Long before the Oct. 3, 1880, arrival of the first scheduled train in Asheville, the American railroad has been romanticized in both story and song, on stage and on screen.
Trains took us to our baby, or away from our baby. Trains took us off to war, or home to peace. Trains opened vast swaths of the American West to settlement, bringing with them jobs, growth, trade and prosperity while quietly gliding over miles upon miles of cold steel rail.
One needn’t look further than industries like Sylva’s Jackson Paper, Canton’s Evergreen Packaging and Waynesville’s Giles Chemical for evidence of how rail access benefits the economy in small Western North Carolina towns.
Nearly a decade ago, Southern Concrete Materials began toying with the prospect of leaving its 201 Boundary St., location for more favorable digs.
A new logo will soon chug onto the marketing landscape of Bryson City following the Swain County Tourism Development Authority and the Swain County Chamber of Commerce’s approval of a design meant to emphasize the town’s most unique aspect — the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell • SMN Correspondent
Think of it as somewhere over the rainbow.
You know the place, only this time not in Oz, in Waynesville, on Frazier Street, behind the parking lot of Sagebrush Steakhouse, in a non-descript building that’s 60-feet long and maybe half that wide. This is where the bluebirds sing, where happiness prevails.
Swain County may soon seal a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to pay for the restoration of a steam engine in hopes it would bring more tourists to town to ride the scenic train.
Since the advent of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, tourists flocking to Bryson City and Dillsboro to ride the scenic passenger train have been the envy of neighboring communities.
A group of Jackson County residents have been making the rounds in recent weeks asking decision makers to think twice before forking over $750,000 to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in hopes of increasing tourism.
The tragic death of a railroad worker investigating a fresh landslide along a rail line last week highlighted the hidden, yet inherent, risks for workers who are first on the scene in the aftermath of a slide.
Joseph Drewnoski, 33, of Waynesville, was buried and killed by a landslide in the middle of the night while surveying tracks for storm damage near Black Mountain following a weekend of unrelenting rains. Norfolk Southern Railway got a report of a landslide on the tracks in the middle of the night and sent Drewnoski and another worker to check it out.
Last week, Waynesville’s town board linked up with a growing grassroots movement that is calling for increased rail capacity.
The town board unanimously passed a resolution to support a move to rail service in North Carolina.
“To me, it’s just an obvious thing,” said Alderman LeRoy Roberson. “A railroad system is going to be the way for freight to be moved. It far outstrips the economy that you’re going to find with trucking.”
While the resolution doesn’t lead to any immediate action, Waynesville has joined 120 entities across the state that have urged expansion of freight train service in North Carolina.
For Roberson and many others, the benefits of rail include better fuel efficiency and more independence from foreign oil.
“I can’t imagine any group right now that’s going to oppose that,” said Roberson, adding that rapid train service would also be far more efficient than building new roads.
The town board supported the increasing use of both freight and passenger trains. But Roberson acknowledges that passenger trains won’t be crisscrossing Western North Carolina any time soon.
“That’s not going to happen in the near future, but you’ve got to move in that direction,” Roberson said.
For now, the state has plans to bring passenger rail to Asheville — but not further west.
Currently, there are plans for five major intercity passenger service additions in the state, including the Western North Carolina Passenger Rail Service from Asheville to Salisbury. From there, passengers could continue on to Raleigh and beyond.
Budget constraints have held back the expensive multimillion-dollar projects, but progress is ongoing.
“Slow moving, but ongoing,” said N.C. Representative Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who chairs the House committee dedicated to a comprehensive rail service plan for the state and is a member of the state Transportation Committee.
Rapp said the state’s first priority is to fund high-speed rail through North Carolina that will connect Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. The Salisbury-Asheville line would be a secondary branch off that main line.
According to the WNC Rail Corridor Committee, Asheville is the most frequently requested stop in the country for a new stop on Amtrak, the nation’s largest commuter rail company.
The committee represents the nine locations that are designated as future stops on the rail service from Salisbury to Asheville: Salisbury, Statesville, Hickory, Morganton, Valdese, Marion, Old Fort, Black Mountain and Asheville.
Upgrading a freight line between Salisbury and Asheville might run from $150 to $170 million, Rapp said.
While some of the nine towns have already spent millions on station upgrades, Rapp said Amtrak does not seem to have much interest in the Asheville-Salisbury line.
According to a study done by Wake Forest University, within the third year of operation, the proposed train service would carry only 70,000 passengers annually, below the desired critical mass.
“It really depends on how much we’re willing to subsidize that operation,” said Rapp. “Upgrading track, installing signals, straightening tracks — that’s why that cost figure has continued to rise.”
But local governments are still holding out hope for the ambitious railroad plan.
Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway said he would especially support a passenger rail line linking Asheville to Raleigh.
“The trip from Raleigh, it gets a little old,” said Galloway. “I’d much rather get on a train.”
Roberson pointed that having rail as a transportation option could have cut down the economic impact from the Interstate 40 rockslide.
“You’ve got a road closed until March, losing $1 million a day,” said Roberson.