In 1880, the telegraph was the fastest means of communication, using long and short beeps to send messages hundreds of miles. The fastest way to travel across the country was by train. Today we've come full circle: We talk in tweets, and we dream of ways to use the "rapid transport" Google Fiber would bring to the city.
I began wondering why the train didn't come to Asheville while living on the Warren Wilson College campus at the start of this decade. And when my son was born in 2005, I made a commitment that by the time my kids were old enough to drive, they wouldn't need a car to get in and out of Asheville.
On a recent excursion on the Amtrak Crescent line, we discovered the joys of scooting across the landscape without the distractions of the road. Unlike planes, the train affords riders considerable freedom, allowing people to interact while sitting, standing or even walking. There are no billboards and no traffic, and passengers can see both the interior of cities and the wild lands that lie beyond our car-centric communities.
Beyond its rich cultural appeal, train travel is energy-efficient, convenient for families and relaxing. And with electricity at every seat and onboard WI-FI not too far off, trains have become my preferred means of travel for trips taking more than two hours. Within the next decade, I envision being able to catch the train from our home in Black Mountain as part of the proposed Asheville-to-Salisbury line (see map at http://bytrain.org/fra/nc7/SEHSR_NC7_3_map.pdf).
To see how much support could be drummed up quickly, I set up a Facebook group I call "The People for Rail to Asheville." In just five days, it grew to include more than 500 people from across the region and beyond.
Here's what a few of them had to say.
"Passenger trains fit in perfectly with the city of Asheville's Green Initiatives Project," noted Mary-Allison Wright Lind. "More public transportation will only help with pollution control and long-term costs of maintaining and widening existing roads."
Paul Benson, meanwhile, considered the broader economic picture. "It is clear that the economic future of Asheville and Western North Carolina will be dependent on [attracting] new investment and the type of new citizens that may live/visit/retire anywhere but choose a place because of the natural and cultural amenities it offers. Passenger-rail service is one of these amenities. In addition to the obvious advantages of having another transportation alternative … passenger-rail service would have a multiplier effect on local economies by stimulating investment and redevelopment in the typically blighted railroad corridors within these communities. The "spin-off" economic benefits … are probably the strongest justification for the extension."
Phil Atwood wrote: "As we continue down the road of using more and more imported oil … the cost of gasoline will continue to increase. … Rail travel will become one of the primary alternatives to the automobile. Those tourist communities that are ready for rail travel are the ones that will not only survive, but grow and prosper. We need to be a leader as one of those communities."
And Jill Boniske recalled: "When I was a child, you could get on a train in Biltmore in the evening, have a nice dinner in the dining car, sleep comfortably and wake somewhere around D.C. to breakfast and then be in NYC just in time to shop. That was wonderful! Civilized. No craziness in the airports. No cramped seating. No driving in and out of the city when you arrive. Those were the good old days, and we should bring them back."
Buncombe County planner James Coman, who's served on committees to determine a site for the multimodal transit center proposed by the DOT, said: "It is my understanding that the most costly hurdle to overcome is the physical condition of the track east of Asheville. It is sufficient for freight but is considerably below the quality mandated for passenger service."
The Swannanoa grade between Black Mountain and Old Fort is a challenging landscape, making this an expensive but not impossible project. The signals and tracks must be upgraded, and there will need to be negotiations with Norfolk Southern. We need funding to bring the train up the mountain.
"As recently as the early 1980s," noted Coman, "steam-powered tourist trains regularly made trips during the fall color season and were always popular. Much earlier in life, I traveled the train to Old Fort on numerous occasions; the Swannanoa grade is particularly scenic, with seven tunnels and stunning views."
What's being done?
In February, I attended a meeting of the Western North Carolina Passenger Rail Corridor Committee, led by Asheville resident Judy Ray. It became clear that support and active participation by both Asheville and Buncombe County are essential. And on March 23, the Asheville City Council unanimously adopted a resolution reconfirming support for the WNC Rail Initiative. On April 7, corridor committee members will make a presentation to the General Assembly's Standing Committee on Comprehensive Rail Service Plan about the importance for North Carolina of reopening the Asheville line.
In an e-mail exchange with Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, she wrote: "I am very supportive of passenger rail returning to our region. In 2008 and 2009, I served on the [N.C. General Assemblly's] 21st Century Transportation Committee, which looked closely at passenger-rail services currently being provided in North Carolina and the future of [such] services. During that time, it was disclosed that Asheville continues to be the No. 1 requested destination location without service." And officials to the west of us, she noted, would like to have rail service between Asheville and Cherokee.
"I believe that passenger-rail service will increase tourism and economic-development opportunities for our city and region," Bellamy continued, adding that it "will support Asheville City Council's goal of having a truly multimodal transportation system."
The Western North Carolina Railroad first reached Asheville on Oct. 3, 1880: 130 years later, it's time to bring that train back to town!
[Black Mountain resident Brett McCall is a project manager for DelKote's Spray Foam Insulation Division and a self-appointed virtual town crier.
Beyond its rich cultural appeal, train travel is energy-efficient, convenient for families and relaxing.]