Amtrak service to and from Raleigh is exceptionally good, with a total of eight trains a day.  Four of those trains connect Raleigh with Washington, New York, and the entire NE Corridor.  Amtrak ridership to and from Raleigh, which would be called O&D traffic (Origin & Destination) by the airlines, has risen dramatically over the past decade to become the second highest numbers after Richmond, Virginia.  As a result, the current Raleigh Amtrak station is woefully over-taxed. Parking is limited, and the facility is bursting at the seams to serve all the rail passengers.

The trains to the Northeast are already invaluable alternatives to flying or driving, especially for trips to Washington, DC.  Riding up in Business Class on the Carolinian to DC or NYC is, of course, a lot slower than flying, but it’s a great way to get work done in s comfortable, roomy, no-stress environment for very little money compared to flying.  Trains also put you right in the heart of the city instead of landing at a distant airport.  I know a lot of people who formally flew or drove to DC for meetings who now take Amtrak whenever it’s feasible.  The train has become their number one preference when time permits.

Now comes the prospect of Higher Speed Rail trains that would serve Raleigh with faster and even more frequencies some time in the next decade.  The rail corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte is already being upgraded to handle those trains, with $545 million being spent from the ARRA funds.  Our local transit authority has proposed Commuter Rail Transit service (CRT) as well, all of which would stop at the Raleigh station as well.  And Light Rail Transit (LRT) is planned by the same agency to come later, with its own connection to the Raleigh station, of course.
The burgeoning intercity and local transit rail traffic demanded a new station facility for Raleigh, and we found one in an large, unused industrial building that sits in the middle of three tracks in downtown where all these rail services pass by, an area called the Boylan Wye (a railroad wye is where three tracks connect in a triangle).  It’s an ideal location, and an ideal size for the expected traffic.  The project will be an adapted reuse of the existing industrial building.  We call it Raleigh Union Station, and I will be reporting on its progress through the current design phase all the way to construction and the grand opening.  The picture above and this PowerPoint presentation demonstrate what an exciting project this is for Raleigh.

In my role as Co-chair of the Passenger Rail Task Force for the Raleigh City Council, I participate in ongoing stakeholder meetings to provide feedback as the design is refined.  The so-called “25% design phase” is nearing completion, and the station plan is looking spectacular!  Our third and final stakeholder update was conducted earlier this week, and I left elated at the progress and creativity that is going into the design.  But nothing is perfect, of course.  Here are some considerations that occurred to me after the briefing:

  1. How much income will the aggregate office and retail spaces be likely to generate?  How close is that total projected revenue to total operations and maintenance costs per annum?  Regarding the station’s potential income generation, the City of Raleigh, which will own the building when complete, needs to know how many square feet are dedicated to office and retail.  The design firm leading the project referenced “Class A” office space.  Since rates will change over time, we do not know yet what the going rate is in that neighborhood.  In addition to the “maintenance” cost line item, what does the “all in” budget look like at the 25% level, and what are the core assumptions? We will need to see all of the numbers and their derivation to answer these questions.
  2. There are just 35-37 onsite (inside the wye) parking spaces. Where will the structured parking be located? How much will that facility cost?  We also need to understand how RUS development will be coordinated with the parking analysis.  That is, will the structured parking be adequate for both RUS patrons and the hoped-for influx of people using surrounding development?  Will we know what we need to know when we need it?
  3. Where will the bus facility be located for Triangle Transit (TTA), City bus service (CAT) & Greyhound intercity bus service? How much will that cost?
  4. Where will Triangle Transit’s LRT station be now, and how will it connect to RUS? (There are indications TTA now favors Hargett Street rather than West Morgan as the best LRT route to serve RUS.)
  5. How will cyclists access the wye safely? Where will they be able to park their bikes?
  6. When TTA’s CRT service begins, will the 3rd station track be ready along with the low level commuter rail platform? And will commuter riders be able to walk up to the CRT platform without going through the station and access tunnel?
  7. Considering the total forecast future ridership numbers when all rail services are operational (conventional Amtrak & NCDOT trains as at present; the added high speed rail Amtrak frequencies; TTA’s Commuter Rail frequencies; TTA’s Light Rail Transit frequencies), will RUS capacity be adequate for vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic?
  8. The lead design firm has been creative in finding attractive solutions and maximizing use of the available footprint. RUS will be a handsome addition to Raleigh.  The tricky part, however, is access to/from the site for all modes. The City needs to be looking at the traffic engineering and street configuration. The new connection to West St is currently designed for a left hand turn.  What happens when and if West St is extended South. Same for the rail bridge at that location. Also how will be new rail bridge be designed to function “now” and later be modified for the West St extension. A proper circulation plan, with details and assumptions clearly identified, will be necessary.
  9. The track solution around and through RUS is still not at consensus. The Norfolk Southern Railway submitted a plan that NCDOT is working with to perfect. Commuter Rail (CRT) platform height, ADA gap, and other details are still unresolved. We are not sure what we do with CRT access to the platform given present and future security issues, but that will be figured out in time.  A track plan will also get worked out, as will phasing and construction with the three operating railroads: Amtrak, NS, and CSX (North Carolina Railroad is the landlord that leases its rail corridor to NS and isn’t an operating railroad).

The good news is that all the issues above have solutions, though some are expensive (e.g., parking structures) and some require trade-offs (e.g., bicycle parking outside the wye).  A big issue that is not pertinent to the 25% Design Phase is station funding for follow-on design and construction.  I will be discussing those challenges in future posts.