Are we back on track to a full-fledged passenger rail revival? Cities like Durham, NC and states like Florida and California—with their impressive stimulus-funded intercity rail projects—show encouraging signs in that direction. Durham, particularly, proves that rail travel doesn’t have to be an ordeal. In fact, it can be downright…pleasant.
When it comes to the Triangle’s train stations, Durham has gone from worst to first. And passengers must appreciate it, if the ample size and cheerful disposition of the crowd waiting for the Carolinian to arrive last Saturday morning were fair signs.
The weather was sunny and verging on cold, but inside the converted old tobacco warehouse that now is Durham’s Amtrak depot, the warmth was accentuated by handsome brickwork and exposed timber beams. This was a wholly diverse group anticipating the train’s arrival on its day-long run from Charlotte all the way to New York. There were families with young children wheeling their own kiddie suitcases, seniors traveling solo, young people in the college-age bracket, white and black travelers in about equal measure.
The train was due at 10:23 a.m., and as the time approached, folks filtered out of the station onto the long trackside platform beneath an arcade. With the old Liggett & Myers headquarters building rising nearby and other landmarks to the east as the tracks sliced through downtown, this was an upbeat urban scene that was wholly Durhamesque.
In many parts of the world, from countries that are the most highly advanced to those struggling for a share of modern prosperity, intercity passenger trains play an indispensible role in the transportation mix. So it used to be in the United States.