Riders enjoy their trip on Amtrak’s Piedmont as part of a daylong event in Greensboro, N.C., devoted to passenger rail, cosponsored by Trains magazine. Matt Van Hattem photo
Here’s a great idea to promote more interest and awareness of trains among the general public: Take the folks in your town on a free train ride, and show them what it’s all about.
I saw firsthand how successful this idea can be during the first weekend in March in Greensboro, N.C.
David Marshall and other members of the Greensboro chapter of the National Railway Historical Society arranged a daylong event devoted to the past, present, and future of passenger trains in North Carolina and across the United States.
The day had two parts: a morning presentation on passenger trains yesterday, today, and tomorrow, followed by an afternoon round-trip train ride on Amtrak’s Piedmont trains.
I was honored to participate, along with Trains magazine’s "Passenger" correspondent Bob Johnston. Other participants included the deputy secretary for transit from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which sponsors the successful Piedmont trains, and the executive director of a county-wide tourism and recreation council, who is working to get an Amtrak station in his community.
Our day began in a museum auditorium where the presentations occurred. Bob Johnston and I gave a joint photo-driven presentation looking at Amtrak services around the country and the reasons for their success. We had around 72 people in the room — a good number given the televised college basketball tournaments going on just down the street.
When the presentations ended, the attendees left the museum and walked down the street to the beautifully restored Greensboro train station. There, we boarded Amtrak’s midday Piedmont train for a 92-mile trip to Charlotte. The train ride was part of the event, and the event was free to the public.
The Greensboro NRHS chapter had reserved one coach on the train for our group, and about two-thirds of the attendees joined us on the train.
The atmosphere on board was congenial and inviting. Great ideas and conversations sprang up throughout the car. Everyone had an opportunity to follow up on ideas, ask questions, or find out more about the morning programs. Other conversations took us in new directions.
The state-owned Piedmont equipment provided an ideal venue for this. The coaches have plush seats, big windows, and an atmosphere conducive to easy conversation. The cars are former Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern cars, painstakingly modernized by Delaware Railcar in Wilmington, Del.
I had my own moment of pure elation when I sampled the train’s on-board coffee machine, which dispenses free coffee for passengers in the café car. (Bottled water in an adjacent refrigerator is also complimentary.)
After a layover in Charlotte, we boarded the afternoon train back to Greensboro. The ride was over almost too quickly.
But the real treat was discovering that 60 percent of the folks who rode with us had never been on a train before (and had never heard of Trains Magazine before, either). Here was a new, enthusiastic potential audience for passenger trains, for the NRHS chapter, and for the magazine.
Equally important, here were voters and taxpayers that got a chance to see how their tax money was being put to good use, and the real benefits the train was bringing to the state.
Everyone came away impressed with what a passenger train can do, and all left better informed about the good work North Carolina’s DOT is doing to provide and increase passenger rail service in the state.
As Paul Morris, the state DOT’s deputy director told me: “We can no longer think of rail as a transportation alternative. For more people it’s not an alternative. It is their transportation.”
I came away delighted with David Marshall’s great idea for the day and impressed with the level of planning and warm hospitality provided by everyone at the Greensboro NRHS chapter to make the day a success. Trains Magazine was proud to participate.
I think one of the big challenges U.S. passenger rail providers and advocates face — and it may be a good challenge to have — is reintroducing rail travel to generations of Americans that don’t really know what a passenger train is, or the benefits they can provide. I love events like Amtrak’s National Train Day, and the open-house shop tours offered by Metro-North Railroad and other agencies.
Does anyone else out there remember NJ Transit’s Hoboken festivals, one of the pioneers of this type of event? Those festivals always included a free train ride.
Now, thanks to the Greensboro NRHS chapter, we have a new way of reintroducing the passenger train to America.