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Asheville hasn’t had passenger rail service since 1975. That may change.

Railroad tracks near the site of the former Southern Railway Station in Asheville's River Arts District.
Felicia Sonmez
Railroad tracks near the site of the former Southern Railway Station in Asheville's River Arts District.

A few times each day, a train rolls through historic Biltmore Village, a shopping district just south of downtown Asheville near the sprawling Biltmore Estate.

The train isn’t carrying passengers, though – it is loaded with freight. The last passenger train rolled through Asheville in 1975 on its way to Salisbury, 130 miles to the east.

In the years since, all of Western North Carolina has been cut off from the passenger rail service that connects the rest of the state. Asheville’s closest Amtrak station is more than an hour away in South Carolina.

But new federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law may change the rail situation. Twenty-six-year-old Asheville resident Mari Hays said it is about time.

Asheville resident Mari Hays.
Felicia Sonmez
Asheville resident Mari Hays is among those who say the return of passenger rail would benefit the city.

“I mean, not everyone can afford cars,” Hays said, not far from the intersection where the freight trains roll by. “And we have a lot of – I work for Biltmore – and we have a lot of international employees that come here and they have to take the bus.”

In the 1940s and ‘50s, private freight companies operated passenger lines through the area. As cars and planes became more popular, ridership dwindled. Trains in that era also made money by delivering the mail, according to Martin Wheeler, the Charlotte-based president of the Carolinas Association for Passenger Trains.

“But then that finally went away, so it got to a point that the freight railroads were really having to – they couldn’t recover the cost on that service,” Wheeler said.

Swannanoa resident Patricia Lowery remembered riding the train from Black Mountain across Old Fort Mountain as a little girl. The route is among the most scenic and winding in the state.

“I was young. Probably like first grade, maybe?” Lowery said. “And I just, looking out the windows and seeing – and we went through a tunnel, and we thought it was so cool, as children. I wondered why I’ve never been able to do that again. So, it would be fun.”

During the heyday of train service in Asheville, the city was fortunate to have had two train stations. One, a grand, towering structure, was located on Depot Street in what is now the River Arts District. That station was torn down in the 1960s.

The old Southern Railway passenger station on Asheville's Depot Street during the floods of July 1916.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library
The old Southern Railway passenger station on Asheville's Depot Street during the floods of July 1916.

The other is a one-story building designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House. That building has survived: Since 2009, it’s been a popular restaurant in Biltmore Village.

Amtrak was eventually created in the 1970s to take over some of those passenger rail routes with support from the federal government. Even so, passenger rail service in many parts of the country simply disappeared.

Western North Carolina was not alone in the loss. Other American cities including Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Knoxville, Tennessee have lacked passenger rail service for decades.

A phase of optimism

Wheeler has seen a lot of efforts to bring back passenger rail to Western North Carolina. His organization has been around since 1981 – with Wheeler at the helm since 1984. Over the decades, there have been plenty of efforts to bring back rail service, only for funding or political momentum to falter.

But this time is different, he says.

“There’s really a conduit of money now that’s available, and it’s really getting people enthused that perhaps something can actually move forward now,” Wheeler said.

Former North Carolina legislator Ray Rapp gives a thumbs-up next to an image of an Amtrak train.
Courtesy of Ray Rapp
Former North Carolina legislator Ray Rapp co-chairs the Western North Carolina Rail Committee and has been a key advocate for the return of passenger rail to the region.

One of those people is former Mars Hill mayor and North Carolina legislator Ray Rapp, who led committees focused on expanding rail service during his decade in the General Assembly.

“I’m as optimistic about the restoration of this service today as I have been in over 25 years of talking about this, advocating for it,” Rapp said.

Rapp, a Democrat, works with Marion mayor Steve Little, a Republican, to co-chair the Western North Carolina Rail Committee, an independent organization that aims to increase rail services in this part of the state.

The return of passenger rail could open other doors for the region, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is get Western North Carolina back in the rail system,” Rapp said. “And if we can do that – with this connection – it’s going to open the Northeast Corridor to us; it’s going to open Charlotte to Atlanta to New Orleans.”

The Federal Railroad Administration recently awarded $3.5 million in funding to study seven new rail routes or improvements to existing routes in North Carolina including the passenger route from Asheville to Salisbury.

A map of the current and proposed passenger rail routes in North Carolina.
NCDOT
A map of the current and proposed passenger rail routes in North Carolina. (Not all of the potential stops between Asheville and Salisbury are displayed.)

The $3.5 million is part of $66 billion in federal funding that is dedicated to the nationwide expansion and improvement of rail services under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

At a recent event in Raleigh, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Governor Roy Cooper and others celebrated $1 billion in federal funding for a different rail project – a new, faster rail route between Raleigh and Richmond, Virginia.

Jacques Gilbert, mayor of the town of Apex in Wake County, described the impact rail service can have on local communities.

“Rail is an important part of making sure our economic and population growth continues while maintaining the quality of life that we have,” Gilbert, who is also vice-chairman of the Metro Mayors Coalition, told the crowd. “I know my fellow mayors across the state of North Carolina are excited about expanding passenger rail here – not only in big cities, not only big cities, but also small cities, urban, suburban and rural.”

Questions remain

Despite the advances, the return of passenger rail to Asheville is not right around the bend. Current projections set the timeline anywhere from six years to more than a decade.

A sign near the site of the former train station in Asheville's Biltmore Village. Since 2009, the building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, has served as a popular restaurant.
Felicia Sonmez
A sign near the site of the former train station in Asheville's Biltmore Village. Since 2009, the building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, has served as a popular restaurant.

Questions remain about the details. One key decision yet to be made is where to locate a new station: in Biltmore Village or in the River Arts District.

The project also comes with a hefty price tag: a line from Asheville-to-Salisbury would cost $665 million, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Federal funding will likely cover 80 percent, with state and local funding needed for the remaining 20 percent.

Jason Orthner, director of the NCDOT’s Rail Division, said he’s “confident” that the project will progress now that it’s been designated at the federal level. A recent DOT study ranked Asheville as the top destination that passengers would like to see added to the national rail network.

It is also not just tourists who would take the train, Orthner said.

“One of the things that we're also seeing through our analysis of our current ridership is that there is just tremendously wide demographics of the folks who use the train,” Orthner said.

Kathy Meacham and her 6-year old granddaughter, JoJo.
Felicia Sonmez
Kathy Meacham and her 6-year old granddaughter, JoJo.

“Folks who use it for business; for visiting family; college students getting back and forth, you know, to home and to school; health care reasons. We have a huge population of disabled folks that – where the train really becomes a vital part of their transportation system,” he said.

While there is support for a new chapter in Asheville’s rail story, some prospective riders may need some convincing.

On a recent afternoon, local resident Kathy Meacham asked her 6-year old granddaughter JoJo about riding the train.

“There’s gonna be a train, maybe, coming here to Asheville,” Meacham said. “Would you like to have a train here in Asheville, Jojo?”

JoJo had many questions. Would the train come today? Another day this week?

“No, another day next year,” Meacham replied.

“Next year … um, no,” JoJo said. A moment later, she quickly changed her mind: “Oh, actually, yes.”

JoJo might have to wait longer than a year, but one day, she might get that chance.

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.
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