Making the Connection – Commuter Rail

One of the things we’re doing as we develop a countywide transit plan is learning from other places—what works, what doesn’t and what might be the best options for us here in Wake County.

We focused on BRT (bus rapid transit) in our previous post, so today we want to provide more information on commuter rail service – another important piece of the Wake County Recommended Transit Plan.

In April, business and civic leaders will visit San Diego as part of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s annual Inter-City Visit. A major item on their agenda will be learning about San Diego’s transit services, specifically commuter rail and bus rapid transit, since the community has both.

SanDiegoCOASTERHere’s a look at San Diego’s COASTER commuter train, which serves eight stations between Oceanside and downtown San Diego.



Learning from Other Places

As noted in the Recommended Wake County Transit plan, commuter rail uses locomotives and railcars that are approved to run in close proximity to and on the same tracks as freight trains and intercity (Amtrak) passenger trains. Using existing rail lines allows extension of the system for longer distances.

As is the case with most transit services, nationally the highest ridership commuter rail networks are in the largest cities with a centralized employment center (think about New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia). These systems have generally operated for decades and helped establish the areas they serve.

Several other communities have implemented commuter rail more recently and are in situations more like ours. From these communities, we hope to learn:

  1. How to efficiently add commuter rail to our network;
  2. Best practices in integrating commuter rail service into the existing freight and intercity passenger network, so as to avoid conflicts;
  3. Key land use and policy decisions; and
  4. Opportunities to benefit from lessons learned.

Over the years, local public officials and transportation advocates have visited other cities across the country to learn about commuter rail. Some of the communities we have visited or plan to visit are:

Here’s a look at some photos taken in Minneapolis and Salt Lake City by Will Allen, who serves on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.


Lessons Learned from Florida

Recently, Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann, GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann, North Carolina Railroad Vice President Jim Kessler and some staff members went to Florida to take a closer look at SunRail in the Greater Orlando area, a system that shares some similar characteristics to that proposed in the Recommended Wake County Transit Plan.


Sunrail began operating on April 30, 2014. Phase 1 covers 32 miles with 12 stations along the former CSX Transportation “A” Line, connecting Volusia County and Orange County through downtown Orlando. Another phase will add more stations, and the entire corridor will stretch 61 miles.

During Wake County’s visit to Orlando, the stakeholders who helped make SunRail a reality shared the following advice:

  • Establish key partnerships early.
  • Make key decisions early on, with clear prioritization, and have key stakeholders agree and cement those decisions. .
  • Determine who can be a champion for the project at the local, state and federal levels.
  • Early branding is crucial to gathering momentum and excitement, and helps when seeking funding.

What might our commuter rail look like?

Using all of this insight, what could commuter rail look like in Wake County?

As proposed, our commuter rail corridor would start in Garner on existing rail lines, travel through downtown Raleigh, and ultimately extend to Durham, covering a total of 37 miles.


Based on the recommended plan, commuter rail would offer five to eight trips each way in each direction during peak hours, and one to two trips each way during the midday and evening hours.

In today’s traffic, if you plan a trip from Raleigh to Durham at 5 p.m. using N.C. 147 and I-40, an online mapping tool indicates that the trip will take between 35 minutes and 1 hour and 20 minutes. The variation in time and the potential for delay has huge impacts for drivers. Traveling at peak times, commuter rail will move people between Raleigh and Durham on a consistent and reliable 45-minute or less schedule.

One thought on “Making the Connection – Commuter Rail

  • February 26, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    Since Norfolk Southern Railway would not allow the Triangle Transit Authority to operate commuter trains on the North Carolina Railroad between Raleigh and Durham, why does the steering committee think it would allow the proposed service between Raleigh and Garner? Has anyone contacted Norfolk Southern about this proposal?

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