Passenger Rail Study Offers New Details About Proposed Wilmington To Raleigh Route

By Emma Dill, posted Apr 22, 2024
A map highlights the corridors in North Carolina where future passenger rail development is proposed, as identified in the Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study. (Image courtesy of WGI Inc.)
A study of a proposed passenger rail line between Wilmington and Raleigh recommends running the route through Goldsboro and offers new projections about the line’s cost and service areas.

A Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study draft released earlier this month provides a high-level overview of a proposed route between Wilmington and Raleigh – cities that haven’t been linked by passenger rail since 1968. The study is an important step in the process of bringing passenger rail back to Wilmington, according to the leaders of the nonprofit advocacy group Eastern Carolina Rail.

The study confirms the line’s preferred route through Goldsboro, instead of Fayetteville, and will allow planning to move forward, said Steve Unger, who heads up Eastern Carolina Rail along with fellow entrepreneur Gene Merritt.

“This is really big news because for a while the state’s been telling us and others that, ‘Okay, we’re probably going to go through Goldsboro.’ But this is the first definitive announcement on that,” he said Monday. “And this is also the next step towards getting out of the selection process and into the planning process where more extensive work will be done.”

The feasibility study from WGI Inc., a Florida-based engineering firm, compared two route options linking Wilmington with Raleigh – a western route running through Fayetteville and an eastern route running through Goldsboro.

The eastern route would be 134 miles long compared to the 187-mile-long western route. The estimated travel time between Wilmington and Raleigh on the eastern route is two hours and 35 minutes while route time on the western route is estimated at three hours and 30 minutes. The eastern route is expected to cost approximately $810 million and the western route could cost approximately $980 million, according to the study.

The more direct route and lower cost factored into a recommendation to pursue the eastern route, which would run through Raleigh, Clayton, Selma, Goldsboro and Wilmington with two other additional sites to be chosen. 

Unger said Eastern Carolina Rail will advocate for three additional sites, including stops in Burgaw, Wallace and Warsaw. The group would also like transportation officials to look at the feasibility of linking passenger rail to Wilmington International Airport, Unger said.

The eastern route would also establish a second route into Wilmington, creating redundancy in the rail network that would help sustain service during hurricanes and other natural disasters, the study noted. Annual ridership from Wilmington is projected to be about 80,000, according to the study.

In December, the project received $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The money was part of a $3.5 million grant designated for seven rail projects in North Carolina, marking the start of a program to identify rail corridors and develop scope, schedule and cost estimates for possible passenger rail expansion. The project will likely be funded through a mix of state and federal dollars, including those set aside in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The draft study will be open for comments from stakeholders before becoming a final report later this year. Merritt, another leader of Eastern Carolina Rail, said he sees the study as a move in the right direction.

“I see it as a significant victory for our cause,” he said. “We feel that it’s a step forward and we feel good about it right now.”
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