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High-speed trains are closer to reality in N.C., Va.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina and Virginia are a step closer to starting high-speed train service from Washington. D.C., to Charlotte by 2010, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Now that the federal government has approved their preliminary plans, the states will begin detailed engineering and environmental studies needed to receive at least half of the $3billion cost from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"This is a major bureaucratic step -- but a big step nonetheless," said Patrick Simmons, director of the N.C. Department of Transportation's rail division.

Because Amtrak's future is uncertain, it's not clear who would operate the trains, which would replace Amtrak's Carolinian and Piedmont routes with faster, more frequent service.

North Carolina and other states on the five proposed routes will lobby Congress next year to set aside money for high-speed trains.

If Congress does not set up a steady stream of money for a high-speed rail program, the N.C. DOT would continue to improve tracks and crossings to shave minutes off Amtrak trips. "We'd still get there, but not as fast," Simmons said.

The state recently cut 10 to 14 minutes off its Raleigh-to-Charlotte trips and expects to save 20 minutes more with track work next year.

The Southeast corridor, from Washington to Charlotte, is one of five routes the U.S. DOT chose in 1992 for high-speed train service. It would connect with existing high-speed service from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Virginia and North Carolina's chances for federal money are better than for the other routes because a study shows their route is the only one that can pay its operating costs from passengers' fares, Simmons said.

The corridor is also the only one to win approval for its plans by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration.

Planners hope to attract people who now drive or fly 300 miles or less. Charlotte passengers could travel to Raleigh in 2 hours and 20 minutes, to Washington in 6 hours, 14 minutes and to Atlanta in 3 hours.

Trains would average 85 to 90 mph, with a 110 mph top speed. Currently, the average is about 45 mph. Eight trains would run daily between Raleigh and Charlotte and four between Raleigh and Washington -- twice the current number in both cases.

Later, the track would be upgraded between Charlotte and Atlanta. A second leg, from Raleigh to Columbia, Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., is several years behind the Charlotte line.

The route would be similar to that now run by Amtrak's Carolinian, but would be more direct by eliminating service to Wilson and Rocky Mount. That would require rebuilding a dismantled rail line from Warren County to Petersburg, Va.

The cost to renovate the rail lines from Charlotte to Washington is $5 million to $6 million a mile -- about a third the cost to build a mile of interstate highway.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

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