NC by Train

I’m not a “car guy.” And I’m definitely not a “road warrior.” Don’t get me wrong; I love my weekend hiking trips to Pisgah National Forest and Upstate South Carolina with my wife and dog, but my least favorite part is the white-knuckled jockeying for position and inevitable four-mile backups on the Interstates.

So, when I decided to go to Durham for a concert and to spend the night with friends, I took The Piedmont Regional Train. It was scheduled to take about the same amount of time as driving in ideal conditions – just over two hours. The cost was about the same as gas – $27 one way. The timing was just about perfect – leaving Charlotte at 3:15 pm and arriving in Durham in time for dinner before the concert.

I’m a big advocate for public transit to start with. I can unequivocally say that the LYNX light rail has been a catalyst to some awesome unplanned adventures and conveniences since it extended into our neighborhood. I almost always try to ride some form of public transit when traveling to other cities, and I’ve definitely seen both good and bad systems. But taking Amtrak across the state to another town without the assurance of an independent car at my disposal on the other side? What if I get stuck in the middle of nowhere?

North Carolina is unique in that the NCDOT owns and operates The Piedmont Regional. This makes a big difference when it comes to the service, cleanliness, and accessibility within the state. You can transfer from The Piedmont to most other forms of public transit within the cities for free. The Greensboro and Durham train stations are located within downtown transit hubs. Raleigh has a new central train station and these North Carolina cities really are small enough to walk from their downtown stations.

Charlotte’s train station is by far the most inconvenient of all North Carolina city stations. Located close enough to the LYNX Blue Line, but nearly impossible to walk to, you’ll have to drive or Uber from NoDa. North Tryon Street is getting an overhaul, but Charlotte will move it’s train station into Uptown before anyone will want to walk along North Tryon. And when we finally get a respectable train station in Charlotte, it will not be directly accessible to the LYNX light rail – an unfortunate design flaw.

So how is the ride to and from Durham you ask? Here are my notes:

I left my house by car 15 minutes before my train was scheduled to leave Charlotte. I was running late, and years of airport experiences made me pretty anxious. But I was able to park right next to the front door for free, walk into the lobby as I pulled up the e-Ticket on my smartphone – no security, metal detectors, or check-in needed – and right onto the platform to board the train. Tickets are checked as you board in Charlotte, but are often checked as the train is in progress at other mid-destination towns.

The mid-destination towns have a lot of stories to tell from my vantage point: dozens of historic mills and villages in various states of repair. The history and future of North Carolina are told along this corridor. Some mills and factories are forgotten, covered in kudzu, or being demolished. Others have been given new life with industry or repurposed as shops, breweries, homes, or any number of modern uses. The towns and villages, too, are in various states of repair. Concord’s Gibson Mill and village are close to its downtown and anyone who remembers NoDa in the past should wonder what kind of potential these places have for new bohemians.

I was amazed how connected the Charlotte region felt to Kannapolis and Salisbury. I would never have considered driving to downtown Salisbury as a day-trip, but we arrived quickly by train to two very different town centers. Kannapolis is heavily revitalized and modernized with lush green parks and modern buildings. Salisbury’s historic downtown has many reused brick buildings, breweries, and art.

I’ve never been to High Point, but again it was an urban downtown being revitalized with a clean and central train platform. I noticed a string of small towns with distinct main streets and rolling estates from the train window in this area. This is the part of North Carolina that feels very foreign and quaint for us city folks. The state feels like a modern and progressive place in my view, but the history of families who owned these estates, mills, and farms really are the foundation for North Carolina and its politics. It can be easy to forget how diverse our state is, and this train doesn’t even touch the mountains or the coast.

Both journeys on The Piedmont Regional had diverse groups of travelers as well. College-age kids traveling between North Carolina universities were most noticeable between Charlotte, Burlington, and Durham. Business travelers stayed quiet, taking advantage of the free WiFi and individual power outlets at each seat. Accents came and went as people chatted to willing strangers. (The North Carolina dialect is amazingly varied from small town to big city). A large group of teenagers rode together and everything was soooo funny to them. Another large party of adventurous retirement-age African American women replaced them and everything was sooo funny to them in a different kind of way.

From the urban core to the pass-thru small town, the farms and mills, the college campuses and the peaceful, fresh-growth tree tunnels of The Piedmont Regional corridor, my trip to from Charlotte to Durham was absolutely worth writing about. With four daily trains between Charlotte and Raleigh, (and extended service on the Crescent and Carolinian to Washington DC, New York, Atlanta, and New Orleans), traveling NC by Train makes sense.

What about you, readers? Have you ever traveled beyond this North Carolina corridor? I’ve heard the service can be slow and inconvenient beyond Raleigh and Charlotte. How does North Carolina’s interstate system stack up with other states?