When the Norfolk Southern freight train rumbled past the old Biltmore Village depot on a recent cold November morning, Judy Calvert waved.
It was a gesture of hope, framed in nostalgia. Buncombe County Planning Director Jim Coman, standing nearby, remarked that he could remember when passenger trains still pulled into the Village station, built for George Vanderbilt about a century ago but now a restaurant. Coman continued to reminisce, exchanging boyhood memories with Asheville Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger: “Did you ever put pennies on the railroad tracks?” Cloninger asked. Of course Coman had, telling the vice mayor that trains “will really spread out a quarter.”
But more was at stake than a trip down memory lane. Coman, Calvert and other members of the Asheville Site Selection Task Force are working to revive passenger rail service in WNC; they had gathered on Nov. 15 to visit each of the five primary sites being considered in the city. Other towns along a proposed Asheville-Salisbury line have already identified their sites; many simply renovated old depots, such as the one in Old Fort that now houses the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Asheville, however, has no clear-cut choice.
The old Biltmore depot, for instance, poses several challenges, Travis Pollack explained. A planner for Gannett Fleming, the consultants for the Asheville site-selection process, Pollack had to speak up when his voice was nearly drowned out by the freight train’s whistle. “Parking is an issue on this site,” he said, noting that some of task-force members had had to double park that morning, due to the Village’s routine shortage of spaces. “If you have large tour groups … space might be an issue,” Pollack surmised. And when passenger trains pull in to the little depot, they’ll block freight-train service. “This is an issue for Norfolk Southern,” he observed.
On the other hand, nostalgia, aesthetics and pedestrian issues all favor the Biltmore stop. Passengers of the proposed line — almost sure to be predominantly tourists — would get ready access to Biltmore Village, and the old depot is a recognizable and historic structure, Pollack remarked.
But task-force members favoring this area have another choice — behind the adjacent Biltmore Station, across the tracks from the old depot. There’s plenty of parking, easier access for the passenger train, and less interference with Norfolk Southern, Pollack explained. Both sites share a common problem, however: “We’re sitting in a floodplain,” Pollack noted. And getting pedestrians across the tracks and into Biltmore Village proper would present a logistical challenge.
But the property owner, Benson Slosman, appears to be interested in helping support the project. “Does that [potential partnership] score a lot of points, when you [consider] this site?” asked Asheville Transportation Planner Ron Fuller.
A cautious yes came from David Bender, a planner for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Rail Division.
“You have to realize,” Coman observed, “the riders [of the Asheville-Salisbury line] are almost all going to be tourists, and they’re going to want to get off at Biltmore.”
The task force moved on to the next three sites, all owned by Norfolk Southern and offering considerably less in the way of aesthetics. None would provide easy pedestrian access to either Biltmore Village or downtown Asheville, and most would add travel time to the Asheville-Salisbury trip.
“The unscenic route,” Cloninger observed as the group drove past Norfolk Southern’s railway yard. A treeless jumble of tracks and trains, it would have to be negotiated by the passenger train if a new Asheville station were built on Depot Street, across from the historic but now vacant Glen Rock Hotel.
That’s where Asheville’s main passenger station once stood, however, and the site offers plenty of room for expansion and parking. On the downside, noted Pollack, it’s about two miles from both downtown and Biltmore Village.
Two closer sites are located near the intersection of Meadow Road and Short McDowell Street, where the old Southern Railway Freight Yard building stands.
Yet another site (though it’s not on the official list) sits near the RiverLink office off Depot Street. RiverLink Director Karen Cragnolin urged its consideration, hinting that a train station there could further local redevelopment efforts and be convenient to both downtown and Biltmore.
But none of these sites elicited much enthusiasm from other task-force members, as they surveyed the industrial view from their van. Before the tour, Norfolk Southern had requested that no one leave their vehicles while on company property, Pollack had reminded those assembled at City Hall that morning. “It’s important we make no appearance of trespassing or interfering with activity on their property,” he said, though there was nary a sign of activity at either site.
This hint of reluctance by the railroad came up after the tour, too, when task-force members hosted a lunch meeting of the Western North Carolina Rail Corridor Committee. Representatives of most of the nine stops proposed for the Asheville-Salisbury line were on hand, and Hickory City Council member Pat Moss asked, “Is Norfolk Southern cooperating?”
Bender chose his response carefully: “They haven’t given us a ‘no.’ ” The freight company is apparently willing to consider the results of both the Asheville site-selection study and the overall feasibility study being prepared for state legislators’ review in March. And a deal with rail freight companies for the Piedmont passenger line wasn’t struck until the day before the trains were scheduled to start running, Bender mentioned.
State Rep. Lanier Cansler of Buncombe County tossed in that Norfolk Southern estimated it would cost up to $4 billion to upgrade the tracks for passenger service, which — to be feasible — needs to travel faster than the 25-40 mph currently considered safe on the aging lines between Asheville and Salisbury.
That’s a high estimate, countered Gannett Fleming project manager Bob Schmelz. Although the costs have not yet been finalized, he doubted it would take that much to make the lines suitable for passenger service. Schmelz also mentioned that state, federal and private grants exist that could help defray the local-government costs of creating an Asheville-to-Salisbury passenger line. Partnerships with private business are also an option.
For his part, Cansler emphasized that local legislators unanimously support the concept and consider it “a project worth pursuing.” Fellow WNC legislator Trudi Walend of Transylvania County added, “The western delegation is all on board. You can count on us.” And the newly elected Marge Carpenter of Waynesville, joking about the long ride to the state capital by car, noted, “I’d like a nice train ride into Raleigh.”
With the General Assembly’s late-March deadline in mind, Calvert (who chairs the WNC Rail Corridor Committee and also serves on the N.C. Rail Council) urged every town represented in the WNC Rail Corridor Committee to send elected officials, staff and business/community leaders to a mid-March meeting with legislators in Raleigh. “In the western part of the state, we get left out a lot because we don’t make enough noise,” Calvert said, rallying the troops.
One committee member suggested that Greyhound, which was also represented at the Nov. 15 luncheon, send a bus around to transport folks from participating cities — such as Salisbury, which has completed its depot renovations, and Black Mountain, where officials hope a passenger-train stop will foster an economically healthy downtown — to the meeting in Raleigh.
And Old Fort Chamber of Commerce President Otis Keating Sr. remarked: “I’m ready to ride the train. Let’s forget about the politics.” And he joked, “No recount!”
The WNC Rail Corridor Committee meets again on Wednesday, Dec. 13. For more information, contact Mac Williams, Asheville economic-development director, at 259-5433 or e-mail him at DavidW@mail.ci.asheville.nc.us.