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The Piedmont Line

by Christa Wagner

August 6,2007

One of the most pleasant ways to see North Carolina's abundant beauty is by taking the train. A partnership between Amtrak, the federal passenger rail service, and the state's department of transportation offers daily train service between Charlotte and Raleigh with trains 73 and 74, known as the Piedmont. True to what you might imagine about the old-timey locomotive, this train is always on time, the conductors are courteous and the snacks are free. It's a vintage kind of travel that in an era of global climate change, rising gas prices and a culture on warp speed deserves a second look.

The Piedmont is a great train because the state's involvement keeps it running on time. It takes approximately two and half hours to travel from Charlotte to Durham, for example, just as it would by car. The Piedmont is an outgrowth of a railroad company that was formed before the Civil War. It eventually grew to include three lines: Goldsboro to Charlotte; east from Goldsboro; and west from Salisbury. Only the North/South line still carries passengers.

The line follows the same urban arc as I-85, offering stops in Durham, Greensboro, Salisbury, Charlotte and in between. On a recent day trip to Charlotte by train and back to Durham, where I've lived for almost a year, I saw a landscape that is at once entrapped in a kind of fallen Southern grandeur and quietly stoic in its expression of the past. While it is a cliché to make the countryside seem quaint, the storefronts, textile mills, furniture factories, junkyards, farm fields and feed lots are good to see go by, even as they are a bygone way of life.

Sure, the times are changing. The textile mill in Kannapolis has become a hub for biotechnology. From the window of the train as it pulls out of the Bull City (Durham), you'll see tobacco warehouses that have become loft apartments and retail spaces. And in Charlotte, the train rolls right by a mill town turned artist community, NODA. The cities along North Carolina's train corridor are in an economic transition. And, likewise, train travel is a throwback that should be vigorously reinserted as a transit option for every North Carolinian. Don't think of it as romantic and nostalgic. See it as practical and efficient.

Train travel is not only a practical way to get across our state, it's a prescription for overcoming the latest in postmodern ills, climate anxiety, or the guilt you feel for your carbon footprint. A lot of people ride the Piedmont: students, business people, vacationing families, and folks who would rather let someone else do the driving. The success of the Piedmont shows the enthusiasm of North Carolinians for comfortable, affordable and punctual travel options.

One of the few things limiting Charlotte's enjoyment of this service, though, is the lack of a grand entrance, a real Grand Central station. Today the Piedmont arrives at – to put it politely – an unassuming building on North Tryon Street, a building that's a far cry from the carefully constructed image of Charlotte as a prosperous, welcoming and progressive place.

But the train hasn't left the station for good. An exciting new multi-modal transit facility is proposed for West Trade Street. The project is slated for completion in 2011 and would combine inner-city and commuter bus service, regional train service and other modes of transportation such as taxis and bicycles. The multimodal transit facility would serve as our grand central station, creating a place for people to meet and connect. Imagine capturing what we like best about Europe or more historic American cities in a modern, urban train station that allows us to sit and wait, watch others, drink coffee and create our own travel narratives. Trains and the stations that serve them provide more than an important public service – they are a rich setting for character, plot and our civic story.

The Piedmont whistle is sounding. Let's get train travel back on track in Charlotte and build a new multi-modal station in the heart of downtown.

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