By DAVID BORAKS
Whether Norfolk Southern Corp. decides to let commuter trains run on is tracks north of Charlotte some day will depend on how much it thinks passenger service will hinder expansion of freight service on the line. Local officials met with the rail company three weeks ago, and hope to agree soon on the outline of a rail traffic study to answer that question.
The computer modeling study still must be planned and funded, and may not start for some time. Even when it does start, it could be costly and take years to complete. A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman told us last week there’s nothing new to say about the study, which originally was discussed in March. (See March 15, 2012, “Norfolk Southern says Red Line study could take years.”)
The rail company owns the tracks north of Charlotte that Charlotte Area Transit System, N.C. Department of Transportation and local officials hope one day will carry commuters as well as freight trains. The company brought the proposed Red Line Regional Rail project to all but a standstill this spring when it raised questions about the plans to run freight and passenger trains on the same track.
On June 13, representatives from the railroad, the Red Line and CATS held a long-awaited meeting to talk about the possible study – the essential next step for the Red Line project. That meeting, at Norfolk Southern’s Charlotte offices, included CATS CEO Carolyn Flowers; Bill Thunberg, director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission; and Mayor John Woods of Davidson, who chairs the Red Line Task Force of the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Representing Norfolk Southern were John Edwards, General Director for Passenger Policy, and Durwood Laughinghouse, Resident Vice President for Government Relations.
Mayor Woods told the Red Line Task Force last Wednesday that the meeting was amicable. “I thought we had a positive productive meeting, very good communications,” he said. “There was a good bit of chat back and forth among the parties.”
But the two sides have yet to work out who will pay for the study. CATS and the N.C. Department of Transportation both have appointed representatives to meet further with Norfolk Southern to hash out the study’s cost, timing and scope. Brian Nadolny, the Red Line projects manager for CATS, and Paul Worley, NC DOT’s assistant director of engineering and safety for rail, were assigned to negotiate those details with Norfolk Southern.
While Norfolk Southern is saying the study could take years, Mayor Woods is hoping it might only take a year. Even with that more optimistic timetable, local officials are eager to get it going. “That’s a long time for us … we need to keep moving,” Mayor Woods told fellow Davidson Town Board members at their meeting June 26.
PASSENGER VS. FREIGHT
The Red Line commuter and freight line is proposed for 25 miles of track running between downtown Charlotte and Mooresville. Local leaders, NC Department of Transportation officials and consultants had been shopping around a proposed business plan, which outlined possible ways of financing, building and operating the line. It put an initial price tag on the project of $452 million, though Norfolk Southern says it’s too soon to say if that cost would cover the needed upgrades to the tracks.
That plan ran into opposition this winter from anti-rail activists, fiscal conservatives, and from some commercial property owners who would be asked to help pay for project through special assessments, a kind of tax. And Norfolk Southern helped put the project in a holding pattern when it said it wasn’t sure freight and commuter rail would work on the line.
The financing plan remains a big question mark. But even if that works out, there’s still the question of whether Norfolk Southern would consent to passenger trains on its tracks. That’s where the proposed study comes in.
Computer modeling would show how much traffic capacity Norfolk Southern would give up if it allows Red Line passenger trains on its “O” line, which runs from Charlotte north to Iredell County – and on to Salisbury and Winston-Salem. In other words, if passenger trains occupy the tracks for a few hours at the morning and afternoon rush hours, how much time would Norfolk Southern have left to sell to potential freight customers?
For now, the discussion is theoretical. Today, Norfolk Southern operates only a single train daily on the “O” Line, in a round trip. There’s no suggestion that will change any time soon, but the rail company wants to keep its options open.
“We cannot predict the future of demand for freight service on this line, but we are always on the lookout for new business opportunities,” spokeswoman Robin Chapman said in an email.
Norfolk Southern officials would not comment further for this story. But Paul Morris, the NC DOT’s Deputy Secretary for Transit, told the Red Line Task Force last week the capacity question is at the heart of the railroad’s concerns about the Red Line.
“All along there has been, in their mind, the desire … the ability, to divert larger, slower, heavier trains from the main line. So, free up capacity to let them use smaller faster trains (on the main line), and get lumbering trains off that line,” Mr. Morris told the Red Line Task Force last week. “Anything we do interrupts their capacity on this line.”
“Right now they have 100 percent … so any addition of passenger rail interrupts some window during the 24-hour period that could otherwise have freight deliveries,” Mr. Morris said.
Huntersville mayor and task force member Jill Swain suggested the problem isn’t that difficult. “It’s just a scheduling issue,” she said. “What are we studying?”
“It’s not just a scheduling issue,” Mr. Morris said. “They have uninterrupted capacity to run 24 hours a day now. What they need to know if you run your passenger train through the Red Line section of the ‘O’ Line corridor, what will that give us in terms of remaining capacity, and is that sufficient to serve our long-term needs? … That’s what the study will tell them. And then they will have to make a judgment as to whether that remaining capacity is sufficient.”
If it looks like it is, then the next questions will be what improvements are needed to make the line suitable for freight and passenger traffic, how much will it cost, and who pays for it, Mr. Morris said.
The last question could lead to even more intense negotiations: Mr. Morris said the state and CATS wouldn’t be prepared to spend any money that doesn’t directly benefit the Red Line.
Ultimately, whether the Red Line project happens will be up to Norfolk Southern, he said. “It’s their railroad. They have the right to say yes or no,” he said.
RELATED COVERAGE AND LINKS
April 25, 2012, “Red Line officials seek June meeting with Norfolk Southern”
March 15, 2012, “Norfolk Southern says Red Line study could take years.”