The Overlook with Matt Peiken

Passenger Rail on Track | Daniel Walton of Mountain Xpress

September 06, 2023 Matt Peiken Episode 84
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
Passenger Rail on Track | Daniel Walton of Mountain Xpress
Show Notes Transcript

Passenger trains haven’t rolled through Asheville since 1975, but there’s a serious plan from the North Carolina Department of Transportation to bring them back. Daniel Walton's recent story for Mountain Xpress connects the tracks between three decades of studies and recent federal infrastructure funding to a planned 140-mile route from Asheville east to Salisbury. We talk about the environmental and cultural factors playing into the rekindled interest in passenger rail, how the proposed line out of Asheville would feed into a wider web of passenger lines and a long timeline that could leave the project prone to shifting political and economic winds.

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Daniel Walton: you've got to go back to the 1870s to get the very earliest bits of passenger rail. It's hard to build a train to the mountains. You've got to go through. solid rock, you've got to go up some very steep grades. It took a lot of investment.

Former governor Zebulon Baird Vance was one of the main people who pushed through the train in that. that 1870s, 1880s period it had been viewed as a primarily economic driver, as a way to connect the western part of the state, its resources, particularly of timber, with the east, with eastern ports, but when you've got a rail line, you can put passengers on it too.

And when you have this passenger excursion, you've also got the potential for tourism. Some of the earliest bits of Asheville tourism come from the rail and you've got the even the idea of the land of the sky Was tied to a railroad marketing campaign 

Matt Peiken: did passenger rail, start going out of favor like everything else in the country when car culture really started taking over?

Daniel Walton: Sure. I mean, That's the primary driver when the country decided post World War two, that we're going to invest hugely in an interstate system. We're going to deprioritize rail. You get people taking up the freedom of the open road, but there was still good utilization of passenger rail for quite some time.

You'll have old timers talk about how they would take the rail to and from college in Chapel Hill from Asheville as late as the 1970s. So it was still a route that was used. It still had a decent number of commuters even at that time. So back 

Matt Peiken: then in the 1970s, people could ride directly from Asheville to Chapel Hill and beyond.

There were, there was working rail, working passenger rail. 

Daniel Walton: Yeah, Asheville had service. To that part of the world 

Matt Peiken: so why was it discontinued? Was it at a point where the market value, it just, there wasn't enough commercial market for passenger rail by the time it was discontinued? 

Daniel Walton: I think that's the case, that you see decreasing ridership numbers, you see a state that is putting more of its limited transportation dollars into highway infrastructure.

It's just not something that the state is interested in keeping up at that point. I thought it was 

Matt Peiken: interesting that your story mentioned that as far back as 1995. So only 20 years after passenger rail discontinued, there were rumblings about trying to bring it back. Why? 

Daniel Walton: People love trains.

That's the long and short of it. There's a big cultural memory of train travel to and from this area. Some of the biggest cultural touchstones of Asheville. Thomas Wolfe's look at Homeward Angel has sequences of little Tom or his stand in riding the train to and from Altamont.

There are bluegrass songs coming out today about taking the train out of Asheville like it's it's culturally important 

Matt Peiken: But wait a second though, you said people love trains. They must have loved them back in 75 what changed between 75 and 95?

Daniel Walton: I'm not entirely sure, but I just get the sense that after 20 years, the idea was ready to be revisited. 

Matt Peiken: And could it also have been that our interstates were just starting to get more choked? And people thought, gosh, we could use something that's much more expressed than being stuck on I 40 or I 26.

Do you think any of that 

Daniel Walton: comes into play? Certainly the state continues to grow in population and yeah, that pushed more pressure on the infrastructure that, that is there in terms of 

Matt Peiken: highways. So we're talking almost now 30 years since, it's been 28 years since Talk of passenger rail was rekindled to today and your story talks about a line of about 140 miles going from here to Salisbury and That's on existing track.

Talk about this 

Daniel Walton: project. Sure. So the current proposal as you say is It's Asheville to Salisbury connection along track owned by Norfolk Southern, that uses the line currently for some freight traffic. The route would run through Old Fort, through Black Mountain, through Marion, through Hickory.

So hitting a lot of the population centers between here and Salisbury. The idea is that this passenger route would run three round trips per day. It would take about three and a half to four hours, depending on one 

Matt Peiken: way would be three and a half to four hours. Correct. And now this is on existing rail.

And yet the project price was 695 million, according to your story, 665, 665 million. If it's already on existing rail, why so expensive? 

Daniel Walton: That's a great question, and primarily it's because passenger rail is a different animal than freight rail. The federal government requires a lot more safety infrastructure on passenger rail than it does on freight rail, because there are more people, it's more of a risk.

So to upgrade the existing track with a lot of the safety features, particularly something called positive train control, a system of sensors on the trail that at every step of the way is telling the train. Yes, you can go forward. It is safe to proceed. That is a lot of money.

That's, hundreds of millions of dollars. There are station upgrades to make sure all of those destinations along the route. can accept the train, accept people, because the route would still be used for freight and you want to be able to have trains pass each other, you'd need to construct or upgrade some sidings, places where you can shunt one train to the side and let another train pass.

You'd have to buy the trains themselves, which are expensive. This route would, sidings. train sets. And I love how it's train set either if you're a big train or you're a little model train. And there would need to be a maintenance facility, about 55 million somewhere in the train shed to keep all of that running.

Matt Peiken: And this is an NCDOT project, right? That's correct. Now, who would operate this passenger rail? 

Daniel Walton: If I understand correctly, like NCOT is fronting the costs to get this line upgraded for the passenger aspect of things.

Amtrak will operate the line as they do for the other flagship passenger services in the state. The Piedmont and the Carolinian both trains that currently run between Charlotte and Raleigh that are the backbone of the state's rail service. 

Matt Peiken: People aren't going to want to just go from Asheville to Salisbury and then they're stuck there. Is there a network waiting for them to take them other 

Daniel Walton: places? Yes, there is a network now and it's a network that is also potentially expanding in the same time frame that this line would be.

Currently, Salisbury is a stop along the Piedmont and the Carolinian routes the big backbone routes that run between Charlotte and Raleigh and a little beyond in either direction. Also, that corridor has been identified as part of a bigger project, this idea of a southeast high speed rail corridor that would potentially connect Washington D.

C. all the way down to Florida through that part of North Carolina with a service that would be faster and a little more regular than it even is now. This Asheville to Salisbury line isn't just Asheville to Salisbury. It is Asheville's key to a much broader world of rail. Is 

Matt Peiken: there, talk about if you can, is this part of a broader effort happening regionally or nationally to bring back or enhance the usage of passenger rail?

Daniel Walton: Sure. The feds would certainly like it to be Why would they? On one regard, it is a climate effort. Passenger trains tend to be significantly less polluting per passenger mile than cars for the same distance. You see Figures like roughly 80% emissions reduction for the same passenger mile.

on a train versus a car. Obviously that depends on how crowded the car and the train are and what type of fuel they're using in the first place, but no matter how you slice it, there is an emissions reduction. It's also a way to build kind of resilience into the system when you've got multiple ways to move people.

If there's a problem on one, you've got another. people. Highways are also expensive. Rail provides more capacity without having to upgrade highways or having to expand highways, which can be problematic for all kinds of reasons. So the feds have allocated a lot of money in the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill as it's called roughly 66 billion towards passenger rail in particular and 16 billion specifically for new lines that don't exist.

Wow. That's exactly the situation that this Asheville to Salisbury line would. Be in and that's what the state is hoping to get federal support to be clear. 

Matt Peiken: So even though the line doesn't exist, but the rail exists so would there be any connections that are much more in this region?

Would there be with this passenger rail? Or is there talk about having passenger rail from here to Brevard or here to Silva? Or, you mentioned how the mountains play such a role here. Is there a limitation because of our topography to have passenger rail be pragmatic in this region unto itself?

Daniel Walton: Currently there isn't talk of moving passengers from Asheville in different directions, north south. And it's unlikely that will happen, especially because some of those crane tracks are already getting converted into other uses. The Yucusta Trail down in Henderson and Transylvania County.

Is an unused rail line that is just received 46 million dollars from the federal government to be converted into a greenway So 

Matt Peiken: that's really interesting that so there it seems like there's this potential If not conflict, but real question, whether it's reusing for commuter rail or converting to Greenway, both are very contemporary ways of looking at usage Of that rail bed I imagine that would be a real debate in public policy a lot of people make use of greenways who would love to have that multimodal element and at the same time to ease congestion on our interstates, maybe, converting this back to passenger rail even within our region would be the smart way to go.

Are people having those debates or those discussions happening? 

Daniel Walton: I think It's less of a consideration for those kind of inter regional connections. And the passenger numbers probably aren't there. Those types of lines aren't connecting to this existing popular backbone. North Carolina as a whole is seeing record rail ridership numbers.

Those numbers are increasing. There is demand on the lines that are already there. It's also just a lot harder to operate. in, along some of those currently unused lines. You may have heard of the Saluda grade which is the, I believe it was the steepest regularly used passenger line, at least on this side of the country.

And it was just dangerous to run. There were accidents that happened there. And I think in the present day people would be loath to reactivate those. Particular tracks. 

Matt Peiken: Now? Is this committed money? Is this going to happen or what has to happen to make this go 

Daniel Walton: through?

So that is an open question the first Inkling that we will probably get of whether this is likely to go through is in the fall The state has submitted this project to the federal Corridor identification program. It's a new program part of the bipartisan infrastructure law that will provide planning support for new intercity connections.

If our corridor is accepted into that program the people that I talked to pretty much said that's a big indication that more support will be coming. Like the feds have signaled a corridor that gets in this program will enter a pipeline of development and funding opportunities to make it happen.

You still need like 20% of the project to be paid for by state and local partners So you can access that much larger 80% of federal matching funds to do the thing What 

Matt Peiken: would be the local investment in that having to happen? I can see the state putting in money but would there be county or city money going to this?

Daniel Walton: There could be, and when I talked with Ray Rapp and Dan Gurley of the WNC Rail Committee, they suggested that those investments might be made at the station level. And the city of Asheville already has... It's helped by a piece of land in Biltmore Village to construct a station if this corridor becomes a reality.

Municipalities or counties could also potentially pay for staffing of those stations that kind of low level, very local operational cost. Nobody is asking cities and counties to, to pony up for, positive train control on miles and miles of tracks, but they might be asked to support, operations of, you know, the accepting and disgorging people in their own neck of the woods.

Yeah. And 

Matt Peiken: you said now the station would start in Biltmore village. 

Daniel Walton: That is The plan that is studied here, there is a suggestion that the Asheville station could be located in the River Arts District, that would add about five million dollars to the projected cost to extend the line a little bit to do land acquisition and site preparation but there's been a little talk of that as an 

Matt Peiken: alternative.

Gotcha. And in your story also said that the soonest, the absolute soonest that at any rail could actually be happening here would be 2035. Passenger trains starting to roll then. 

Daniel Walton: Anything's possible that it could happen a little bit earlier, but that's the target date that Amtrak has set in its connect us vision plan for the Asheville Salisbury route to be included in its network.

So that's what you should have in mind. 

Matt Peiken: Any type of thing like this where that's 12 years out. Costs change, priorities change. Is political will and political determination and commitment part of whether this happens? And if it is, how can we be sure that, like even people say yes now that 12 years, could this be like an I 26 connector situation that goes on for decades?

Talk of this just keeps happening. Is that a very real possibility? 

Daniel Walton: The I 26 connector is happening. It's like 1. 2 billion, but it is happening. Yes it's very real that this is an essentially political question. The reason that it hasn't happened yet has been political, that rail has not been prioritized over highway investments.

And it's possible that subsequent federal administrations could claw back some of the money that's been allocated to rail in the, the Biden administration's stuff. And we see that I believe there is a house budget that's been proposed that would reduce Amtrak funding levels substantially, whether that passes or not currently, who knows?

But yeah, this whole effort is vulnerable to changing political will as, as much as anything. Yeah, and you 

Matt Peiken: mentioned in your story that the ticket price, or what they're estimating, would be 24 for a one way trip on this. 24 12 years from now might be a bargain. 

Daniel Walton: Yeah all of these projections are in current year dollars.

That's the fare, that's the operating costs, that's the capital costs. In 13 years, it could be substantially more, depends on inflation. 

Matt Peiken: Is there anything we haven't talked about this project that you think is important for people to understand? 

Daniel Walton: I think the question that a lot of train advocates are asking are, how can we make this more likely to happen?

And... What I gathered from both state and local officials is that, the biggest difference that local people can make is to lobby their local officials to support this effort. The state allocates its funding towards transportation based on In large part, what local governments want, and if they hear from Buncombe County, from the city of Asheville, from all the municipalities along the route, we want this and we want this sooner rather than later, then in their funding formulae for transportation projects, they're more likely to match the federal money with state money.

make the Asheville to Salisbury passenger connection happen sooner rather than later. One thing 

Matt Peiken: I didn't ask, and this is, would be purely guesswork, I imagine, on anybody's part but what would be the economic impact for Asheville in Terms of bringing tourism in here, bringing business.

What would the ridership be estimated at? And then what would be the economic impact here? Sure. So 

Daniel Walton: Amtrak has estimated. like a 31 million economic impact along the corridor annually for having this in operation in terms of ridership.

The draft feasibility study conducted for NCDOT estimates like a hundred thousand annual trips by 2045 and then an additional. 290, 300, 000 trips that would be on the line connecting to that aforementioned corridor, the Charlotte to Raleigh stuff. So, Substantial numbers. That's not even considering people who might be coming from farther afield on this southeast high speed corridor, if they were coming from, say, DC wanting to take a pleasure trip to Asheville, this would be a new way for them to get there.

In terms of local economic impact, I haven't seen any particularly solid numbers on that, but There is a thought that this would provide a tourism boost by being another low stress enjoyable way for people across the southeast to get to Asheville.

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