NC: NCDOT got $1.1 billion to build a railroad in Wake County. What does that buy?

Dec. 15, 2023
NCDOT will use most of the federal funding to transform an old railroad between downtown Raleigh and Wake Forest that now handles a couple of freight trains a day into one for passenger trains that go up to 110 mph.

The federal government has pledged nearly $1.1 billion to help the N.C. Department of Transportation begin building a modern passenger rail line between Raleigh and Richmond, Virginia.

In reality, nearly all of that money will be spent in Wake County.

NCDOT will use most of it to transform an old railroad between downtown Raleigh and Wake Forest that now handles a couple of slow-moving freight trains a day into one for passenger trains that go up to 110 mph.

It will mean all new tracks and signals and building bridges and underpasses to eliminate every street crossing. It also means expanding Raleigh Union Station, with a new concourse and platform, and building a new train station in Wake Forest.

“What we’re doing in a lot of ways is turning a railroad that was originally built in the 1840s into one of the most technologically advanced railroads in the Southeast,” says Jason Orthner, head of NCDOT’s Rail Division.

NCDOT is working with the State of Virginia to create a high-speed rail connection between the two state capitals, speeding rail travel between Washington, D.C., and the Southeast. The federal grant announced last week will allow the department to complete the most difficult and expensive section through North Raleigh and suburban Wake County.

When that work is done, the state will use the line for the Piedmont, the Amtrak train that now makes four round trips a day between Raleigh and Charlotte.

NCDOT and Amtrak are providing a 20% match to the federal grant, so the amount spent will top $1.3 billion. Here’s what we know about NCDOT’s plans:

What’s the story behind the existing rail line?
The rail corridor is the second oldest in North Carolina. It was built by the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad, which connected the capital with a town on the Roanoke River across from present-day Roanoke Rapids.

The Seaboard Air Line Railroad took over the Raleigh & Gaston in about 1900 and opened a more direct route to Richmond from the town of Norlina that became Seaboard’s main line.

After a series of mergers, Seaboard became CSX, which abandoned the tracks north of Norlina (but kept the corridor) and downgraded the line south of the town. Today, CSX serves local freight customers with trains that go no faster than 25 mph.

The old Seaboard main line became known as the S-line some decades ago, because of the shape it makes when it turned west at Raleigh and then south again at Cary through Apex. S-line has become short-hand for the Raleigh-to- Richmond project.

Who owns the tracks now?
CSX has sold the corridor north of Norlina to the State of Virginia, which will build new tracks. NCDOT is in final negotiations with the railroad to buy the rest of the corridor between Norlina and downtown Raleigh.

Once the sale is completed, NCDOT will own most of the property it needs to rebuild the S-line. It may need to acquire some property where it plans stations and at some bridge crossings and other spots.

When will construction begin?
NCDOT has been doing planning and engineering work for years and is ready to get started on some pieces of the project in the coming months. First up will be new bridges and underpasses to eliminate the crossings at Durant and New Hope Church roads in Raleigh and Rogers Road in Wake Forest.

Will all the railroad crossings be eliminated?
Yes. More than a dozen new bridges and underpasses are planned between Raleigh Union Station and Wake Forest to eliminate at-grade crossings. Other crossings, such as Jones and Hargett streets downtown, will be closed, with traffic re-routed to nearby bridges. A pedestrian bridge is planned at Jones Street, connecting the Glenwood South area with the rest of downtown.

Orthner likens the process to building an interstate highway, which doesn’t have intersections that can slow down traffic and create safety hazards.

When will Piedmont service be extended to Wake Forest?
Orthner said NCDOT’s goal and best estimate now is that the new tracks, signals, bridges and stations will be completed by 2030.

“I can tell you that my leadership wants this thing done as fast as possible,” he said. “And we’re working to make sure that we hit all the boxes correctly to get it done.”

What changes are planned for Raleigh Union Station
Raleigh’s train station is oriented to the N.C. Railroad tracks with a concourse that leads to a double-sided platform where passengers on Amtrak’s Piedmont, Carolinian and Silver Star trains get on and off.

But the station was designed with the S-line in mind, and there’s room to build another concourse that will lead to a new platform on the other side of the building. Trains to or from Wake Forest and points north will use that platform.

“If you look at the ticket window, you go left to the trains today,” Orthner said. “But eventually you’ll be able to go right as well.”

What other stations are planned?
The federal grant is to help NCDOT establish intercity passenger rail service, so for now the state is focusing on planning and building stations in larger communities. This includes Wake Forest and Henderson in Vance County.

But NCDOT is also laying the groundwork for stations in smaller places, such as Norlina, Youngsville and Franklinton. The thinking is that when the line to Richmond is complete, there will be express trains that make few stops and perhaps local trains that serve these smaller communities.

NCDOT is also working with the City of Raleigh on a potential station where the tracks cross Spring Forest Road.

Where will the Wake Forest station be located?
NCDOT and the town are still working on that. Town officials would like to see it built on the site of an old freight depot in the center of town, but NCDOT is still doing the engineering work to determine if it will fit there, Orthner said.

Will the trains be diesel or electric?
They’ll be diesel, as current Amtrak trains are in North Carolina. Orthner says they’ll likely be built at a factory that Siemens Mobility is building in Lexington and be designed to run on both diesel and electricity. That means the trains will work both in the Southeast and on the electrified tracks of the Northeast Corridor.

“Right now they have to change locomotives in Washington,” Orthner said. “These trains will basically, with the flip of a switch, just keep going.”

Will freight trains continue to use the line?
Yes. CSX will continue to serve its customers. The line will have two tracks in many places and sometimes three to keep passenger and freight trains separate.

“A major component of this is ensuring that freight continues to be successful on the line,” Orthner said.

What other S-line work is planned?
NCDOT has longstanding plans to eliminate two railroad crossings in Cary, at Maynard Road and Trinity Road, but hadn’t planned to do either anytime soon. Under its current schedule, the state doesn’t plan to begin building a bridge at Trinity until 2029.

Both crossings are on the S-line, though outside the corridor between Raleigh and Wake Forest that is the primary focus of the federal grant. The grant could allow NCDOT to accelerate those projects, but that’s not clear yet, Orthner said.

What’s planned north of Wake Forest?
NCDOT will continue to seek federal money to help continue building the line north to Virginia, but for now the timing of that work is unclear.

“There’s no goal to stop at Wake Forest,” Orthner said. “We’re definitively working to continue to secure grant funding going north.”

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.