Local News

Geometry, Geography and Fast Trains

Posted February 10, 1996 6:00 a.m. EST

— February 11, 1996, 11:36 a.m., EST

The lessons you undoubtedly recall from your geometry and geography classes are undergoing a practical demonstration as North Carolina tries to grapple with installing high-speed trains that could streak between Raleigh and Charlotte.

The lessons? From geometry that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and from geography that the central region of North Carolina is known for its rolling hills (hence the use of the term Piedmont -- foot of the mountains).

These two points are giving the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) a challenge as it tries to reach a goal by 2001 of having Amtrak's passenger trains run at 100 mph between Raleigh and Charlotte.

That section of track is one of five designated in 1992 by the federal government as future high-speed corridors. The one affecting North Carolina runs from Washington, DC to Richmond, Va., and then on to Charlotte.

The challenge arises because the geography in the state's central section is so hilly, more curves are required in the track -- preventing trains from achieving the necessary velocity to be designated high speed.

One NCDOT official, however, is determined it can be done. "It is not a hope," said Pat Simmons. "It is something we are planning for now."

The ultimate goal is to make the trains so fast people will choose to use them, rather than cars, to get back and forth. That, in turn, would reduce pollution and the need for building more interstates and major highways.

It now takes just under four hours to travel the 172 hours between Charlotte and Raleigh. Governor Jim Hunt says he wants that time cut almost in half -- to two hours.

According to Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, speeds of 100 mph might be possible along segments of the run, but to cut the time to 2 hours the trains would have to average 87 mph. Currently, Amtrak's metroliners between Washington and Boston are the system's fastest, and they only average 77 miles an hour.

"So you are talking about becoming the fastest corridor in the country, and you are talking about doing it on a railroad system with lots of curves," he said.

To straighten out those curves, the state would need to buy land. A preliminary study of how much land and how many trestles would be needed is now underway.

Congress appropriated $30 million for the states in the five corridors to make improvements to the rail right-of-way, including eliminating or improving grade crossings. North Carolina's share of those funds is $430,000.