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Eastern Carolina Rail

Written By Eastern Carolina Rail

On an ominous March 1, 1968, a sizeable crowd gathered to watch the last “Palmetto” pull out of Wilmington, North Carolina at 5:15 pm on its last Seaboard Coast Line run - headed to Rocky Mount and connecting to Raleigh. With this event, passenger trains from the former corporate home of the Atlantic Coast Line were now history. But today, change is in the air.

The return of passenger rail started with a whisper. A 2005 N.C. Department of Transportation study laid out the case for the return of passenger rail, with the biggest missing link (other than the missing tracks from Castle Hayne to Wallace) being the funding needed to restore the trains.

Future funding is no longer speculative fiction. President Joe Biden announced a possible infrastructure plan in 2021 that detailed numerous investments including $80 billion designated specifically for rail. Passed into law by Congress, this funding is now being allocated – and North Carolina is seeking its share. The Rail Division of the NC Department of Transportation wants to increase passenger train service across the state, including restoration of Raleigh to Wilmington service, with up to three Amtrak trains per day. As currently envisioned, stops would take place at stations within all counties on the route, including Burgaw in Pender County.

Unfortunately, the line that ran from Wilmington to New Bern (through Hampstead and Holly Ridge) is not rescheduled for restoration since the right-of-way reverted to private owners after the track was pulled up and much of it ended up covered by Highway 17 widening in the 1990s. One long term NC DOT proposal is for passenger train service to go from Goldsboro to Morehead City via New Bern. Train service would be restored to Goldsboro as part of the favored Wilmington to Raleigh route.

But the Wilmington to Raleigh restoration is not set in stone. A provisional federal grant of $500,000 has yet to be approved and as the project moves forward, an 80 percent federal commitment will require a 20 percent match from state sources according to the DOT. The complete project is expected to cost more than $100,000 million. The 2005 Survey is being updated. Tracks must be restored between Castle Hayne and Wallace, bridges and trestles replaced, tracks upgraded and agreements between CSX, Amtrak and other entities worked out.

To make this a reality over the next decade or sooner, support is needed – from county boards, municipalities, members of Congress and U.S. Senators, state legislators, and the public sector. Supporters hope funding does not go elsewhere. To that end, Eastern Carolina Rail, a new non-profit organization based in Wilmington, is spearheading the fight to return passenger rail to the coast, already making the merits of this project known and gaining support for it. Eastern Carolina Rail is headed up by Wilmington businessmen Gene Merritt and Steve Unger, former publisher of Topsail Voice. Merritt led the successful fight to complete I-40 from Benson to Wilmington and was the founder of DARE, an economic development engine in Wilmington.

Here is how the public can provide support for this project. First, individuals can sign the petition that is being made available at EasternCarolinaRail.com and put their name on file with others supporting the return of passenger rail from Raleigh to Wilmington. Next – call, write or e-mail public office holders and request their support. Finally, contact the NC Rail Division of the DOT (919-707- 4700) and let them know what you think. A series of presentations will be scheduled and publicized through the media including Topsail Times. For more information e-mail easterncarolinarail@gmail.com or call 910-632-0097.


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