Passenger train ridership sets record in North Carolina

A record number of people rode North Carolina’s passenger trains in September as the state-subsidized rail service recovers strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Piedmont and Carolinian trains carried 48,488 people last month, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. That’s nearly 15,000 more than the same month in 2019 and about a third more than the average pre-pandemic monthly ridership from 2014 to 2019, according to NCDOT.

Governor Roy Cooper announced the milestone for the 32-year program, which runs through NC By Train.

“A strong and growing state needs efficient transportation options, and it’s clear that more and more people are choosing NC By Train,” Cooper said in a written statement. “We must continue to invest in connecting our communities with high quality passenger rail service.”

NC By Train started in 1990 with the Carolinian, which makes a dozen stops around the state on a daily round trip between Charlotte and New York. Piedmont began making daily trips between Raleigh and Charlotte in 1995, with seven stops in between.

The trains are operated by Amtrak, at a cost to the state of approximately $9 million per year.

NC By Train ridership increased in 2018 when NCDOT and Amtrak began a third daily round trip from Piedmont. Piedmont and Carolinian served an average of 38,651 passengers per month in 2019, peaking at 44,825 in April of the same year.

Demand for train travel in the state then plummeted 95% in the spring of 2020 when schools and businesses closed and governments ordered people to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The state and Amtrak operated just one train a day for several months before more people started venturing out.

Demand has since picked up and has been particularly strong since last spring. North Carolina trains have carried an average of about 46,150 passengers per month since April 1, according to the NCDOT; the previous record set in September was set in July, at 47,967.

The numbers do not include four long-distance Amtrak trains that make multiple stops as they cross the state between New York and the Southeast.

Other forms of mass transit have yet to fully recover from the pandemic. According to the American Public Transportation Association, local transit ridership nationwide in September was still 70% of pre-pandemic levels. And even though the airports are once again packed, passenger traffic at Raleigh-Durham International Airport through August this year was still around 82% of what it was in 2019.

The NCDOT plans to further expand rail service. It hopes to add a fourth round trip from Piedmont in 2025, when a new station is set to open in Uptown Charlotte, and is working with Virginia to establish a high-speed rail link between Raleigh and Richmond on a former freight corridor.

In addition to their regular stops, select Piedmont and Carolinian trains are making special stops this week at the NC State Fair in Raleigh through Sunday, October 23, and Lexington on Saturday, October 22 for the Lexington Barbecue Festival.

The cost of a train ticket in North Carolina varies by distance. A one-way ticket from Raleigh to Charlotte costs $27. Raleigh to Greensboro is $12. You can buy tickets at stations from ticket offices (Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte) or kiosks (Burlington, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis). You can also purchase them in advance through Amtrak or the NCDOT website, www.ncbytrain.org/, which has more information than the Amtrak site, including expected arrival and departure times. .

This story was originally published October 18, 2022 11:34 a.m.

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Richard Stradling covers transport for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, as well as ferries, bicycles, scooters and simply on foot. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He was a journalist or editor for 35 years, the last 23 of them at the N&O. 919-829-4739, [email protected]

Jose P. Rogers