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'High Speed' Rail Coming to NC? No So Fast.

North Carolina has cleared the final hurdle necessary to tap $461 million in federal grant money for high-speed rail between Charlotte and Raleigh. Last night, state transportation officials signed a contract with Norfolk Southern - which handles dispatch on the railroad - to guarantee faster, more reliable passenger service. The federal government wouldn't release grant money without that agreement in place. If the words "high-speed rail" have you thinking of bullet trains or the super-fast TGV in France, forget about it. "That is not what we're talking about," says Patrick Simmons, who heads the rail division for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. "That is completely different technology and orders of magnitude different level of investment." What North Carolina will get with this $461 million infusion of federal funds is a slightly faster trip from Charlotte to Raleigh. Right now it takes about as long by train as it does by car - 3 hours and 12 minutes. Simmons says the immediate goal is to cut the trip by 13 minutes. That meant getting a promise from Norfolk Southern to be more efficient in dispatching freight trains that share the rail with Amtrak - and often cause passenger delays. Simmons says trains from Charlotte-to-Raleigh are only on schedule about 75 to 80 percent of the time. "The railroad has some congestion on it and it's not built to allow future growth," explains Simmons. "This set of improvements will allow us to grow both the passenger and the freight trains, have them both operate reliably." Simmons says Norfolk Southern has committed to get trains running on time at least 80 percent of the time. Part of the $461 million federal grant will pay for 28-miles of double track between Greensboro and Charlotte and a dozen highway bridges so trains can pass over busy intersections. Passenger train speeds will still max out at 79 miles per hour, until safety technology allowing faster speeds is installed on North Carolina railroads.