All aboard for railroads’ rebound

Back in the Hometown

In these modern times when expectations are high for self-driving cars and even front-door drone taxi service, some are casting loving glances back at yesteryear’s railroad.

We tend to think of Tweetsie and the horse and buggy when we think of railroads. But leaders in Winston-Salem are thinking that a return of passenger rail service there could be the future as well as the past. Would you drive to Winston to hop on a train?

Many of us don’t know that already you can board a train in North Carolina. The state runs two trains daily between Charlotte and Raleigh in the I-85 corridor. You can hop on at depots in High Point, Salisbury and other stops along the line. Amtrak also runs eight trains out of New York through North Carolina en route to Florida or New Orleans.

You don’t hear much about the trains these days because, for instance, the price of a ticket for the Charlotte-Raleigh run is $30. The price of gas to drive the 170 miles is about $20.

We once had passenger trains running from Winston through Elkin to North Wilkesboro. When train service first reached the hometown in 1890, Elkin staged a monster parade. Subsequently, the little hometown blossomed. Today, Yadkin Valley Railroad’s freight service that runs through here is a reminder of what once was.

We think of the E&A Rail Trail as a fine walking path out of Elkin park. But once there was a railroad service that ran up to Doughton at the foot of the mountain. I had an aunt who once told me about hopping on that train in State Road, riding to Doughton to spend a day with an aunt of hers, and then riding back home.

The E&A passenger line ended in 1926 as automobiles became common and highways including U.S. 21 got built and replaced the railroad.

Winston-Salem hasn’t seen passenger trains since 1970. But the big infrastructure spending plan approved in Washington last year includes $66 million to expand Amtrak service in the country. In North Carolina, that could mean running trains in the I-40 corridor between Asheville and Wilmington.

Winston is not in the plans now. But it wants in on the action. “We also have got to convince the railroad that it makes sense,” said Winston-Salem mayor Allen Joines, as reported by the city’s big newspaper. That sounds like the E&A all over again.

Unlike in Elkin, Winston-Salem kept its old train depot near Winston-Salem State and even gave the building a big upgrade in 2019. It’s used now for offices but is ready to become a depot once again.

Amtrak runs a shuttle bus service from Winston to its High Point depot. But if somehow Winston could get passenger trains again, could the upper Yadkin Valley get onboard for all of this train talk as well?

The lesson of the E&A and Highway 21 a hundred years ago say no to modern passenger train service. But who knows what the future holds for transportation and energy supplies? Stranger things have happened than a potential rebound for the railroad.