Nearing midnight on March 6th, the Weather Underground reported that the stuff coming down outside was “Light Freezing Rain Mist.” It had been falling, somewhere on the physical line between rain, sleet, snow, and ice since early in the evening.
Local schools would open on a three-hour delay the next day. Despite this weather snarling rush hour traffic in the Triangle, I covered 110 miles from Charlotte to the middle of the state with near-military precision on the North Carolina Amtrak train, The Piedmont.
I traveled to Charlotte for a two-day conference, and given the location of the conference hotel and the time I needed to be there, the train made perfect sense. I drove to Burlington and boarded train 73 on Wednesday morning. Due to some school traffic in rural Orange and Alamance County, I nearly missed the train- I stepped onto the platform at 7:51, and the train departed right on time at 7:53. The station attendant said “cutting it close, huh?” I told him not having to go through security theater and wait an hour to board was the big advantage of the train over the airport. He agreed, checked my ID, saw that I had an E-ticket in the Amtrak app on my phone, and sent me on my way.
For those who have not ridden the train before, or at least not recently, here’s what you can expect these days.
- The train was practically spotless- seats and floors clean, windows washed, with convenient trash/recycling bins everywhere.
- The morning train I took was a mix of business travelers and families/individuals traveling for leisure. The evening train back was the same, but with a significant percentage of college students in the mix
- We hit all our station stops on time southbound, and arrived into Charlotte four minutes early
- Most of the track is continuously welded rail, which makes for a smooth ride
- The Cafe Car is now completely self-serve. Coffee is free; there are vending machines for soda and snacks.
- If you get off in Charlotte, you will find yourself south of Downtown, but across the street, the #11 bus ($2.00) will take you Uptown to both the Transportation Center and the Lynx Light Rail in about eight minutes.
- Electric outlets at all seats- I sent emails and charged my phone most of the way
- There are some nice touches celebrating the Old North State- etched glass panels bearing the state seal; all of the locomotives are named for NC cities, with their number denoting the year the city was founded; a paint scheme derived from the red, blue, and silver in the state flag, and passenger cars named for the State Flower (Dogwood), State Bird (Cardinal), State Mammal (Gray Squirrel), State Reptile (Box Turtle), State Shell (Scotch Bonnet) and more.
- Yeah, I know you’re curious about the State Shell now. Tell us more, Wikipedia!
NCDOT has been steadily developing the rail service between Raleigh and Charlotte since the early 1990s. To keep costs low, NCDOT has refurbished equipment from other rail agencies, most recently adding former Go Transit locomotives from Toronto commuter rail service to their fleet to be re-manufactured and redeployed, far below the cost of buying new locomotives.
Over the years travel time has been cut from more than four and a half hours down to the current schedule of 3:10, which at rush hour between Raleigh and Charlotte, almost certainly beats driving.
The Piedmont has been one of Amtrak’s leading success stories over the past few years, and has regularly been a national leader in ridership growth. An investment of over $520 million as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act will add 32 miles of new track and make numerous other improvements by 2017.
The improvements will allow NCDOT to add two more roundtrips between Charlotte and Raleigh each day, for a total of five departures in each direction including one pair of departures between Charlotte and New York City on the (currently in service) Carolinian.
While my outbound trip was flawless, my return home hit a minor snag- we were delayed outside Burlington for twelve minutes while we waited for the over-an-hour-late southbound Carolinian to pass our northbound evening Piedmont. I still got back to Burlington less than fifteen minutes late, and I later found out that the train made up five more minutes and got to Raleigh only ten minutes late.
The bottom line- we’re on the verge of having a really terrific in-state train service in North Carolina. If you haven’t tried it recently, you should give it a shot on a future trip.