Training North Carolina

on Friday, January 23, 2015

Here is the interior of the Greensboro Amtrak station and the doors you go through to get to the tunnels to the platform.
The morning is cold and grey, as I stand on the Greensboro, N.C., station platform awaiting the northbound Carolinian. I’d been in a rush, having grabbed a Biscuitville biscuit for the nearly 8-hour ride to Washington DC that awaited me. I thought I was being cool on this particular December morning, showing up just 45 minutes before time for me to head up to the platform to board the train. I forgot I needed to get a long-term parking pass (5 minutes), and to check my bags (10 minutes). Wait. Keys? Where are my keys? Oh no! I left them on the table with the baggage labels.

Thankfully, as soon as I recognized my keys were missing, I ran back down the steps to the main floor of the J. Douglas Galyon Depot, where the station volunteer just made a mad dash to hand me my keys. Had I been on the just leaving 8:19 a.m. Piedmont headed towards Charlotte, I would have missed my train. Luckily, I was on the 8:39 a.m. Carolinian and I was right on time and right in place at position nine, bags checked, car parked, complementary holiday cookies in hand.

Try doing all of this at an airport. You can’t. This is why I travel by train in North Carolina.

To refresh your memory of what riding Amtrak is like in North Carolina, one has the choice of six trains: the Crescent, Carolinian, Piedmont, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, and the Palmetto. Of these six, five could take me directly to Washington, DC, but only two could take me there from Greensboro: the Crescent and Carolinian. The Crescent left at 3:45 that morning, which left me with the Carolinian.

My first Amtrak ride was on this same route back in 1991 at age 5. My mom made sure we boarded the train at the old Greensboro train depot (or new old; the Gaylon Depot is a restored 1927-built Southern Railway facility). Her brother and his wife made sure we were collected afterwards, leading us through what felt like a darkened maze of escalators, corridors, and tunnels at Washington Union Station. I was hooked!

I spent my college years at N.C. State University in Raleigh, feeling the rumble from the tracks that bisect the campus and occasionally looking down on the northbound and southbound Carolinians and the eastbound and westbound Piedmonts as they rumbled through. I had all kinds of dreams of riding them, but I could never make it work. I was, however, looking forward to regional transit expansion plans to connect me to the Amtrak stations and, by extension, the world.

Over the years since I graduated, transit planning in North Carolina’s Triangle area evolved. That’s good news for a fellow train rider, and one of the people helping to make transit in the Triangle happen, Meghan Makoid. A 30-something environmental planner, with a husband in Charlotte and a job in Durham; she’s a regular on the Piedmont from Charlotte to Durham, where she has a conveniently-placed apartment for weekdays.

The entire Carolinian consist is shown above from the opposite side of the Greensboro platform.
“I’m not what you would call ‘a morning person.’ So the fact that I take the morning train is kind of a big deal. I set three alarms! The last one is on my phone and it plays Balsam Range’s Last Train to Kitty Hawk. In all-caps, scrolling across the screen “NO SERIOUSLY, GET UP! YOU’RE GOING TO MISS YOUR TRAIN!,” Makoid says.

She’s describing above what it takes to make sure she gets back to Charlotte on the weekends when it’s her turn to be there. She admits to sprinting the quarter mile from her building to the Durham train station to make the 7:17 train. After getting her bags settled, she heads to the cafe car for something many folks appreciate in copious amounts: free coffee (included in the fare, along with bottled water) and a place to get work done. Makoid’s only minor complaint is the lack of WiFi on-board.

She and I met at an event supporting a fellow bike enthusiast and author. We’d been Twitter friends, one way a new generation of railfans is growing and helping contribute to the constantly rising ridership numbers on routes across the country.

I appreciate Meghan’s hospitality and her proximity to the Durham station every time I need to travel and I don’t want to pay for parking. I take the train to Durham the night before. We break bread, share great conversation, and I crash on her couch. The next morning, I’m on my way!

Plus, it’s a nice stopping point for any and all business I need to do in the Triangle. Yet, I didn’t have to make the drive there. I enjoy the booths at one end of each coach in the Piedmonts restored coaches, built in the 1960s by the St. Louis Car Co. and Pullman-Standard. I, unlike Makoid, even enjoy the lack of WiFi (the Carolinian has it, but the Piedmonts don’t yet). There’s always something to do on my computer, without needing the Internet. Even if that something to do is turning on a new album of music and allowing it to be my soundtrack as we cross rural reaches of the central North Carolina Piedmont.

I have another friend though, who enjoys a different part of the experience. You’d find 50-something Darrell Stover in the lounge/vending car, chatting it up with all the conductors and train staff. He was a fixture on the train going back and forth from Cary to Greensboro, thanks to his position at the time as a program director for the North Carolina Humanities Council.

“One of the reasons I was able to take that job in Greensboro was the ability to commute by train. I was one of several people doing the same thing from the Raleigh-Durham area and we began to get in the habit of gathering in the vending car to catch up on our lives and not disturb passengers in the other parts of the train,” says Stover, of the community of Triangle area residents formed in the cafe car.

“We look out for each other. We might see each other in stores in the Triangle and wave. We might see each other driving or carpooling on a particular day on the highway and wave,” he says with a chuckle.

The way he tells it, it was also his way of bringing a bit of his Washington, D.C., upbringing and fascination with the capital’s Metrorail to his life in North Carolina as a cultural leader. In his current role as a cultural resources consultant, he used the Piedmont train to stage a tour of Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Museum, via the Cary station, thanks to support from the town government’s Martin Luther King Commission, which holds a series of events throughout January and February.

Last February, more than 60 people boarded the train in Cary and were treated to Stover’s on-board lecture on the role of trains in the long civil rights movement from slavery through the present day, as well as the museum tour in Greensboro. The North Carolina Department of Transportation Rail Division, which manages the Piedmont service, added a second coach car to accommodate the tour participants, who were of a diverse smothering of ages, races, and genders.

The train has positively influenced Stover’s ability to write creatively. From stories about the DC Metro to his 2012 book of poems — partially composed and tested on the Piedmont route to and from Cary and Greensboro — Stover credits his train rides for affecting his “role and likeness as a poet.”

Meanwhile I joined Makoid on an Amtrak trip to gather with other transportation enthusiasts, analysts and industry insiders for the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in D.C. I drove to the Durham station to join her for the ride.

In the shadows of an old tobacco warehouse, another foundational piece of North Carolina life, another Amtrak journey granted an opportunity to strengthen a rail-based friendship and a friendship with the rails of North Carolina.

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