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Happy 23rd Birthday, Carolinian


May 28, 2013

This month, the Carolinian (New York-Raleigh-Charlotte) celebrates 23 years of connecting the Tar Heel state with the greater Northeast. The start of service on May 12, 1990 cemented a fruitful partnership between North Carolina and Amtrak that continues today.

Amtrak Florida Poster

The current Carolinian, which links the state’s financial hub and capital, is actually an outgrowth of an earlier experimental service over the same route. Supported by a $500,000 state contribution, the trial service lasted from October 1984 until September 1985.1 This Carolinian ran as an independent train between Charlotte and Richmond, Va., where its cars were then attached to the Palmetto (New York-Jacksonville) for through service to Washington and New York. According to newspaper accounts, hundreds of people gathered in Raleigh to see off the inaugural train. North Carolina Transportation Secretary William Roberson noted that nearly a third of the state’s residents lived close to the route, which had stops in cities such as Salisbury, Greensboro, Durham and Henderson.2

Although ridership was strong with 120,000 riders, this early version of the Carolinian ended because typical passenger trips were shorter than expected and revenues therefore did not meet projections.3 Passengers tended to travel between cities within the state rather than continue to points north, which would have boosted the train’s overall financial performance.

Over the ensuing years, the idea of a rail link between Charlotte and Raleigh did not fade from the minds of state transportation planners and rail advocates. In 1989, under the administration of Governor James G. Martin, the legislature created the Highway Trust Fund. While its primary purpose was to fund highway improvements, it also provided money for highway alternatives including intercity passenger rail services.4 Concurrently, a Rail Passenger Task Force submitted a plan of action for enhancing the state’s rail network, with renewed attention given to the Charlotte-Raleigh corridor. Thus, with the strong backing of the governor and legislature, North Carolina initiated the modern Carolinian service.

Rocky Mount depot
The Carolinian's inaugural run began at the historic Rocky Mount depot.

The revived Carolinian was similar to its predecessor in that it too was joined with the Palmetto for the northern leg of its route; but rather than connect the trains in Richmond, this maneuver was accomplished in Rocky Mount. On its independent run, the train would generally consist of a locomotive, two coaches and a café-lounge car.

On Friday May 11, 1990, a day prior to the start of revenue service, approximately 500 state, local and Amtrak officials, along with rail advocates, were invited to participate in the Carolinian’s ceremonial run. At the kick-off event in Rocky Mount, Governor Martin told the assembled crowd, “This [train] is not just rooted in history. It’s the basis for the future.” Howard Clement III, chairman of the Governor’s Rail Task Force, echoed those sentiments: “This is going to be a way of life over the next 10 years, you watch what I say.” Kelly Fletcher, Miss North Carolina, christened the train with a bottle of champagne.5

Throughout the day, residents of Wilson, Selma, Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury, Kannapolis and Charlotte greeted the train with speeches, music and good cheer. Roughly 15 minutes were allotted for each whistle stop ceremony during which souvenirs were distributed. The Amtrak Archives holds a commemorative button from this tour; it features the train’s name embellished with a sprig of pine in a nod to the state tree.

Amtrak Florida Poster
State-owned locomotives City of Asheville (#1797) and
City of Salisbury (#1755) are used on the Piedmont service.

A year after its launch, the Carolinian began traveling the entire New York-Charlotte route as an independent train. In 1995, it was joined by the Piedmont (Raleigh-Charlotte) to augment service within the state and provide a convenient schedule for business persons traveling between North Carolina’s two largest cities. The equipment used on the Piedmont is owned by the state but operated by Amtrak, and the locomotives are known for their red, white, blue and gold paint scheme echoing the colors of the state flag.6 A second Piedmont train was added to the schedule in June 2010.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) undertook many initiatives to encourage and sustain ridership. Partnering with Amtrak and local governments, NCDOT oversaw upgrades to a dozen station facilities. Historic downtown depots, many built in the early 20th century, were rehabilitated according to state and national historic preservation standards, while new facilities were constructed at Kannapolis, Cary and Gastonia.

Funding for the station improvements was obtained through state and local sources as well as the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Enhancements (TE) program (now known as Transportation Alternatives). Of the 12 eligible activities funded under TE, two focused on historic preservation and the rehabilitation and operation of historic transportation facilities.7 In 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the NCDOT for its work, with National Trust President Richard Moe commenting, “…This program has renewed citizens’ pride in their local heritage and created a viable transportation alternative for the public.”

2013 calendar image
Amtrak and NCDOT locomotives
grace the 2013 calendar.

The NCDOT also sponsors two volunteer programs to enhance the passenger experience aboard state-supported trains and in stations. More than 100 volunteers serve as Train Hosts aboard the Carolinian and Piedmont, answering passengers’ questions about train travel and local transportation, offering advice on things to do and see at each stop and promoting rail safety. Station Hosts perform the same duties at busier stations including Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro.

In addition to investing in rolling stock, stations and personnel, the NCDOT manages a comprehensive program for improving railroad infrastructure such as tracks and signal systems. Since the early 2000s, these improvements have contributed to a reduction in travel time of more than 45 minutes between Charlotte and Raleigh as well as increased system reliability.

To celebrate the "long standing and progressive partnership between Amtrak and the State," the official Amtrak 2013 calendar features a beautiful view of downtown Raleigh framed by the state-owned locomotive City of Asheville (#1797) and Amtrak P-42 locomotive #120. North Carolina is one of 15 states that partner with Amtrak to provide expanded intercity passenger rail service.


1“Carolinian makes trial run,” [Hendersonville, N.C.] Times-News, October 27, 1984


3“Amtrak, state put train back on track,” Wilmington Morning Star, May 8, 1990.

4Walter R. Turner, The Future is Arriving (2012).

5“Piedmont Passenger Train Service Returns,” The [Lexington, N.C.] Dispatch, May 12, 1990.

6“New train to serve Piedmont,” The [Lexington, N.C.] Dispatch, May 18, 1995.

7Walter R. Turner, The Future is Arriving (2012).

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