© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Transit Time is a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters ... if you use it to get around the city, you can read news and analysis about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

A Red Line reboot: Why Charlotte's long-delayed commuter rail might look a lot different

Rendering of a red train
Courtesy CATS
The Red Line would connect northern Mecklenburg to uptown Charlotte.

There’s an ancient thought experiment known as the “ship of Theseus.” I won’t get into all the philosophical details and Athenian backstory, but the basic question it poses is this: How many individual components of one thing can you replace before it becomes a different thing, even if it keeps the same name?

It might be time to update the ship of Theseus thought experiment to the Red Line thought experiment (though would that actually be the same thought experiment?), since the Charlotte Area Transit System is considering extensive changes to the commuter rail line north to Iredell County. In a meeting this month, CATS planners laid out just how much they’re looking at changing the project — and it’s most of the Red Line.

First, a quick history lesson. The Red Line commuter rail to the north has been on the books in some form as a future plan since at least 1998. (Yes, that makes it 26 now, old enough to drive a car without paying those pesky rental fee risk supplemental charges.) The current iteration dates to 2008, when CATS did some basic designing for a Red Line that would share tracks with Norfolk Southern’s sparsely used O Line freight train.

The plan was straightforward: a commuter rail, pulled by diesel locomotives, providing morning and evening service for workers heading from the north into uptown, and vice versa. But in 2013, Norfolk Southern said, “No thanks, we’re keeping the tracks exclusively for us.” The plan has been in limbo since.

Fast-forward to last fall, when the city of Charlotte revealed (after Transit Time first reported) that it was in talks with Norfolk Southern about breaking the impasse. There’s nothing concrete yet, but CATS says it’s still talking with the freight rail company and maybe, just maybe, they can reach an agreement.

All of which means that CATS wants to be ready to move forward with the Red Line — assuming Norfolk Southern agrees, and they can get a funding plan in place. There is still plenty of work to do on that.

But a lot’s changed since 2008: COVID-19 blew up commuting patterns. Train technology has advanced. And green fields that were once meant to be stations have turned into buzzing shopping centers and subdivisions along the planned route.

Given all of those changes, CATS allocated $5 million for a new round of planning. It shared some of its early conclusions in a public presentation last week. Here are some of the biggest alterations being contemplated:

Station locations: navigating development

Rail lines are supposed to spur development, but the Red Line is now in a position of reacting to it. To illustrate how much development there’s been, CATS Red Line project manager Brian Nadolny put up side-by-side aerial photos of the proposed Hambright Station at the Bryton development in Huntersville in 2008 vs. now:

Aerial imagery
Aerial imagery shows the change in Huntersville from 2008 to now.

“It really was a 360-degree greenfield potential development. However, when you look at it today, pretty much everything there has been developed,” he said.

Transportation planner Kevin Walsh said CATS is doing similar evaluations for every station.

“Our project team has been taking the old design and looking at new aerial information to understand where things may have changed along the corridor, especially around station locations,” he said.

Map of Red Line stations
Map courtesy of CATS
The original plan for the Red Line called for 10 stations. CATS is studying locations and seems likely to change or add stops.

Some locations might be OK with minor changes — for example, CATS is looking at moving proposed stations near Veterans Park in Huntersville and Old Statesville and W.T. Harris Boulevard to the north or south. Platforms in Davidson and Cornelius could shift slightly to accommodate what’s been built. They’re also looking to shift a planned vehicle maintenance facility near the end of the line because the location is “no longer viable,” Walsh said.

In other areas, CATS is looking at adding stops. The biggest is Camp North End, which was a largely derelict missile plant and Rite Aid distribution center when the Red Line was conceived but is now one of the fastest-growing developments north of uptown — and one that happens to be right along the Red Line. Business owners and the site’s developer said last fall that they would welcome a stop there. Planners pointed out they’ll have to balance adding stops with adding travel time, however.

Frequency and speed: more trains, quicker trip

When it was originally planned, the Red Line was envisioned as making between 16 and 28 trips total each weekday, clustered around the peak morning and evening commutes. The intended riders were 9-to-5 commuters headed to and from uptown, trying to avoid the horribly congested I-77.

Since then, Covid has made more workers remote and spread traffic more evenly throughout the day. The I-77 Express Lanes were built, offering a (pricey) alternative to the traffic; express buses can use them, too.

Planners said it’s imperative to recognize those changes and make the Red Line 2.0 more of an all-day service, an option to get people to medical appointments, college classes and entertainment — not just to the office and back twice a day, every weekday.

Now, CATS is looking at 42 trips a day (21 each way), with 30-minute frequencies around rush hour and hourly trains other hours. And that includes service on the evenings and weekends, when people might want to take the train to and from, say, a Charlotte FC game.

It’s a doubling, or more, of the proposed frequencies.

Walsh also said that, as modeled now, the trip from Mount Mourne in Iredell County to uptown would take about 45 minutes. That’s faster than 56 minutes, which CATS had earlier listed as the time for a full-length trip — and potentially competitive with the I-77 toll lanes and bus rapid transit. Walsh didn’t say why the change had been made.

Type of vehicle: choices abound

Walsh said that a simple diesel locomotive pulling a train of passenger cars might not make sense anymore. He pointed to multiunit train sets — basically, a train in which each car has its own propulsion system — as one alternative CATS will look at. (Here’s an overview of diesel multiunit trains, if you’re curious.) Those could use diesel, or alternative fuels like biodiesel, Walsh said. And such trains might be faster, with better acceleration and deceleration times.

Two red trains
A CATS presentation slide shows different types of trains that might be used on the Red Line.

Trains could even use hydrogen as a fuel, Walsh said. Known as hydrail by its proponents, the zero-emission fuel is tantalizingly clean compared to diesel, and Walsh said it’s “a fuel type that’s going to be coming to the U.S. soon.”

Cost: probably higher

So, to sum it up: Different (and possibly additional) station locations. Twice as much frequency. More modern rail vehicles. About the only things that won’t be changed on the Red Line are the name (at least as of now) and the plan to run it on the “O Line” rails owned by Norfolk Southern.

What does that mean for the cost?

The answer is that we don’t know, but costs are certainly likely to rise. CATS has long used an estimate of $674 million, but that’s years old now — pre-inflation, pre-changes. The eventual cost could be substantially higher.

“Later this year, we’ll be updating our cost estimate, as we go through the design process,” said Walsh.

CATS plans to finish its current redesign by next year. After that is a two-year process of further design refinement and environmental impact studies. If funding comes together, and Norfolk Southern says yes, there would be another two-year planning phase to get to 60% design and a locked-in cost estimate, followed by one to three years of engineering work, and three to six years of construction.

All put together, that means if everything goes right, service could hypothetically start in the mid- to late-2030s.

“These transit projects are complex projects, and they take time,” said Nadolny. “We’re looking to expedite this as much as possible.”

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.