Other voices: Bring back passenger rail

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Monday we could have made corny jokes about riding the Polar Express — if we had passenger rail service.

We might still do so, one day not too far in the future, if Winston-Salem leaders are successful in their uphill battle to bring back passenger rail service. They say this is the year they’ll start pushing hard to put our city back on the railway maps, the Journal’s Wesley Young reported last week. With hope, vision, good planning and good execution, they’ll succeed. Passenger rail would be a boon to residents, commuters and tourists and another feather in the cap of a city poised to grow.

But it won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. We’re starting, in fact, on the lower end of a steep grade.

Winston-Salem once joined other prominent cities in the state — Greensboro, Raleigh, Charlotte — in offering passenger rail service, as well as smaller communities within their orbit, like Kannapolis and Burlington. But somewhere along the way, we were derailed. Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail operator, seems to have forgotten that we exist.

Amtrak’s plans include extending passenger service to both Asheville and Wilmington, as well as giving Raleigh a connection to points north through Richmond, Va., the Journal reported last week. But they don’t include a stop in the City of Arts and Innovation.

That could change, now that Congress has agreed to invest $1 trillion in our infrastructure — long discussed, long overdue, finally accomplished with President Biden’s guidance — an agreement that includes $66 million earmarked for Amtrak.

Because of our stature and our growth, our city deserves to be included in Amtrak’s plans. The trick is convincing Amtrak.

“We also have got to convince the railroad that it makes sense for them,” Mayor Allen Joines said during a recent meeting of the council’s Finance Committee. “What I have been told is that the railroads have not included us on the list because of their concerns about the marketability of it.”

That’s to be expected; including Winston-Salem has to make financial sense. That means we must have both amenities to attract commuters and tourists and a demonstrated commitment by local residents to travel by rail.

We’d also need to convince Norfolk Southern, which owns the rail line to Winston-Salem, to share with Amtrak.

“They indicated a few years ago that they did not want to share the existing freight line with passenger rail,” Pat Ivey, the division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, told the Journal. “There would have to be a new corridor for passenger traffic if the Norfolk Southern stance did not change.”

So it won’t be easy. We’ll need a lot of “I think I can” spirit.

We do have one foot up already in Union Station near Winston-Salem State University. It was prescient of city leaders to acquire and renovate the station in preparation for this possibility.

We readily confess that some of our support is based on the romantic notion of passenger rail travel. To sit in the train station in Greensboro is to be transported in time, both into a glamorous past and a progressive future. Likewise, riding the train, seated in comfort with the leisure to look out the window at passing scenery rather than sitting stone cold at traffic lights with a foot on the brake.

And the range: Amtrak offers safe and comfortable travel from Montreal and Maine to New Orleans to the Canadian Rockies to the forests of the Northwest coast.

The travel itself can be its own destination.

But there are compelling practical aspects, too. Passenger rail would increase job opportunities, allowing workers to commute to and from nearby Greensboro and other locations, especially larger cities where traffic and parking are prohibitive. The more widespread rail travel becomes, the less expensive it should be.

Winston-Salem should be a train city.

The city will receive allocations from the infrastructure bill and will also have the opportunity to apply for funds through competitive grants. Make the applications good, guys.

“This is a window that we have to do an iconic, significant change in Winston-Salem that has lasting value,” City Council member John Larson said. “We have a great railroad station and have spent a lot of money down there to receive the trains. Now we need to make that happen.”

All aboard?

— Winston-Salem Journal