Carolina Curious: Why Can't We Use The Railroad?

Carolina Curious: Why Can't We Use The Railroad?

9:22am Mar 27, 2017
The Winston-Salem Southbound Railway passes by Krankies Coffee carrying freight a dozen times a day. Street level rail crossings force conductors to lean on their train whistle downtown. DAVID FORD/WFDD
  • Winston-Salem's Union Station was the city's sole passenger train station between 1926 and 1970. The city purchased the historic station in 2012 for $1.3 million. It may one day be part of ongoing efforts to bring passenger service back to the city. PAUL GARBER/WFDD

  • End of the line or a new beginning for the Winston-Salem Tobacco Historic District. DAVID FORD/WFDD

  • Norfolk Southern Railway tracks near Patterson Avenue and 3rd Street East in downtown Winston-Salem. DAVID FORD/WFDD

Our series, Carolina Curious, continues with a transportation question.

Listener Matthew Fedel asks: "Winston-Salem has a railroad running through it that’s fallen into neglect. Why couldn’t it be used as a commuter route, and what’s the history of railroads in this area?"

As WFDD’s David Ford recently discovered, railroads built the Twin City, and could soon help shape it again.

A Norfolk Southern locomotive shines in the afternoon sun, weaving its way slowly through Winston-Salem’s historic Tobacco District. It passes by enormous red brick warehouses and smokestacks — 19th century remnants of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company — pulling freight from downtown on its way to Wadesboro, about an hour south of Charlotte.

Today, the train’s whistle is just a mild distraction for outdoor diners at Krankies, a popular hangout spot near the tracks. But back in 1910, when the Winston-Salem Southbound Railway first began service here, it represented something very different: massive growth.

In the late 1800s, roughly 4,000 people called Winston home. Ten years after the train’s arrival, the consolidated Winston and Salem census was more than 40,000. When the two cities merged in 1913, Winston-Salem became the largest city in North Carolina, filled with businesses, jobs, and economic vitality.

Back then, just getting the railway to come here was a hard sell — a huge investment with a hefty price tag that local taxpayers balked at for years. Today, that debate continues over a 32-mile long segment of rail heading east, known as Norfolk Southern’s Greensboro corridor.

Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART) Planning Director Mark Kirstner wants to see it converted to commuter rail between Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, and North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. He’s studied the route for years. 

Kirstner on the PART passenger rail ridership studies:

The major results [of the ridership study] were that our local transit systems were not designed, and did not have the ridership to support passenger rail. And this would not be atypical. You know, the routes were designed to serve the community and not necessarily to get people to a rail corridor. There was the population in the area to perhaps support ridership, but there would have to be some changes to the local systems first before that could be proven. That’s not unlike the experience that they’ve had in Charlotte. They doubled their bus system first before they put in the passenger rail. 

On where Kirstner says city and state officials stand on the issue of passenger rail.

I think they all see passenger rail as a possibility for the future. They look to our neighbors down in Charlotte and over in the Triangle area, and see the benefits there. But funding, like most public investment projects, is a very key element. And with a lot of other priorities related to schools and what have you, I think that’s one of the main political barriers. ‘How do we fund something like this? And at what point in the future do we reach that tipping point'?

There are other obstacles to consider. Norfolk Southern Railway isn’t using this intercity line for now. The downtown railway bridges have fallen into disrepair, and several street level railroad crossings in the region slowed freight travel to a standstill. But even so, they don’t want to give it up. That’s because it’s a back-up route for them in case their current freight line lease isn’t renewed.

The company declined interview requests for this story, but responded with a written statement:  

“This strategic route is part of Norfolk Southern's owned alternate to the North Carolina Railroad corridor, and must be preserved in the event that Norfolk Southern's lease on the line is not renewed.”

Kirstner says this is just business as usual. 

This is not [an] uncommon type of response with any passenger rail project where freight is always running in the corridor. The fees that they receive from freight are significant, and is a large part of their revenue. One of the biggest challenges is always working with the railroad, because freight takes precedence. You know, if you take Amtrak from here up to [Washington] D.C., very often the passenger train is pulling over for the freight. This is because they have priority. So, I think they’re always protecting their major interests there: the freight carriers.

Even though Norfolk Southern appears to be putting on the brakes, Kirstner says the negotiations are a long-term process. He adds that there is a growing sense within the transportation industry that the tipping point in favor of commuter rail may not be far off, with many predicting movement in that direction by the year 2025.

It won’t be cheap. Last year, PART’s regional study estimated the cost of building a commuter line between Winston-Salem and Greensboro at roughly $320 million-dollars.

But with all the unknowns surrounding its future, one thing’s for certain — the idea of passenger rail service returning to the Piedmont Triad has already left the station.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referenced the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation as "Piedmont Authority Rapid Transit."

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