Riding the Rails to Raleigh Once Again

by | Apr 8, 2024 | Around Town, Travel

Eastern Carolina Rail, launched by Steve Unger and Gene Merritt, seeks to restore rail service between Wilmington and Raleigh, with a stop in Burgaw along the way.

The sound of train whistles may be returning to the greater Topsail area, to join those exciting sounds of anchor chains and plane motors that are so prevalent here. Steve Unger and Gene Merritt have launched the nonprofit organization Eastern Carolina Rail and are gathering support from the community and local officials to make the dream of a Wilmington to Raleigh passenger line a reality.

Their efforts received a significant boost in recently approved funding that includes $500,000 “to begin the process of returning passenger rail to Wilmington.” The grant awarded by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is part of the Corridor Identification and Development Program.

Unger says this is the first step toward restoring rail service that last ran in 1968. Today, the closest passenger train station is in Wilson, accessible from Wilmington and Jacksonville on the Amtrak Thruway Bus Service.

Wallace meeting

The railroad was once an integral part of the Topsail area.

In 1840 the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad carried passengers along what is essentially U.S. Highway 17 now. By the mid-1850s, the name was changed to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad as, Unger says, Raleigh was “not a big enough town at the time.” The trains ran from Wilmington to Goldsboro, Rocky Mount and Weldon on what was then the “longest straight line track in the world.”

Towns in the area, including Hampstead, did not exist until the railroad was built. In fact, Unger explains, “almost all towns in Pender were established by the railroad.” Many of the whistle stops on the rail line were named by the railroad workers after towns in England, including Hampstead (which is a suburb of London) and Folkstone.

Unger further explains that the line in the Hampstead area was torn up in the 1980s and cannot be restored because the right of way is gone. The Annandale station building still exists and the Holly Ridge station was repurposed. The station in Jacksonville still exists.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad became part of the Atlantic Coast Line system, continuing to serve many stops in eastern North Carolina. In 1967 Atlantic Coast Line merged with the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, and the system became part of the Seaboard Coast Line.

Routes changed and stops were added along the way, including towns such as Faison and Wallace. One of those stops was Burgaw, which has the oldest documented depot in the state. That depot has been restored and still stands today. The right of way is also still there, including the DOT-owned portion from Wallace to Castle Hayne. By the time passenger rail service stopped in this area in 1968, the train went to Rocky Mount and then to Raleigh.

Atlantic Coast Train Station

Unger is excited about the possibilities involved in restoring passenger rail service between Wilmington and Raleigh.

He is not alone. The Eastern Carolina Rail organization has garnered the support of many community leaders as well as local and state officials. They have held symposiums in Wallace, Burgaw and Warsaw, with another planned for Greensboro. The organization is planning to hold similar meetings in other towns that will become part of the new Wilmington to Raleigh line.

At these meetings Unger and Merritt present about what is going on with passenger rail and ask for support.

“Citizen participation and interest is a major factor in (NCDOT) deciding what to fund,” Unger says.

A representative from the NCDOT Rail Division has attended both meetings, in addition to members of the local community, business leaders and elected officials.

Unger emphasizes that restoring passenger rail service has been a bipartisan effort. He cites the support of U.S. Representative David Rouzer, U.S. Senator Ted Budd and U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in addition to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. He also cites the bipartisan support for the infrastructure bill that funded the FRA grants.

The grant money will be used for identification and planning. Twelve potential rail projects were on the list for FRA funding, but only seven were chosen for the grants. In addition to the Wilmington to Raleigh line, the total funding of $3.5 million will also support the identification and development of corridors between Charlotte and Atlanta, Charlotte and Kings Mountain, Charlotte and Washington, D.C., Fayetteville and Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, and Salisbury and Asheville.

Old Rail Bridge over NE Cape Fear River

Raleigh will become the focal point of many of these new passenger rail corridors. In fact, the design is structured so that Raleigh would become a hub, connecting many of the local corridors to major northeast cities and to Charlotte and beyond. Unger notes that the new passenger train service from Wilmington to Raleigh would be considered high speed, at between 70 and 80 mph. Connecting service to Richmond and other major points along the line would be “really high speed,” at close to 200 mph.

The logistics behind the restoration of passenger rail between Wilmington and Raleigh include restoring tracks and building a new bridge. Tracks would have to be restored from Castle Hayne to Wallace, which, Unger says, “would provide another connection to the state port.” He adds that there is “only one rail route of the state port right now and it is a convoluted route.” He also notes that “rebuilding the track is really not that big of a thing.”

A new bridge over the Northeast Cape Fear River would be necessary to accommodate regular passenger rail service and that would be “the biggest thing” that would need to happen. The bridge would be need to be high enough for river traffic to go underneath it. Building a bridge is a necessary step as Unger says Amtrak has no intention of using the existing structure.

Amtrak has been adding service in the past few years. NCDOT cites the ridership on the Piedmont and Carolinian routes as being at its highest in its 32-year history in 2022. For the first two quarters of 2023, the latest information available, ridership had increased over the 2022 figures by 28%. Unger says that “Amtrak is totally for this Wilmington to Raleigh route.” They are in expansion mode and have been upgrading their routes and their trains in anticipation of increased ridership, “especially where they are connecting smaller cities.”

A longtime resident of the Topsail area, Unger remembers the days when people used to be able to fly from Wilmington to Raleigh on Piedmont Airlines. “Now there is no air connection,” he says. “A rail connection makes a lot of sense.”

Rendering Train Station

The proposed Wilmington to Raleigh line crosses airport property and Unger says that one of the possibilities is for rail to connect to the Wilmington airport.

The new passenger rail line would be a boon to towns throughout Pender and Brunswick counties, Unger says. The proposal is to have three passenger trains a day coming in, which he adds, is “going to be a big economic plus” for the entire area.

Unger and Merritt both have backgrounds in transportation projects. Merritt was instrumental in garnering support for the completion of I-40 from I-95 to Wilmington. Unger proposed building a bypass around Hampstead in 1993, a project that is just now getting underway.

The two met for lunch one day when Merritt said he would “like to do one more project to benefit the area,” Unger says. They decided to work on passenger rail and from there formed the Eastern Carolina Rail organization.

Potential stops for the new passenger rail line include Burgaw, Wallace, Goldsboro, Selma, Clayton and Raleigh. Actual stops will eventually be determined by the USDOT and NCDOT. Unger enthusiastically adds, “Getting rail traffic back here would be amazing, wouldn’t it? It works. Rail works.”

Want to Know More?
Eastern Carolina Rail
(910) 632-0097

Photography by Steve Unger

About the author

Pat Fontana

Pat Fontana

I am a business writer and communications workshop leader. My business, WordsWorking, and my recently published book, Talk to Me Like I’m a Human, focus on improving workplace communications, concentrating on the fundamentals of human interactions. I developed, write about and train on the concept of REAL Communications, encouraging others to communicate with Respect and Empathy, paying close Attention and Listening with intent. I can be reached at pat@words-working.net.