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Wineka column: Waiting for the train

SALISBURY — I was a little early for the 7:43 a.m. train, the Carolinian, which goes from Charlotte to New York.
But I was still surprised that so few people were here at the Salisbury station. I grabbed a bench outside, near the covered platform. A glaring sun already was halfway up the sky, rising above East Spencer. Birds were busy — and singing. I could hear the cars and trucks bumping over the tracks on Kerr Street.
A sign on the station’s wrought iron fence said “No Loitering,” which was exactly what I was doing. A man on a cellphone came out of the waiting room. He seemed agitated and said something to me, which I couldn’t understand.
So I shrugged, and he went back to his phone conversation, then disappeared around the corner. The station manager looked to be delivering a morning newspaper, still in its plastic bag, to the nearby Historic Salisbury Foundation office. He soon returned down the sidewalk, eyeing me suspiciously before popping back into a side door.
Where was everybody? By now the Carolinian was late, and no would-be passengers were inside or out.
At 7:55 a.m., I walked into the waiting room, where Station Supervisor Wes Hodges’ voice filtered out from his office behind the service counter. “Can I help you?”
Hodges has worked at the Amtrak station for 12 years now. Prior to that, he served 20 years as a patient’s advocate for the Hefner VA Medical Center.
He has a warm spot in his heart for veterans and trains — and an affection for this 100-year-old station. Long ago, it was probably the busiest stop between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, he said.
The waiting area is a neat, utilitarian space at the north end of the handsomely restored depot. Five benches. Tile floor. A scale for weighing luggage. Baggage tags. A kiosk from which you can make reservations or buy your tickets with a credit card.
There’s a wall clock, of course. You have to have a clock in a train station. Coke and snack vending machines are available. A skinny palm tree is about the only vegetation.
The eight different departure times — four northbound, four southbound — for Amtrak passenger trains from Salisbury are posted permanently behind the service counter.
But there was a glitch Thursday: Track work being performed by Norfolk Southern Railway had canceled Piedmont trains 74 and 75 and Carolinian trains 79 and 80.
That was why the 7:43 a.m. train had never shown up, Hodges explained. Advisories about the track work were on the counter and tacked to a bulletin board on the wall.
I went to the station Thursday morning just to observe part of a normal day at the station. I wanted to see the people boarding and getting off trains in Salisbury and make up stories in my mind about where they were heading and why.
I missed a good chance. Hodges told me the 7:43 a.m. Carolinian, back on its normal schedule today, almost always has the most passengers.
“That’s my busiest time,” he said.
My next chance to see a passenger train would be 9:08 a.m., when Piedmont Train No. 73 stopped on its way to Charlotte.
So I talked for awhile with Hodges.
“The most asked question is, when are we going to get a train to Asheville,” he said without prompting.
Salisbury is only one of the few manned rail stations for passengers in North Carolina. The others are in Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro and Rocky Mount.
The N.C. Department of Transportation’s Rail Division provides these stations. Hodges, part of a five-person team in Salisbury, works on a contract basis for the division.
“Salisbury’s fortunate to have a train station and train service,” he said.
Freight trains are rumbling through Salisbury all the time, but most people don’t realize that eight Amtrak passenger trains are pulling in and out of here every day of the year — except for track maintenance days like Thursday.
Hodges said some of the regular riders are students from Catawba and Livingstone colleges and military veterans from places such as Greensboro and Charlotte, coming to Salisbury for appointments at the Hefner VA Medical Center.
The veterans often arrive in the morning, walk a couple hundred yards to the nearby city bus stop, travel inexpensively to the VA, return by bus to the station and depart from there in the afternoon.
For his first five years as a station employee, Hodges worked the graveyard shift, when the station is open from 12:30-3:15 a.m.
“Believe me,” Hodges said, “it’s a lonely place here at 3 in the morning.”
But he considers it safe. Cameras are part of the security measures. Amtrak police and dogs sometimes pass through, and station employees have no cash on the premises. Hodges wishes there were a sign to that effect.
He also has lobbied for more lighting in the parking lot, which is landscaped with many trees.
“It’s dark as a closet some nights,” Hodges said.
But he heavily promotes trains as a travel option. The price is competitive ($23 from Salisbury to Raleigh, for example). You’re not battling traffic snarls or looking for parking. And above all, it’s a train ride.
“That’s half the fun — getting there,” Hodges said.
I hate to report this, but the 9:08 a.m. Piedmont broke down Thursday between Lexington and Salisbury.
“Man, the train is late,” I heard one of two men waiting on the train complain into his cellphone.
I had returned to a bench outside the waiting room where I struck up a conversation with a guy who works at Livingstone. Because of the scheduled track work, he had learned he wouldn’t be able to get a northbound train to Raleigh until 5:56 p.m..
The man wasn’t worried. He preaches patience all the time to the kids at the college, he said. He would spend part of the day walking around the downtown — at least it would be good exercise, he said.
By the way, before heading back to the office Thursday morning, I saw plenty of trains. Three different freight trains rumbled past the station, sending their vibrations through my chest.
It was a good vibration.
I like waiting on trains.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com

National Train Day
When: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Salisbury Station, 215 Depot St.
What: open house, come watch the Amtrak passenger trains pull in at 7:43 a.m., 9:08 a.m., 12:41 a.m., 2:08 p.m., 5:56 p.m. and 7:24 p.m.
Activities: pizza and drinks, 11 a.m.; ice cream and cake, noon; train giveaways; games and activities for children; train stories and songs, 10 a.m., by Rowan Public Library; register for train ticket raffle at the station; pick up train schedules, trip planning information and have the staff answer train travel questions.
Normal train station hours: 12:30-3:15 a.m.; 7-10 a.m.; noon-3 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.
Normal train departures *: northbound — 2:32 a.m., 7:43 a.m., 12:41 p.m., 5:56 p.m.; southbound — 1:17 a.m., 9:08 a.m., 2:08 p.m., 7:24 p.m.
* Next Tuesday-Thursday (May 15-17), the 7:43 a.m., 12:41 p.m., 2:08 p.m. and 7:24 p.m. departures are canceled because of track maintenance work. Regular departures resume Friday, May 18.

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