FROM THE CAB - August 2022

By Martin Wheeler

Editor’s Note: Jim Frierson and Dr. David Robinson, CAPT Vice Presidents for South and North Carolina, respectively, are major contributors to this newsletter.

TWO RAIL ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS HAVE JOINT MEETING -- On Saturday, July 16th , the Carolinas Association for Passenger Trains (CAPT) held its regular business meeting in Marion, NC. However, this gathering was unique in that it was also a joint meet with the newly constituted Western North Carolina Rail Committee. The committee has now incorporated itself and is an organization with dues-paying members, officers, and regular meetings.

The purpose in holding a joint meeting was to allow members of CAPT to learn more about what the Western North Carolina Rail Committee has done and is doing in the western part of the state. Representing the group at this meeting were Co-Chairs, Ray Rapp, former State Representative, and Steve Little, an attorney and the current Mayor of Marion, NC. It should be noted that Steve is also an accomplished historian and author of several books on railroading history in the western part of North Carolina.

Representing CAPT were six members including President Martin Wheeler; Treasurer Ralph Messera; NC Vice President Dr. David Robinson; SC Vice President Jim Frierson; Secretary Phil Astwood and board member Ed Locklin. Several other members joined the meeting via Zoom.

Ray Rapp began the joint session by giving a very detailed briefing on the Western North Carolina Rail Committee’s work. He noted that the committee had adopted a new statement of purpose which includes the goal of improving and expanding freight rail services in the region. This goal is important because the group considers this to be the “backbone” of encouraging and developing any future passenger service in the region.

In addition, a part of their goal is to encourage excursion and tourist trains within and into the area from other locations. To fulfill this objective, the committee will work with the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and the Craggy Mountain Line among others.

The major goal for the Western North Carolina Rail Committee, is to re-establish a passenger rail connection from Asheville to Salisbury and ultimately, the Carolinian/Piedmont corridor. This would perhaps start with an Amtrak Thruway Bus Service and be followed by dedicated NCDOT Rail Division-funded passenger trains.

Ray made a point during his remarks, of stressing the key importance of the economic development aspects of restored passenger rail service to this part of North Carolina. In line with his point, he mentioned the industries, both past and present in the western region that benefited from rail service and observed that a few of them still benefit from freight service provided by the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and a couple of other short lines. Restoring regular passenger rail service to the region can only enhance the economic prosperity of western North Carolina, he stated.

Finally, Ray informed those present that there is underway a North Carolina DOT rail study which is due to be released in December 2022. It is currently being produced by a consultant team and the Western North Carolina Rail Committee hopes to have some input into the plan’s development.

After Ray’s briefing, Steve Little spoke to everyone of a Rail Memorial Project to be held on the third Friday in September of this year. Steve is leading the effort behind this project to commemorate the relatively unknown story of the large numbers of convicts and slave laborers who built much of the rail lines, including several tunnels, in the western North Carolina mountains.

CAPT president Martin Wheeler, then discussed how CAPT agreed with the goals of the Western North Carolina Rail Committee and assured those present of its support of their aims. He noted that there are numerous ways of working together to help realize the objective of passenger rail service to western North Carolina.

Martin spoke for all CAPT members when he informed Ray and Steve that we will work closely with them and other committee members toward what are common goals for the two groups.

During the CAPT business meeting that followed the presentation of the Western North Carolina Rail Committee, Martin observed that there should be opportunities to secure some of the federal infrastructure bill funding and use it for extending rail service to Asheville, as well as to eastern North Carolina.

ENGINEERING WORK BEGINS FOR RALEIGH-RICHMOND ROUTE -- “Detailed engineering work on the higher speed Raleigh-Richmond rail passenger route is getting underway thanks to 58 million dollars from the federal Transportation Infrastructure bill passed last year. 911 million dollars is allocated out of the bill for rail and transit in North Carolina during the next 5 years.

The project will rebuild and upgrade the former Seaboard Air Line (S) line to 110 miles per hour maximum operating speeds and will be 90 minutes faster than the current Amtrak route. The line would be opened for service during the next 5 to 10 years in phases and would include new stations in Wake Forest and Henderson, and others in North Carolina and Virginia. NC United States Senator Thom Tillis and NC United States Representative David Price were instrumental in securing funding.

The North Carolina portion of the line would also eventually serve commuter trains for the Triangle linking Wake Forest, Raleigh, and Durham. A companion study on that project is expected to be completed by 2023.”

FUTURE RAIL PASSENGER SERVICE TO GREENVILLE? -- "The possibility of rail passenger service between Raleigh and Greenville is now under study by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The $250 thousand study funded by a federal grant furthers the desire of Pitt County leaders who want rail service for the Greenville area, home of East Carolina University.

The route was pushed by CAPT in the early 1980's as part of a long-distance route linking Norfolk and Raleigh. The idea was envisioned by CAPT's founder, and first President Bill Cobb who was chairman of a Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce Task Force. The long- distance route is no longer possible due to the abandonment of a bridge over the Albemarle Sound between Plymouth and Edenton."

NORTH CAROLINA VP GREW UP AROUND TRAINS -- David Robinson, North Carolina Vice President for the Carolinas Association for Passenger Trains (CAPT), hails from the City of Hereford, England, approximately 16 miles east of the border with Wales. British Railways operated steam locomotives through his town, enabling Dr. Robinson to travel on vacations on trains of the Great Western Railroad.

“When not on the trains, I train-spotted at the Hereford Railway Station. It cost just a penny for a platform-only ticket,” recalls the present-day Raleigh resident.

A CAPT member for more than eight years, Dr. Robinson has an Engineering Science degree from the University of Warwick, Coventry, England. “I then flew the coop to Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, for graduate work in Transportation Engineering,” he said. (Purdue is Indiana’s land-grant institution, best known as an engineering and ag sciences school.)

Improving public transit operations occupied David’s time for the next three years in three cities (Cincinnati, OH; Hartford, CT, and Atlanta, GA) and San Juan, Puerto Rico. At a ski lodge in the Pocono Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania, David’s life changed – he met a lady, who became his wife.

A North Carolina State University (NCSU) friend alerted Dr. Robinson to a key position with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT). For five years the CAPT VP served as the state’s first Public Transit Director. NC DOT subsequently asked David to manage highway planning, project management, environmental mitigation of transportation projects, and transportation research.

Retirement from NC DOT was followed by employment with NCSU’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education. They asked David to work with the staff of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which had taken over the provision of environmental mitigation for NC DOT.

That assignment was followed by one with the staff of NC DOT’s Rail Division’s BeRailSafe Program. Promoting group rail travel on Piedmont trains was Dr. Robinson’s final paid railroad position; NC DOT funded his consultant position.

Three years later, David now runs a You Tube video channel – Transport Cams -- and films trains in North Carolina or anywhere he can get away to, plus arrivals and departures at Raleigh Durham International Airport, construction progress on the Raleigh Beltline (I-440) Widening Project, and soon the Blue Ridge Road underpass adjacent to the State Fairgrounds.

A passionate supporter of a higher level of passenger rail service in North Carolina, he wants to see positive results in North and South Carolina in his lifetime!

To that end, David is now proudly serving North Carolina as a newly elected state representative to the Rail Passenger Association's Council of State Representatives. COVID restrictions and concerns has delayed his participation in the national organization.