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N.C., Virginia seeking to speed up rail service to D.C.

(The following article from the Associated Press was posted on the Myrtle Beach Sun News website on June 24.)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- State officials begin answering questions this week about a project to rebuild a largely abandoned rail corridor north of Raleigh needed for interstate high-speed passenger rail service.

The rail corridor between Raleigh and Petersburg, Va., is essential to a $2.6 billion plan to make train travel from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., a viable alternative to driving or flying.

Amtrak trains now take a roundabout route from Petersburg to Raleigh via Rocky Mount, Wilson and Selma at speeds of up to 79 mph. That's because, 20 years ago, the owner of freight rail line CSX ripped up railroad tracks between Norlina, north of Henderson, and Petersburg and tore down the train signals.

N.C. and Virginia officials expect that, within a few years, trains will again rumble through the small towns and backwoods of the Piedmont.

By sending trains along the old CSX rail line at up to 110 mph, the two states could trim the 9-hour-plus trip from Charlotte to Washington to six hours by 2010.

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

Federal regulators approved the general path last year for the Southeast line, including the more direct route from Petersburg to Raleigh through Norlina and Henderson.

State officials are drawing up engineering plans and studying possible impacts on communities, wetlands and historic properties along the 138-mile stretch.

Officials will host workshops starting today to discuss the project.

Communities along the rail line have been supportive of the plan so far. Local officials say they believe passenger trains may spur some economic development if the project revives freight service through the area.

The two states must reach agreement to use the corridor with Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX, which still owns the line. They are also lobbying the federal government for money.

Meanwhile, North Carolina is slowly improving speeds along the existing Amtrak route by lengthening passing sidings, straightening and redesigning curves and installing a computerized train-control system similar to the federal air traffic control system.

North Carolina has trimmed 15 minutes from the trip between Raleigh and Charlotte, which now takes 3 hours, 30 minutes.

Within a year, further improvements will trim an additional 20 minutes.

Ridership will climb on the state-subsidized train as the minutes drop off the trip, said Pat Simmons, director of the state Department of Transportation's rail division.

"We think there's magic in public response when we get below the three-hour mark," he said.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

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