Blue Ridge Southern

Blue Ridge Southern offers freight service from Asheville west, but some are asking whether a passenger excursion service could co-exist with the primary business.

Last week’s regional economic development conference centered on railroads is being lauded as an exciting event, albeit for what could “potentially” happen as opposed to any sure progress.

Any passenger rail activity in Haywood is a distant glimmer, but regional leaders say nothing will happen unless conversations are started.

Former N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, who heads the WNC Rail Committee, said the conference intent was three-fold — expand freight rail service in the region; encourage tourism excursions and restore passenger rail connections with Asheville.

“People would love to have passenger rail service to Asheville,” Rapp said, “but realistically, it’s more practical to borrow the model from Wilmington and Moorehead City where people who buy a train ticket connect to the Amtrak bus service to reach their final destination.”

That model, he said, would allow passengers to buy a train ticket to Greenville, South Carolina, the nearest terminal, and then use the bus service to reach the mountains.

Business has sharply declined for some rail commodities, including coal is is being used less and less, so companies now have more capacity to branch out, Rapp said. His committee is working with Norfolk Southern and Blue Ridge Southern on the freight issue, first and foremost, but also on the possibility of limited passenger rail.

“Spend a little time on I-40 and I-26 and you’ll see the reason to get more people on trains,” he said.

Canton Alderman Zeb Smathers said it was “refreshing” to see the excitement in the room where 140 leaders were focused on rail.

“It was a bipartisan, business oriented, information-driven event,” Smathers said. “It was nice to be in a room where all were focused on accomplishing one goal for the region.”

Smathers said those at the conference seemed to be very energized and are definitely paying attention to the opportunities that lie ahead for rail.

“It’s a big idea that may not work, but there was sense of optimism in that room,” Smathers said of exploring how existing rail service could possibly expand to include passengers. “The idea makes some sense. Right now the rails serve Evergreen, Giles Chemical, Jackson Paper. That’s a lot of jobs, and we’re blessed because we can transport by railroad. If I had to choose between jobs and tourism rail, I’d go with jobs every time, but the question is: can they co-exist? Our job is to ask those questions.”

Lynn Collins, the executive director for Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said any economic impact of the discussions for Haywood will definitely be long-term.

“There’s potential down the road to bring in passenger or excursion service, but obviously at core of it all is the freight service,” she said. “(The conference) created a lot of awareness about what could happen in the future.”

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, who chairs or co-chairs several legislative transportation committees, said the current market will not support passenger service to Asheville, much less Haywood County. 

“With all our other transportation priorities, it is not likely the state will invest resources to resume passenger service out west unless the need increases substantially,” Davis said.

Still, the General Assembly is dedicated to maintaining rail service throughout the state, he said.

The glimmers of hope local officials have regarding rail passenger service revolve around private enterprises finding a viable economic model to offer it. In addition to Norfolk Southern and Blue Ridge Southern, those enterprises include Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which offers excursions out of its Bryson City headquarters, or Craggy Mountain Line, which offers both rail and trolley excursions out of Woodfin.

“At end of day, we set priorities that include working with Norfolk Southern to enhance freight service, to actively work to establish Amtrak service to the mountains through a bus service and a commitment to expand all rail service in Western North Carolina,” Rapp said.

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