Farewell Forever Old Road to Durham?

Have you ever wondered why there is no rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham?  Do you want to know how we can ever create one?  Do you want to know how you can help?  Let me tell you . . . 
University Station 
When the North Carolina Railroad was built across the Piedmont from Goldsboro to Salisbury in the 1850’s, there were several competing proposals about the route of the rail line.  A route through Chapel Hill was considered for the NCRR, but the Hillsborough alternative was ultimately built.  The nearest point to UNC on this line was not in any existing community, so a stop was established five miles east of Hillsborough at what became known as University Station.  Students were dropped off there and would either walk or pay for a wagon to take them 10 miles to UNC.  For about 25 years, this route was UNC’s connection to the railroad and the rest of the state.  But this was never viewed as a satisfactory arrangement.
 university station
The former station house at University Station, east of Hillsborough, NC 
In February of 1861, the legislature created a corporate charter for the University Railroad Company to establish a rail connection from Chapel Hill to some point on the North Carolina Railroad.  The charter called for the commencement of construction by 1863 and completion by 1867.  Of course, the Civil War derailed these plans, but even at this early date, engineers considered whether it was better to connect to the NCRR by following what we now call Old Chapel Hill-Durham Road or by building a line to University Station.  “That route was surveyed by Prof. C[harles] Phillips fifteen years ago when the prospect of a railroad or a plank was agitated for the University.  It is but eight miles, four miles shorter than any road leading from Durham could be made, and is said to run mostly on a ridge and will require but little grading.”  (NC Presbyterian, 2/12/1873).  
By the beginning of 1878, the Trustees of the University had come to feel that a rail connection to Chapel Hill was essential, resolving that they “look with deep interest to the early completion of the railway communication between Chapel Hill and the steam lines of travel already in existence, and would urge upon the Legislature of the State and upon the people of the country the duty and value of a speedy establishment of such line.” (UNC Trustees Minutes, 1/16/1878).
A Rail Line to Durham? 
Immediately Durham interests sought to secure a connection from Chapel Hill to Durham.  The Durham Tobacco Plant editorialized in 1879: “Durham can and will do more for such a road than any other point . . . this would be on a direct line to Oxford and connected with the Clarksville branch and thereby make it a very important road.  The charter should be granted running from Durham.”  The Chapel Hill Weekly Ledger (3/8/1879) agreed: “Durham will help us build the road if we build it to that place – she has promised and is able to aid in its construction.  There are many reasons why the road should be built to Durham.  It will be beneficial to both towns to a greater extent than if it were built to any other point.”  These pleas did not fall upon deaf ears, but in 1879 when the legislature authorized the creation of the State University Railroad Company (SURR), the question of where to connect was left in the company's hands.  
Because the line to Durham was longer and more expensive, it was clear that a line to Durham could only be justified by investment from Durham.  The Chapel Hill Ledger (11/8/1879) reported that a meeting of the incorporators resolved to take subscriptions for $10,000 to run the line through Durham.  Battle relates in his History: “I spent a day in the endeavor to persuade [Durham residents] to do this, but met with no response . . . One merchant replied, ‘Your road is against the interests of Durham. Trade would stop at Chapel Hill.’”
In early 1880 the Chapel Hill Ledger (1/10/1880) reported: “An interesting debate was participated in . . . as to what point the road should be run  . . . Messrs. Battle and Hoke favoring University Station . . . They would be glad to see the road go to Durham if the requisite amount could be raised.  Messrs. [Julian[ Carr and [Paul] Cameron warmly advocated Durham as the point to which the road should be run.  Mr. Carr pledged himself to raise $4,000 in Durham . . . K P Battle offered a resolution to locate the road from Chapel Hill to University Station.” The resolution passed.
The State University Rail Road 
So ultimately the rail line was built to University Station, rather than Durham. Ironically, Jule Carr wrote a letter to the Ledger (1/24/1880) casting doubt on the success of a route that did not connect at Durham: “I trust that your railroad to University Station may prove of as much benefit to the good people of Chapel Hill as some of your very clever citizens seem to think it will, but, to be honest with you, I have very little hope of it myself.”  As it turned out, the railroad to University Station was not only a benefit to “the good people of Chapel Hill,” but it was so successful that it spawned a new town that would, thirty-three years later, be named for Mr. Carr.
 8 The Whooper
"The Whooper" ran from University Station to Carrboro for over 40 years. 
Whether the community leaders of old made the right decisions could be debated.  On the one hand, the route actually got built and served (and still serves) important functions for southern Orange County.  That rail line spawned the Town of Carrboro, which (pardon my bias) I view as a good thing.  On the other hand, had they worked harder to connect UNC to Durham, our region and its challenges would look quite different today.
Will Rail Ever Come? 
Now at last we may be coming to the time when the problem of a rail connection to Durham could actually be solved.  Two years ago the General Assembly authorized Triangle area Counties to implement an additional ½ percent sales tax to support public transportation.  While other funding sources were considered by the Legislature, only a sales tax was ultimately permitted, and only on the condition that it be approved by a county-wide referendum in each county.
After years of careful planning, Triangle Transit and Orange and Durham governments are finally coming together around a plan to build a light rail system to connect from Durham to UNC.  The plan is essentially this:
Orange and Durham County voters would go to the polls in November of 2011 or 2012 to consider a referendum on whether to increase the sales tax in each county by ½ of a percent to finance a major expansion of public transportation.  If approved, the new public transportation plan would include:
1. Major bus service upgrades along US 15-501 and NC 54
2. A Bus Rapid Transit system on Martin Luther King Boulevard,
3. A new Carrboro-Chapel Hill- Durham regional express bus service.
4. Expanded service on the 420 Bus Route between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.
5. Full Chapel Hill Transit service on Saturdays (expanding the limited existing Saturday schedule).
6. Limited Chapel Hill Transit service on Sundays (currently there is no service),
7. A new Efland-Hillsborough-Durham regional express bus service along US-70,
8. A major evening service expansion on Chapel Hill Transit,
9. Permanent funding for bus service within the Town of Hillsborough (currently grant funded, but with funds running out in 2014 unless this referendum is passed),
10. Commuter rail service from Durham to RTP starting in 2018.  This service would eventually extend far into Wake County as well, but only after Wake implements the same sales tax.  This service could be further expanded to serve Hillsborough and points both further east and west, but that is not a part of the immediate plan, and
11. Light Rail service from UNC to Duke, Downtown Durham and NCCU in 2025.  This service could be expanded to points further west at some point in the future if further funding were to be identified.
How to Get Involved 
The next six weeks will be critical to making this plan come to fruition.  The Orange County Board of County Commissioners will need to pass a resolution placing this issue on the ballot in order for us to get to vote on it in November.  
We need to vote on this referendum THIS YEAR.  All environmental indicators show that we should have implemented a system like this a decade or more ago.  Orange County’s Green House Gas (GHG) Inventory shows that almost 1/3 of all GHG emissions in our community come from automobile traffic and a major expansion of public transportation is the single greatest opportunity to reduce those emissions.  The price of gas continues to spiral out of control and there is no end in sight.  The sooner we move to a more sustainable future centered around public transportation, the better off both our region and our planet will be.
As well, 2011 will be a great time to vote on this matter.  The political pendulum is singing back in the direction of environmental protection and sustainability and we should ride that wave to victory this November.  If you agree with me that this plan needs to be the future of Orange County, then please let your County Commissioners know: Now is the time and this is the plan!
You can email the entire County Commission by emailing the Clerk of the County Commission at:

Battle tells us in his History: “When the grading was finished the ladies of the village gave the employees and convict [laborers] an excellent dinner.”  There was also a grand ceremony to mark the occasion.  Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s daughter Julia drove the last spike in the rail line.  As Battle says“Speeches were made by President Battle, Mr. Jones Watson, and others.” And Julia Spencer wrote a song for the occasion, which I take the liberty of excerpting here:
"Farewell, old wagon/Jolting hack and phaeton/Farewell forever/We’re going to take the train . . .
"Farewell forever/Old road to Durham/Farewell forever/We’ll travel now by train . . .
"And all along the coming years/That time for us may fill/We’ll bless the men that brought the road/To dear old Chapel Hill . . ."
Sources consulted:
Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Vol. II, UNC Press, 1912.
The Chapel Hill Ledger, George T. Winston, ed., 1879-1880.
Hoke, William F. papers, North Carolina State Archives.
Hoke, William F. papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH.
Love, James Lee, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, UNC Press, 1945.
The Tobacco Plant, Caleb B. Green, ed., 1879-1882.
Trustees Minutes, UNC Archives, UNC-CH.
The Weekly Ledger, Cornelia Phillips Spencer, ed., 1878-1879.  
Wilson, Louis R. ed., Selected Papers of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, UNC Press, 1953.



I know the Census Bureau believes we in Chapel Hill/Carrboro are part of the Durham MSA, but if you look at where my family drives, it is much more down I-40 than to Durham.  Sure, we go to restaurants there occasionally.  And the Bulls for sure (that'd be a great place to ride the train to).  But when I don't work from home, it is in RTP.  And there's better shopping in Raleigh.  And our family is in Raleigh/Cary.  And cultural options are maybe even now but with more venues in Raleigh.  I love the idea of rail -- used it a ton when we lived in Atlanta.  But if every trip requires 10 miles out of the way to go through Durham (40% increase even before you talk about speed/closeness to destination issues), I have a hard time seeing myself using it much. I have no idea what this means for my potential vote.  I support the idea in general, but don't like the specific proposal. Hmm.

If you could live near a RR station in future it would mean that you could reside in say chapel hill and work, shop, whatever in Durham, Raleigh, cary. It would also mean you could avoid owning multiple cars and put those car payments towards a better house. If the real estate market ever turns back this would mean you money is growing rather than throwing it away in car payments.
Dense development needs to be built around future rail stations so many commuters can get to trains easily without a car trip.

The original citizen's Fixed Guideway Advisory Committee (of which a number of CH residents were members) proposed  17 years ago that the major spine of regional transit in the western Triangle be along I-40.  Triangle Transit planners who staffed the committee floated that by NCDOT, who vetoed it immediately. DOT also fought High Occupancy Vehicle lanes in I-40 from the mid-1980s until about 2002. The current plan connects the two largest *and rapidly expanding* employment centers in the western Triangle counties. While Duke could lay off employees this year, it will also add them elsewhere. Health care is (unfortunately for some) a growth industry surpassing almost all others. Duke MC and UNC Hospitals are logical major employment endpoints for one part of a regional system. Having said that, as Mark Chilton pointed out yesterday in detail, the main and most immediate benefits to Orange County of this transit program are buses on the local roads, way more than now.  Ed Harrison

There's no doubt that the Triangle needs to implement a strong, long-term public transit strategy. WRAL reported earlier today (http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/9588660/) that the Triangle is now the nation's #1 gas-guzzling metro area in the nation (and Charlotte's not far behind).A plan like this is the first step for both the Triangle and NC at large to improve its public transit. If we're going to continue to grow, we have to solve our transportation problems... and currently, we're doing a terrible job of it. 

"We need to vote on this referendum THIS YEAR.  All environmental indicators show that we should have implemented a system like this a decade or more ago.  Orange County Green House Gas (GHG) Inventory shows that almost 1/3 of all GHG emissions in our community come from automobile traffic and a major expansion of public transportation is the single greatest opportunity to reduce those emissions.  The price of gas continues to spiral out of control and there is no end in sight.  The sooner we move to a more sustainable future centered around public transportation, the better off both our region and our planet will be." Sorry, but I'm not buying this for a minute.  UNC grows and grows and Chapel Hill and especially Carroboro doesn't accomodate the growing workforce as far as living space goes.  As a result more and more of the UNC workforce drives to and from UNC from Durham and Chatham County and Mebane and Graham and Morrisville and Hillsborough and on and on and on and they do it 250 tmes every year.  Or else they drive from those places to a park and ride near UNC and then bus the final leg and they do that 250 tmes every year.  But we're supposed to believe that you want less automobiel traffic?  Instead, I think you want less automobile traffic that you can see.

Of the eleven items that you posted, two of them specifically target rail service. I'm not convinced that most Americans truly understand modern rail systems. We would need major buy in from the local communities to make this work really well. Why? 1. Great rail systems originate in the center of towns.Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh, etc. would need to accept that there would be major construction in the center of their towns to make this happen. Chapel Hill and Carrboro could possibly retrofit the current tracks (that are owned by a private company), but there would still need to be major construction to make it happen. If we treat the rail system like an airport (locating the depot miles away from the town), don't be surprised when it fails. 2. Great rail systems do not stop traffic.This would be tricky, but the train shouldn't stop car, bike, and pedestrian traffic, ever. So, the track could be on the ground, only when they don't interfere with other traffic. So, they would need to go underground or above ground whenever they are cross a road or path. That can be expensive. Just looking at the Carrboro spur (the train line goes from Hillsborough to Durham, with a spur that goes to Carrboro/Chapel Hill)... and I'm talking just the spur... you would need to do the following: - Create an overpass/underpass at N Ester Drive- Create an overpass/underpass at Seawell School Rd- Create an overpass/underpass at Homestead Rd- Create an overpass/underpass at Eubanks Rd- Create an overpass/underpass at Millhouse Rd- Maintain the underpass at 40 (Done!)- Create an overpass/underpass at Millhouse Rd (again)- Create an overpass/underpass at 86- Create an overpass/underpass at University Station Rd- Maintain/Expand the overpass at Old State Highway Rd (Done!) Each one could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more.) Even at that high cost, I think it could be worth every penny.

I could not personally speak to the engineering issues, but suffice it to say that the engineering issues have been analysed by experts.  This is not some off-the-cuff proposal.  It has been years in the making.As for station locations, the end point (for now) would be near UNC Hospital where the largest center of employment in Orange County is.Further westward connections would be in a later phase of the project.  The current proposal is to run from Alston Ave to Downtown Durham to Duke to UNC (with various stops along the way). 

I'm sure the engineers have thoroughly thought about the needs, but a few cities have not implemented those basic principles by simply upgrading freight lines to light rail. It would require a major shift in thinking, new rail lines, upgraded train depots, overhead electric lines, etc. etc. It is a complex issue, especially considering dozens of people own the current rail lines.

I only wish everyone would have the opportunity to visit Japan or Germany and take a trip on their rail systems. It is a very efficient and modern system of transportation. I would love to be able to walk to the Carrboro train station and pick up a quick and inexpensive train to Durham or Raleigh, but it must be nearly as fast as a car and roughly the same cost. You can't expect people to pay 3x as much and spend 2x as much time getting there.

After a bit of research, Amtrak already runs commuter rail lines (on lines built for freight) from Raleigh to Charlotte. I wonder what type of volume they do? Here are their stops:

1 Raleigh (RGH)
2 Cary (CYN)
3 Durham (DNC)
--- Chapel Hill/Carrboro Spur
4 Burlington (BNC)
5 Greensboro (GRO)
6 High Point (HPT)
7 Salisbury (SAL)
8 Kannapolis (KAN)
9 Charlotte (CLT)

Price: $32 (one way)
Travel Time: 3 hours 46 mins

Now, contrast that to driving. It would take about 3 hours to drive from Raleigh to Charlotte. Considering it is ~166 miles, and estimating ~25 mpg (average mpg in the US) in a vehicle, would take about 6.64 gallons of fuel at $3.89 per gallon (national average). That's about $25.88 (granted, that excludes the purchase of the vehicle, license, insurance, etc. etc.)

I just wish there were a better solution. We would basically need to start from scratch on some of this.

Do you think Amtrak is up the the challenge?

CarrboroKid,Your analysis suggests that taking the train from Raleigh to Charlotte (and back) would cost about twice as much and take about 1 1/2 hours longer than if you drove.  That seems to be about right.  However, what your analysis does not consider is the value of the approximately 7 hours that you could be working on your laptop, catching up on your reading, relaxing, sleeping, or whatever else you might want to do but can't do while behind the wheeel of your car.  It also doesn't take into account that the train provides a significant reduction in the stress one usually incurs while trying to stay alive negotiating traffic on I-40/I-85.  Yes, you may pay more for these benefits but it's often worth it in terms of either increased productivity or just a more relaxed and peaceful life.

George you've hit on exactly why I still try to ride the bus to work (for an hour each way) when I could drive in half the time and park near my office. In addition, there are many other psychological and social benefits of the experience, but that's getting too far off track. ;-) 


I absolutely agree that train travel is a wonderful way to travel. I would put coach train travel on par with first-class air travel minus the craziness of airport security and the "you need to be here 1 hour early" business. Being able to surf the web, do business, read, listen to music, nap, etc. is a major plus for train travel.

CarrboroKid says about Raleigh to Charlotte trains currently:

"Price: $32 (one way) Travel Time: 3 hours 46 mins. Now, contrast that to driving. It would take about 3 hours to drive from Raleigh to Charlotte. Considering it is ~166 miles, and estimating ~25 mpg (average mpg in the US) in a vehicle, would take about 6.64 gallons of fuel at $3.89 per gallon (national average). That's about $25.88 (granted, that excludes the purchase of the vehicle, license, insurance, etc. etc.)"

  I take the train from Raleigh or Cary to Charlotte regularly. I am not sure where you get your statistics. The one-way regular fare from either of those cities to Charlotte is NOT $32, it is $25 one way, and there are discounts for AAA members and those age 62+ that make the one-way fare $22.50. Also the train travel time is 3 hrs 11 minutes, not 3 hrs 46 minutes. (2 hrs 59 minutes if you start from Cary like many Raleigh residents do). Within 18 months it will drop by another 15 minutes as another 36 miles are double tracked. Also, I am quite glad that in figuring how much it costs to drive you are able to exclude the cost of the vehicle and insurance, "and etc" (repairs, maintenance??).  Can you give me a tip on how to do that?

Easy way to calculate is to use the IRS figure for mileage reimbursement (they adjust every 6 months to account for gas price changes).  It is currently $0.51 per mile.  That's a pretty good indication of what it costs an average driver to drive a mile.  Now you're up to $84 to drive each way.

I agree that the $0.51 fee is a more complete price (calculating in everything), but I'm not sure that is as reasonable for this example as the train isn't a replacement for a car, and even if you do take the train, you will still need to pay for your car insurance (even if you aren't using it much).

Does that make sense? (I accept that just calculating fuel price alone doesn't give the full picture). But, even if the train was $1 and went 500 mph, I would still keep my car and pay car insurance.

Isn't there a federal subsidy that allows Amtrak to keep their prices so low? When talking comparisons, it would be better to talk true cost rather than subsidized cost since the amount and existence of subsidies are subject to political whim. I agree with James that the federal mileage deduction is a good indicator of the true cost of automotive transportation.

That's a great point. Looks like the Amtrak subsidies total $32 per passenger. Very interesting...


I'm pretty sure federal, stat and local subsidies to maintain and build the highways we drive on far outweigh any subsidies going to Amtrak.


I looked at the Amtrak website. It shows $32 (link to screen grab).


I do see that that on the weekends, the price does drop to $26, so I do apologize for that. I realize there are discounts, but I am simply referencing the standard price during regular weekday travel.

To be honest, I'm not sure where I noted the 3:46 travel time, but after reviewing the Amtrak website, I can't get above 3:17 now. Perhaps it was some fluke with yesterday's schedule? Hopefully, you won't view my inaccurate 3:46 time as being malicious. Yes, it is 3:10-ish, which isn't bad at all.

Regarding your comment:
> Also, I am quite glad that in figuring how much
> it costs to drive you are able to exclude the cost
> of the vehicle and insurance, "and etc"
> (repairs, maintenance??). Can you give me a tip
> on how to do that?"

Regardless of taking this theoretical trip, I will pay for my vehicle and insurance. It is a fixed cost, so it isn't a fair comparison to include that expense. Sure, if I didn't own a vehicle, I could come up with a very different set of numbers, but this rail system should be designed to make financial sense for everyone, not just those that don't own cars.

The "well, you need to calculate the entire cost of driving the car" only works if the system (rail) would completely replace your car. Rail, while incredible, doesn't do that. Finally, I could get into the differences of fixed costs vs. variable costs, but perhaps that should be left for another conversation.

I've figured out why CarrboroKid and I do not agree on the facts -- because the facts are different depending on what you look at.  The New York to Charlotte Carolinian which runs once per day  each direction has a $32 one way Raleigh/Cary fare to Charlotte. The Raleigh to Charlotte Piedmont, which runs twice per day in each direction has a $25 one way fare.  All three trains have 10% discounts available for AAA members, seniors, students, children, and OP posters (well, not OP posters)

How about we say that we're both right :)

One of the costs that everyone seems to ignore is the cost to maintain federal, state and local highways. This often is forgotten but must be considered in any cost analysis. Railroads maintain their own infrastructure. I believe Amtrak owns some of it's right of way while pays to utilize some freight right of way.
Main point is we are probably at peak oil so we must begin to find ways to cut back on consumption. passenger rail bot local and national is an important way to accomplish conservation of resources. Hybrids and soon pluggable hybrids and future hydrogen electric are important technologies that will help conservation as well.

It may generate more traffic on the spur to make  stations instead of overpasses were people can park their cars or walk and get on the train. Stops along the spur could be development opportunities for smalll dense walkable communites existing at the station locations. Communities would benefit from living in rural locations but residents could still commute to jobs in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Durham and Cary. Gates like exist now on the spur should be adequate for safety.

At 200 mph, a train would be traveling at nearly 100 yards a second.

Traditional crossing gates work fine for freight trains, but when the trains are traveling at upwards of 150 mph (remember, non-maglev trains can travel at speeds beyond 350 mph!), you can't rely on gates for safety. We just need one person that's "in a hurry" to kill hundreds.

Even for the Richmond-to-Raleigh "high-speed rail" line, they're not talking about high-speed rail as it's understood in Europe or Japan.  They're talking upwards of 70mph.  Right now their maximum in some areas is merely 35mph because of tight turns.

I think it's needless to say that a light-rail line around here isn't going to be going any faster than 70mph, probably not even that fast.  There's been no mention of true high-speed rail in any of the TTA proposals.

Perhaps this is why I get so frustrated. We set the bar so low at times.

Actually, this area has been identified as part of the proposed high-speed rail corridor.


The "High Speed Rail" project goes through Durham and Hillsborough, but it is essentially unrelated to this light rail proposal.

Maximum permitted speeds on railroads in NC is 79 mph per Federal Railway Administration regulations.

Agenda item at Thursday's meeting of the Orange County Commissioners:  Orange County Transit Plan: Draft Financial Plan for Rail and Bus Investment   It is classified as a "non-public hearing item." Maybe a Commissioner could explain what that means. We don't have items like that in Chapel Hill unless they're Consent or Closed Session agenda items.  Ed Harrison

It is going to be a Commissioners' Work Session.  No public comments being received at the moment.

I would be interested in seeing the numbers for those using the bus service between CH/Carrboro and Hillsborough and Durham. I work at Duke and have filled out countless surveys for number of years and looked at the TTA bus service routes to Durham and instead of being on the road for 1 hour 10 minutes each work day by car, using TTA pushes that to 3 hours just not worth it to me.  As for the light rail its a pipe dream because it is so far down the road and there are so many unknowns. Think about how old you will be and if you will still be working at your present job? I don't see any coordinated plans between Orange and Durham Counties other than lets get another tax to spend on our county's bus services. Where are the concerte plans?


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