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N.C., Va. take ''big step'' toward high-speed rail

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Now that the federal government has approved preliminary plans, North Carolina and Virginia are closer to starting high-speed train service from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., by 2010, the Associated Press reported.

The states will begin engineering and environmental studies needed to receive at least half of the $3 billion 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 North Carolina Department of Transportation's rail division.

North Carolina, Virginia and other states on the five proposed routes will lobby Congress next year for money for the project.

The Washington-to-Charlotte route is one of five the U.S. Department of Transportion chose in 1992 for high-speed train service. The Southeast corridor 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 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 last week from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration.

Given Amtrak's uncertain future, however, it's unclear who would operate the trains, which would replace Amtrak's Carolinian and Piedmont routes with faster, more frequent service.

If Congress does not provide steady funding for a high-speed rail program, the state DOT would continue to improve tracks and crossings to shave minutes off Amtrak trips, Simmons said.

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

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.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

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