Changes Possible to Triangle Area Light Rail Plans

Officials are now thinking a future rail-based transit system in the Triangle can use lightweight coaches and engines over its entire 56-mile length, rather than the heavyweight units they once envisioned. The potential change in approach comes after managers of the N.C. Railroad Co. signaled last month that they believe the region’s main east-west rail corridor is wide enough to support a stop-and-go light-rail system for local traffic and heavier commuter trains for people arriving here from places as far afield as Greensboro and Goldsboro. Light and heavier rail would share the corridor with the Norfolk Southern and CSX freight trains that will continue traveling through the area, planners say. “It’s been done elsewhere,” Durham Transportation Manager Mark Ahrendsen said, “Definitely not on the same tracks, but on the same right of way.”

Below is the full story written by Ray Gronberg of The Herald Sun.

DURHAM — Officials on both sides of the Triangle are now thinking a future rail-based transit system here can use lightweight coaches and engines over its entire 56-mile length, rather than the heavyweight units they once envisioned. The potential change in approach comes because managers of the N.C. Railroad Co. signaled last month that they believe the region’s main east-west rail corridor is plenty wide enough for it. Not only can the 200-foot-wide right of way accommodate a stop-and-go light-rail system for local traffic, railroad officials think they also can fit in heavier commuter trains for people arriving here from places as far afield as Greensboro and Goldsboro. And all that could share the corridor with the Norfolk Southern and CSX freight trains that will continue rumbling through the area, planners say. “It’s been done elsewhere,” Durham Transportation Manager Mark Ahrendsen said. “Definitely not on the same tracks, but on the same right of way.” By opening the door for light rail, the railroad’s stance is allowing officials to rethink the former Triangle Transit Authority’s old scheme of running heavyweight, diesel-powered passenger trains on the existing rail corridor from Raleigh to Cary to Durham, and light rail or buses on a new corridor from Durham to Chapel Hill. So far, they’re enthusiastic about the possibility of running light rail throughout the system because it could do away with the need for passengers traveling to or from Chapel Hill to change from one line or another near Duke University.

Long seen as a flaw of the old TTA plan, that break in the system was considered likely to cost it riders. And because streetcar-like light-rail trains are, well, lighter, less bulky and more nimble than their mainline-style cousins, planners could route them to places off the existing corridor such as N.C. Central University and parts of RTP, Ahrendsen and Triangle Transit General Manager David King said. Light rail is also in some ways easier to build because bridges, roadbeds and other structures don’t have to be as heavily reinforced as those that carry mainline traffic, King said. But planners don’t think that would translate into cost savings. Unlike the trains in the old TTA plan, light rail would run on electricity and likely draw power from overhead wires. Those and their support structures could very well make a light-rail system slightly more expensive than a heavy one, Ahrendsen said. King said a key problem planners would face early on is convincing federal railroad regulators that light rail could share the corridor with freight trains safely. They’d likely have to leave lots of space between tracks, and figure on installing devices on the light-rail trains that would warn operators if a freight derailment has blocked the corridor, King said. Regulators would demand such concessions because “when a relatively light vehicle in terms of structure is cheek and jowl with a locomotive that weighs many times more, if the two were to collide, you know who wins that battle,” King said. “It’s like a Mini Cooper hitting an 18-wheeler.” Separate transportation planning groups based in Durham and Raleigh are in the midst of rewriting their long-range wish lists for road and transit construction. The light rail option has emerged as a contender for addition to them, Ahrendsen said

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