Amtrak round trips
RALEIGH, North Carolina — Tickets are now available for five Amtrak round trips between Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C. for travel beginning July 10. This includes the state-sponsored Charlotte-New York Carolinian and four Piedmont departures. The Raleigh-Charlotte trains are the only service on Amtrak’s network that continues to utilize refurbished heritage coaches built for other railroads before the national passenger carrier’s inception in 1971.
More frequencies; new timetable
The July 10 schedule, available on North Carolina Rail Division’s website, shortens what are now 5-hour midday and afternoon gaps to 3 hours or less while creating a key 5:30 p.m. Charlotte departure where in place of current choices of 3:15 p.m. or 7 p.m.
The service outcome agreement North Carolina finalized with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern in connection with a $520 million capacity upgrade of the 173-mile corridor jump-started with funding from 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act permitted the additional round trip.
“Coming out of the pandemic, clearly the demand is strongly there, and we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity now,” Rail Division Director Jason Orthner tells Trains News Wire. October 2022 through April 2023, ridership and revenue with the current schedule are up 48% and 39%, respectively, over the same period in fiscal 2022.
For the first time, four Piedmont trains have shorter travel times by selectively skipping some stations. Orthner says considerations of which stops to skip attempt to balance operational factors related to platform and crossover availability with ridership potential and faster trips.
With all trains not serving every station, he intends to make downloadable PDF grid schedules available on NC By Train website (Note: the new schedule must be converted to a photo to print). Neither the state nor Amtrak’s site show comparative schedules currently. “The grid is a convenient way to convey information, and we do provide them in paper form now at stations for the communities we serve,” Orthner says.
Adding the fourth Piedmont round trip means cars that periodically were cycled into consists now comprise a third trainset. Orthner says, “The only significant change in maintenance procedures is to make sure we have three ready sets each day instead of two.”
The state’s roster includes 8 locomotives, 5 cab control units, 14 coaches, and 5 baggage lounge cars where vending machines offer onboard snacks and beverages.
He points out, “If something goes wrong on one of the two basic sets of three coaches and lounge running now, we have to assemble a third set in the yard and get it to the Raleigh station; with the new schedule it will be baked into the operation.” Spare coaches will still be available for demand surges, such as accommodating Carolina Panthers crowds.
North Carolina’s heritage fleet has provided reliable mobility for Piedmont patrons since previous North Carolina leaders such as Pat Simmons, Paul Worley, and Allan Paul acquired and refurbished mostly ex-Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern cars during the last three decades. This has been especially true lately as Amtrak and other state partners have encountered challenges deploying and maintaining enough equipment to meet demand.
Future expansion on Amtrak round trips
The Carolinian has always run with Amfleet, and will be among the first trains to get Siemens-built Airo trainsets as a part of the large Amtrak order.
“We’re excited that the state landed the second Siemens plant [“Siemens to build $220 million railcar factory in North Carolina,” March 7, 2023 News Wire], Orthner says. When funding is available, Airo is being considered because the long-range vision for this system is to not keep it captive to Raleigh-Charlotte but to expand north of Raleigh on the now-abandoned former Seaboard ‘S-Line’ and other regional corridors.
The state submitted requests this year to fund 12 potential routes under the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor ID program. “Requests for passenger rail expansion are coming in from all parts of the state,” Orthner reveals. One proposal is an extension through South Carolina to Atlanta; another is for the S-Line to Petersburg, Va., which already received 2022 federal funds to a state match for preliminary engineering.
“We applied this year for an FRA federal-state partnership construction grant for the (17-mile) S-Line segment from Raleigh to Wake Forest, N.C. The goal is to develop serviceable sections that will allow extending Piedmont service north,” says Orthner, pointing out, “it is the most complicated segment where we have already received federally-matched grants for highway grade separation construction.”
Also on tap is moving to downtown Charlotte, where the Rail Division completed Phase I trackwork but the city still needs to partner with a developer for a multi-modal facility.
In the meantime, as other regions and the Federal Railroad Administration contemplate more U.S. rail corridors, the upcoming additional Piedmont round-trip exemplifies how passenger rail can become an integral part of transportation mobility if a state is willing to invest in hands-on management and sufficient equipment to meet demand.