Commuter Rail - Garner to West Durham

Since the ‘Light Rail’ topic in the Pub is for open-ended discussion about future transit ideas, I’d like to see a thread that’s more grounded for discussing the nuts and bolts of the commuter rail proposal from East Garner to West Durham.

Planned to start operations in 2027, what has been discussed so far is a commuter rail system with a bidirectional 8-2-8-2 schedule, meaning:

  • 8 trains in each direction during the morning peak
  • 2 trains in each direction during the midday period
  • 8 trains in each direction during the afternoon peak
  • 2 trains in each direction during the evening period

Stations have been suggested at the following locations:

  • Greenfield Parkway, Garner
  • Downtown Garner
  • Rush Street
  • Union Station
  • NCSU
  • West Raleigh (near I-40)
  • Downtown Cary
  • McCrimmon Parkway
  • Triangle Metro Center
  • North RTP
  • (possibly) Alston Avenue
  • Downtown Durham
  • West Durham

The plans so far have been to use conventional locomotives and bilevel commuter cars, similar to what SunRail is using down in Orlando.

I have no idea how set in stone all of this is. I do believe that this service plan, these stops, and this type of rolling stock, is baked into the financial models that have been used to plan allocation of money from the transit sales tax. Given that, inertia alone may make it difficult to change anything.

That said, I believe the plan as proposed comes up short in a few ways.


I think the 8 peak period trains represents a decent starting point as far as frequency is concerned. This would probably represent a train departing the endpoints every 30 minutes from 5:30am until 9:00am. Likewise, the afternoon schedule is a decent starting point, meaning a train every 30 minutes from 3:00 to 6:30.

However, the off-peak frequency is inadequate. With only two trains between 9:00 and 3:00 that would mean two-hour service gaps, with a train at 11:00 and 1:00. Likewise, two evening trains would put one at 8:30 and 10:30 (with the same two-hour gaps) or maybe 8:00 and 9:30 (with 1.5-hour gaps.) The reasons that this is how things are proposed is likely twofold: one, to save money on operations by matching the schedule to peak demand; two, to allow more space in the schedule for freight trains to operate. However, I think that off peak service should be at least hourly. If this means that we need an extra passing siding or even a segment of third track somewhere in the middle of the region through RTP to allow freight service to continue unperturbed, then so be it, and we should plan for this.


The stopping pattern above was designed for the slow accelleration of a freight-derived diesel locomotive hauling heavy, unpowered passenger coaches built according to outdated US regulations. Regulations have changed since the studies from 2012. Now it is possible to use modern, mostly off-the-shelf, European-style trains. Using Diesel Multiple Units would allow us to add perhaps two to three stops without a net increase in running time. The next step of electrification, Denver-style, could allow even more stops while still maintaining reasonable travel times.


As I alluded to above, I have the strong impression that the planned stopping pattern is inadequate. I recall some discussion, perhaps seven years ago, that the commuter rail was specifically laid out focusing on suburban interests, serving people in outlying areas with park-and-ride stations, and giving them the fastest possible ride to major employment destinations, with no consideration for using it as a tool to enable TOD. This, I feel, is the wrong approach. There are too few stops in the denser parts of the area, and too few opportunities for TOD. This is leaving too much on the table in terms of what can be accomplished in terms of refocusing development.

Even if the plan for trains can’t be changed, I would advocate adding one or more stations along the line. They are, in order of descending priority:

  1. Fairgrounds (vicinity of Blue Ridge Road) - to me this is pretty much a must-have no matter what.
  2. Park West Village (vicinity of Weston/Morrisville/Cary Parkway)
  3. Cargill (vicinity of Hoke Street)
  4. Durham East End (vicinity of Pleasant Drive)
  5. Meredith College (vicinity of Royal/Gorman Street)
  6. Plaza West (vicinity of Jones Franklin Road)
  7. Chatham Square (vicinity of NE Maynard Road)

I would be pretty sorely disappointed to see the plan exactly as proposed in 2012 going through unchanged. Not that it’s a completely unworkable plan; it’s just not as good as it can be. I’ll seriously start to question what is even the purpose of public engagement if DMUs instead of locomotives, and a station at the Fairgrounds, don’t at least get a fair shake in the process.


Is there a different schedule in the works for weekends? Or does the 8-2-8-2 apply to every day of the week?

weekends may not have any service to start.

I think most of those stations would be excellent “infill” candidates. I think a fairgrounds station and a Meredith College station may duplicate one another. I have to wonder if the DOT will eventually bridge Blue Ridge Road over Hillsborough Street, in which case I would build a station under the overpass and have access to the fairgrounds, NC State West campus and Meredith, albeit with a long sidewalk. Amtrak would use this station as well for the fair service. TOD opportunities here might be the greatest of all of the stops, relative to the present development now. I would also add a station in downtown Clayton and move the Garner station to downtown Garner rather than Greenfield Parkway.

I believe the plan did recommend DMUs, however I think at the time they were envisioning something that was FRA compliant under the former regulations. Now, I cannot think of a good reason not to consider european style DMUs such as the Stadler FLIRT that was just procured for the TexRail project in Fort Worth, TX.


Also of note: There is a Stadler production facility in the US (Utah) where these trains are built, satisfying the Buy America Act to allow for federal funding.


Blue Ridge Road is planned to be tunneled under the RR and Hillsborough Street. The STIP ID is U-4437. The project was already let together with the beltline widening. The design build project is supposed to start construction later this year.

I would actually put the Blue Ridge/Fairgrounds station just west of Blue Ridge Road, and the Meredith station between Gorman and Royal. These are about a mile and a quarter from each other which is IMO certainly far enough that there is no walkshed overlap. Also given that the beltline neatly divides between the catchment areas of the two stations, I think that separate stations are at least worth considering. For reference, this is comparable to the longest gaps between stations on Charlotte’s Blue Line.


I am going to have to study up some acronyms. DMU, FRA, TOD,

DMU: Diesel Multiple Unit. Passenger train where each passenger train also has a diesel engine and powers itself. Can accellerate faster than standard trains with a locomotive hauling unpowered coaches. First, because a better power-to-weight ratio, which helps with accelleration above about 25mph or so, and because more of the wheels are powered meaning it has better traction and can pick up speed more quickly from a stop without the wheels slipping.
EMU: the same as above except with electric motors and draws its power from overhead electrical wires. Faster still than DMUs because they are lighter without a diesel engine to pull along and also more powerful because you can pull a very large amount of power from the 25000 volt lines they usually use.
FRA: Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that defines the standards for how trains and tracks must be built.
TOD: transit oriented development. Basically development that uses a transit station or stop as an amenity. Think of the villages that spring up around train stations in Europe or in bigger cities in the US. Can include anything from apartments and townhomes to stores and offices. This is in contrast to the “conventional” US practice of putting a giant parking lot, and not much else, at most transit stations that are not downtown. The idea is to get people to live and work close enough to transit that they can walk there instead of drive there.


Thank you for all of your information! :blush:Question…:thinking:
DMU gets power from Diesel fuel
EMU gets power from electricity
With fluctuations in gas/electricity prices, is it even possible to determine an average cost difference? Which usually cost more?
Please and thank you :blush:

I would argue that I doubt we would have catenary wire over the NC RR. Not that I don’t see it in the future, but it sounds to me that there would be too much conflict with the freight railroads especially to deal with CSX additionally east of Cary. This is my preferred option as it’s a cleaner ride. The DMUs out of Ft. Worth with TEXRail are nice looking as well as providing that ‘in-and-out’ efficiency.

In order to have service for “evenings out”, I think that both DT Durham and DT Raleigh need to have service that leaves each core late at night on at least Friday & Saturday.


Freight railroads typically don’t object to catenary in principle, as long as it is high enough to stay out of their way. In practice this means it needs to be about 23 feet above the top of the rails, which means bridges over the tracks must be built with about 25 feet of clearance. Most recent bridges will already meet this criteria but many older ones will cetainly have to be rebuilt and raised, or the trackbed lowered, to add clearance.

It is not cheap to build, though I can’t really provide specific numbers. Denver is the only US city in recent memory to build an electric commuter railroad from scratch.

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Fuel costs are part of the equation but I do not have numbers. That, along with the the improved accelleration I mentioned earlier, plus potentially lower vehicle procurement and maintenance costs, plus noise and emissions reductions, are the main benefits of electrification. The main drawback is the cost of construction. Some people also say the electric lines are ugly but to them I say phooey.


Do either CSX or NS tend to operate double-stacks along the corridor? Usually that’s the freight railroads’ biggest objection with regards to catenary.

Of course they don’t, today. There is no intermodal traffic east of Greensboro as far as I know. But they want to be sure they maintain that capability in case they ever want to in the future.

Bombardier is working on a battery powered train with a 62 mile range before recharging. I’m sure some European cities will get a few. I wonder how they will perform.

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That doesn’t seem like a deal-breaker, though? You could just have EMUs with taller (or variable?) pantographs:

I feel like you’d need this both for faster acceleration (i.e. quicker and easier to get out of the way for oncoming freight rail) and cost/environment-saving benefit.


Oh yeah, its totally fine to do all that with tall pantographs and double stack freight under wire. It’s just the bridges over the tracks that are the problem. If there are any that are too short, you have to undercut the tracks (which is not too expensive but is not always possible due to can drainage problems or sometimes interfere with utilities or other adjacent grade separations) or raise the bridges (which can be expensive) which decisively solves the problem…


Most of the bridges on this corridor are built pretty recently (so it’s unlikely that clearance would be an issue at those former crossings), right? How many bridges would this problem actually affect?