrations, have long realized that three hours for train travel between the state capital of Raleigh and Charlotte, the region’s major financial and business center, is a magic number. Run passenger trains in three hours or less, including intermediate stops, and you are competitive with driving the distance of approximately 145 miles on increasingly congested Interstate 85. Not only that; business travelers can work or eat a meal on the train.
(Current running time for Amtrak trains is just minutes more than three hours.)
Trying to get the running time of the trains to that figure has been a long and expensive process. But, as anyone at either the NCRR or the Rail Division will tell you, getting passenger trains to run faster begins with having the host railroad’s freight trains run faster and more efficiently.
The stretch from Greensboro to Charlotte wasn’t much of a problem, as it was already mostly double track and capable of handling passenger trains at 79 mph. Raleigh-Greensboro needed a lot of work.
In the 1990s, freight traffic on this stretch was beginning to pick up — to the point that NS was becoming concerned about the line’s capacity. Sidings were widely spaced — and too short for some of the longer freight trains. Sharp curves, dating from the line’s construction in the late 1800s, limited speeds.
Switches at sidings were all hand-thrown, requiring train crewmembers to dismount and sometimes walk long distances.
Numerous grade crossings dotted the line, with most having only limited safety equipment, not designed for fast-moving trains.
Early this century, after the NCRR signed a new lease agreement with NS and received a huge retroactive payment, a major push began to fix up the line, spread over dozens of smaller projects.
Minor grade crossings were closed. Many others, particularly in urban areas, were equipped with four-quadrant gates (preventing motorists from going around lowered gates). Crossings with active warning devices were upgraded to sense the speed of approaching trains to provide the best protection.
Curves were re-aligned, in some cases requiring a swap of land between NCRR and previous landowners.
But, most importantly, three new two-mile long sidings were added (incorporating some existing sidings), and the entire line signaled for 79 mph passenger train operation. The signal work included remote control of all siding switches — and replacement of the existing switches with ones whose curved route could be taken at higher speeds. (A fourth two-mile siding at Durham was completed in 2007.)
Station facilities along the line were upgraded, but none more so than the one at Greensboro. Amtrak trains calling at Greensboro had a single passenger platform available at an NS freight yard west of the city center. If two Amtrak trains arrived at the same time, which sometimes happened when one was substantially late, one had to wait for the other to clear the platform before it could load and unload passengers. The facility frequently ran out of parking spaces.
Meanwhile, Greensboro’s stately former Southern Railway passenger station sat empty and unused downtown. With revived interest in Greensboro’s downtown, a combination of local, state and federal money was used to restore the old and large station to its former glory, while converting it into a regional transportation hub, also served by local and long-distance buses.
The old station, at the junction of the NS main line between Atlanta and Washington and the NS “H” line to Raleigh and beyond, also needed major track work, as traffic patterns had changed substantially since the station was last used.