Published: Oct 26, 2012 05:51 PM
Modified: Oct 26, 2012 05:52 PM
Once upon a time America possessed the most extensive railroad network on earth; stretched to a single track, it would have reached the moon.
Trains were frequent, fast and reliable. Even in the 1920s, a crack express could average 90 mph on a run, at a time when cars could barely do half that speed.
Americans a century ago could travel by rail in style and comfort to almost any point in the nation – even to national parks or resort towns like Asheville. Every big city was served, often by multiple lines; so were many small towns – like Hillsborough, where trains called daily for well over 100 years.
The Tarheel State was an early adopter of rail technology. The North Carolina Railroad – the state’s oldest company – was chartered in 1854; Gov. John Motley Morehead called it the “Tree of Life.” It is still a busy route and a vital source of economic sustenance. Each day several freight and eight passenger trains speed though Hillsborough – including Amtrak’s Carolinian, one of the fastest-growing passenger routes in the United States.
Yet a passenger train has not made a scheduled stop in Orange County for 50 years. Why? America fell in love with Henry Ford.
We hit the road and got off track – literally. The nation’s rail infrastructure, once the envy of the world, fell into decline. Train stations were shuttered and razed, from New York’s mighty Pennsylvania Station to the little Southern Railway depot on Nash Street. The last train pulled out of West Hillsborough in March, 1964; the depot was pulled down a decade later (rumor has it the salvaged floorboards are still sitting in a local barn).
This November we have an opportunity to build a new train station and get Orange County back on track. The half-cent sales tax public transit referendum, if passed, would provide funds to develop a new Amtrak depot in Hillsborough – a facility that would benefit all Orange residents, especially those in the northern part of the county. The new depot, located just off Churton Street a stone’s throw from downtown, would be a regional transit hub, served by the 420 bus from Chapel Hill.
Overshadowed by the equally commendable Durham-Orange light rail project, the Amtrak station is the ripest of low-hanging transit fruit in the Triangle. It’s been sanctioned by the Orange County Board of Commissioners, endorsed by the University of North Carolina and supported by resolutions from all three local governments. There’s no need to purchase right-of-way or lay track; the Town of Hillsborough already owns the land designated for the station. Amtrak determined that adding a Hillsborough stop to the Carolinian and Piedmont routes would be profitable. The station would be a boon for local tourism. Students could use it to get home for the holidays – a point the Daily Tar Heel made in an editorial. On game days, buses could run visitors from the station to campus. We’d be a one-seat ride from Charlotte, Washington and New York.
The railroad is a rich vein that runs through our county; we need only tap it. A vote in favor of public transit on November 6 is a vote to plug Orange County back into the nation’s rail grid. It’s about time.
Thomas J. Campanella is associate professor of urban planning at UNC Chapel Hill. He chaired the Orange County Rail Station Task Force in 2009.