Is Hillsborough ready for rail?

A recently-completed feasibility study has smiled upon the idea of rail service in HIllsborough, and the town is purchasing land for a future station. Amtrak and NC DOT say it makes financial sense, but they also say that it can only work if the town gets serious about long-term planning.

Just in time for the Orange County Comprehensive Plan, which some think is overly reliant on sprawling growth and not doing enough smart land use planning!

The town would need to further develop and adopt a concept plan of how rail service would fit into overall community development, such as plans for land use, road networks and transit, bike and pedestrian access. The rail service would need to coordinate well with other modes of transportation.

A comprehensive review of the local rail infrastructure, including nearby road and pedestrian crossings, would be needed.

The town also would need to locate a site for a rail/transit stop. Concurrently, the town is obtaining property in Central Hillsborough that has the potential to serve as a rail stop and transit center.

The town also would need to gain support from a variety of government agencies and private-sector affiliates to ensure its concept plan is integrated into town and regional initiatives and to help secure funding for construction of a rail stop.

- Town of Hillsborough: Rail Stop in Hillsborough Looks Financially Viable, 7/3/08



The jurisdictions don't really overlap.  Hillsborough planning is unrelated to OC planning, and the OC comprehensive plan specifically excludes the cities (although it recommends working with them).

 But rail in Hillsborough is a great idea.


Yeah, but Hillsborough could develop some awesome new land-use plan with bike, pedestrian, and transit facilities and it would totally fail if Orange County just kept making more low-density sprawl and mega malls. More importantly, I'm sure the train would serve a much wider audience than just people who live in Hillsborough.

This is why I've been advocating for the county's Comprehensive Plan process to work with municipalities, which they are not doing at all as far as I can tell.

The North Carolina Railroad commuter rail feasibility study (which has nothing whatsoever to do with either AMTRAK intercity service or the proposed Triange Transit regional rail plan) to be released in August shows in Orange County a proposed stop in Hillsborough, as well as one at old University Station where the SURR rail link to Carrboro connects to the mainline.  For the old SURR line, stops in the study are shown as University Station, Blackwood Station (where the RR crosses Hwy 86N), University North (Carolina North) and Carrboro.  Service level would be 4 morning and 4 afternoon trains, and one mid-day.

None of this is funded, it is a feasability and cost study.

Gerry, do you have a link to more information about the study?

Mark, here is the map of the routes being studied, note there are four routes proposed:

Chapel Hill/Carrboro to University Road (University Station)

Goldsboro to University Road (University Station)

Raleigh to Greensboro

Burlington to West Greensboro

The thicker lines on the map means more than one route on that segment.

The mainline shows Orange County stops in the study at University Station, Hillsborough, and Efland (Mebane is the next stop west). 


It's important not to entangle the various different types of rail services that could serve Hillsborough and evaluate potential success of one service (intercity rail) by another's metrics (commuter rail). 

The Amtrak/NCDOT finding supports something that many of us who support a rail stop in Hillsborough know intuitively-- if you stop trains already passing through town that are headed to Charlotte, Raleigh, Richmond, DC, and New York, plenty of Orange County citizens will ride, and plenty of people from elsewhere will get off in Hillsborough and visit Orange County, and Amtrak's revenue will increase.  (From an operational point of view, it costs them next to nothing to stop the train in Hillsborough)

Commuter rail is a different animal.  Commuter rail operations are meant to serve trips within one metropolitan area, for daily trips to work.  Intercity rail can function well with a bew group of riders each day, traveling in smaller numbers, to distant destinatios for business and pleasure.  Commuter tail thrives on building a strong base of the same people who ride habitually, 3-5 days per week. year-round.  This base of riders can be developed by building quality compact, mixed-use development in 3-5 story buildings within walking distance of the station, and making park-and-ride easy.  This service does not presently exist, and thus the operational startup costs are considerable.  

Intercity rail and commuter rail are compatible in terms of equipment and regulations.  Many commuter rail operations in the US share tracks with freight and Amtrak intercity operations, and Hillsborough need not be different as long as there is adequate track capacity, which the NCRR study Gerry mentioned should address. 

In light of present conditions, though, it makes sense for Hillsborough, with the support of the County and other municipalities, to proceed as quickly  (though prudently) as possible with the development of a platform and canopy to serve the Amtrak trains that are already running through town.  I have heard town staff in Hillsborough suggest that the adjacent ballfields and train station could share improved parking facilities.   

Care will need to be taken to ensure that a station design is developed that supports a future with both intercity and commuter rail, and can serve intercity rail first.  Land use planning in the immediate vicinity should emphasize vertically mixed-use buildings with residential, retail and office. The first two will help build a long-term base for ridership should commuter rail be in our future.  The latter may also generate a "reverse commute" ridership opportunity for commuters from within the Triangle to come to Hillsborough and work.  Bicycle and pedestrian connections to downtown should be seamless, safe and well-lit.  



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