Greensboro/High Point passenger rail on upswing

Edited by Chip Deyerle for Days of Steam from an Amtrack posting.

Ridership on Amtrak trains through Greensboro and High Point grew steadily in the past 15 years, in keeping with a nationwide trend favoring shorter routes that link major metropolitan areas.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that regional Amtrak routes covering less than 400 miles account for most of the rail network’s 58 percent gain in passengers since 1997.

Not surprisingly, the report pinpointed such densely populated regions as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as the greatest sources for growth in passenger numbers that rose to more than 31 million last year.

But the researchers also singled out North Carolina for steadily increasing ridership and for providing more financial and administrative support to its regional routes than many states. North Carolina’s homegrown rail service includes the Piedmont and Carolinian routes with a total of six stops daily at each of the Guilford County terminals.“In North Carolina, you do have a long-standing commitment to passenger rail and that’s important,” said Robert Puente’s, the author of the study and a senior fellow in Brookings’ metropolitan policy project.

In addition, the report highlighted the rail stations in Greensboro and High Point among 20 metros nationwide that at least doubled their passenger numbers since 1997, a benchmark year when Amtrak’s operating framework underwent major reforms. Puentes and his fellow researchers found that Amtrak service in the two cities grew by 152 percent in the 15-year window,

from 68,600 riders to 173,246 last year. The report looked at Greensboro and High Point as a single unit because it focused on metropolitan areas”, he said.

The report complimented North Carolina for providing a total $4.7 million yearly to support passenger rail, particularly the Piedmont route using state-owned engines and cars. The Piedmont runs only intrastate from Charlotte to Raleigh, while the twice-daily Carolinian keeps going to New York. It’s unclear whether the state’s current level of support will continue under the new administration of Gov. Pat McCrory. During his previous tenure as Charlotte mayor, McCrory championed that city’s light rail system, but state government faces steep budget challenges that could make passenger trains a target.

McCrory’s press secretary, Crystal Feldman, said residents will have to wait to learn whether any rail service is on the chopping block. “The governor will not release any details of his proposed budget until he presents it to the General Assembly later this month,” Feldman said in an email last week.

The state already has 30 railroad improvement projects in the works, many linked to the Southeast High Speed Rail corridor aimed at boosting travel speeds between Washington and Charlotte, said Nicole Meister of the N.C. Department of Transportation. “That’s going to help both freight and passenger travel,” Meister said of the track and crossing improvements between Charlotte and Raleigh.

The Brookings report found that ridership on Amtrak routes longer than 400 miles gained only slightly in recent years, accounting for just 17 percent of overall Amtrak fares last year.

The study pointed out that although the Carolinian stops in six other states and the District of Columbia, North Carolina is the only one contributing to its operation, a total of $2 million per year. The train makes 12 stops in the state, more than twice as many as any of the others.