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Passenger Rail Study Picks Eastern Route

By Emma Dill, posted May 3, 2024
(image from Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study)
It’s been more than 50 years since passenger rail linked Wilmington and Raleigh, but there’s a renewed push to bring back a passenger route between the two cities.
A recently released draft of the Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study examined the proposed rail line. The study recommends running the line through Goldsboro and offers new projections about its cost and service areas.  

The study is an important step in the process of bringing passenger rail back to Wilmington, according to the leaders of the nonprofit advocacy group Eastern Carolina Rail. The group was formed last year by longtime Wilmington developer Gene Merritt and entrepreneur Steve Unger to advocate for the restoration of passenger rail between the two cities. 

The two have experience advocating for new transportation corridors. Merritt spearheaded the push to extend Interstate 40 from Benson to Wilmington in the 1980s, while Unger pushed for the construction of the Hampstead Bypass along U.S. 17. 

In December, the proposed route received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The money was part of a larger $3.5 million grant designated for seven rail projects across North Carolina. The grant aimed to help identify rail corridors and develop scope, schedule and cost estimates for potential passenger rail lines. 

The latest feasibility study, prepared by Florida-based firm WGI Inc., compares two potential route options linking Wilmington with Raleigh: a western route through Fayetteville and an eastern route through Goldsboro. 

The study ultimately recommends going through Goldsboro – a finding that will allow planning to move forward, according to Unger. 

“This is really big news because, for a while, the state’s been telling us and others that, ‘Okay, we’re probably going to go through Goldsboro.’ But this is the first definitive announcement on that,” he said. “And this is also the next step towards getting out of the selection process and into the planning process where more extensive work will be done.” 

Merritt said he sees the study as a move in the right direction.  

“I see it as a significant victory for our cause,” he said. “We feel that it’s a step forward, and we feel good about it right now.” 

According to the study, the eastern route through Goldsboro would be 134 miles long compared to the 187-mile-long western route via Fayetteville. The eastern route’s estimated travel time between Wilmington and Raleigh is two hours and 35 minutes, while the western route’s is estimated at three hours and 30 minutes. The eastern route is expected to cost $810 million, and the western route would cost $980 million – price tags that include track infrastructure, rail signals, stations and other equipment. 

The study recommends running three round trips a day. The eastern route’s annual operating and maintenance costs would range between $12 million and $14 million. By contrast, maintaining the western route would cost more – between $15 million and $18 million, according to study projections. 

The recommended route would follow the N.C. Railroad Company lines between Raleigh and Goldsboro. Then it would continue to Wilmington through corridors owned by the N.C. Department of Transportation and CSX. 

Annual ridership from Wilmington is projected to be about 50,000 by 2045, with connecting ridership numbers ranging from 130,000 to 260,000 by 2045.  

The more direct route and lower cost were factored into the study’s eastern route recommendation.  

The line would run through Raleigh, Clayton, Selma, Goldsboro and Wilmington, with two other additional station sites still to be chosen.  

Unger said Eastern Carolina Rail will advocate for at least one more station and hopes to see stops in Burgaw, Wallace and Warsaw. The group would also like transportation officials to examine the feasibility of linking passenger rail service to Wilmington International Airport, Unger said.

The proposed rail line would require restoring once-used rail corridors and stations and building new ones. Wilmington doesn’t have an active rail station, but the study identifies Padgett Station and the nearby existing rail bed as potential future stations. The study states that a more detailed service development plan will be needed as the project moves forward. 

The new rail line would also create redundancy in the rail network that would help sustain service during hurricanes and other natural disasters, the study noted. In past studies, the Department of Defense has expressed interest in another rail corridor to provide direct and redundant access to Wilmington’s Port. 

The eastern route will be pursued through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor and Identification and Development (CID) Program. The CID Program is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021.  

It includes $44 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration’s discretionary grant program and $66 million for passenger and freight rail infrastructure. The project would likely be funded through state and federal dollars, Unger said. 

Although not part of the recommended Wilmington to Raleigh route, the study suggests looking at a direct passenger rail line from Fayetteville to Raleigh through the CID Program. The Fayetteville area has a larger potential ridership population, the study notes, meaning the construction of both lines – linking Wilmington and Fayetteville to Raleigh – will capture the largest number of passengers. 

The draft study will be open for comments from stakeholders before becoming a final report later this year. Once the draft is finalized, advocates will start working to secure funding to pay for the $810 million line. 

“Our object is to get passenger service returned as quickly as possible,” Unger said, “and the faster we can move along this process, the faster we can get trains.”
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