Commuter rail in the Triangle


Transit plans in Wake and Durham counties include a commuter rail project that would run at least 37 miles along the North Carolina Railroad Company Corridor between Garner and West Durham, stopping at downtown Raleigh, N.C. State, Cary, Morrisville and Research Triangle Park along the way. Both counties as well as Orange County have passed half-cent sales taxes to invest in transit improvements. Johnston County is participating in the most current commuter rail study to determine whether the line could extend to Clayton and farther east into Johnston County in the future.

In addition to providing a reliable and relaxing ride no matter how bad surrounding traffic is, commuter rail lines increase access to job and educational opportunities and provide a boost to the economy.



During the current study phase, which is expected to last about a year and a half, project partners hope to agree on an initial project concept that includes station locations, a possible extension to Clayton, new train tracks, bridges, changes to the roadway network, how often the trains would run and train storage and maintenance needs.

They also will analyze the economic and land-use benefits commuter rail would bring to the Triangle and the state.

Public input is an important part of planning transit projects, and commuter rail stakeholders are asking residents what they want to see in a Triangle commuter rail line.


An exploratory study of the 37-mile corridor was completed in May 2019. That study showed:

  • Taking commuter rail in the corridor would be faster and more reliable than driving or taking a bus.
  • The operating scenario providing service every 30 minutes in peak periods and limited service midday and evenings was the most productive among the scenarios studied.
  • All 16 potential candidate station zones would be appropriate for further analysis. (Find the list on Page 13 of the study.)
  • Ridership results would be consistent with those from similar commuter rail systems.
  • Additional analysis would be needed to refine ridership estimates and to identify infrastructure required to support any commuter rail operating plans.

second study, called the Greater Triangle Commuter Rail Study, was initiated in 2019 to analyze the need for infrastructure, such as additional train tracks, to support the potential commuter rail service in the corridor and to develop ridership projections and cost estimates, which are key criteria in assessing the project’s potential eligibility for federal funding.

A number of regional partners and the North Carolina Railroad Company asked whether the project could be expanded so the second study also evaluated the feasibility of adding Johnston County/Selma and Orange County/Mebane to the commuter rail line.

Preliminary results looking at six scenarios — three running between Durham and Garner and three running between Mebane and Selma — were presented to the GoTriangle Board of Trustees in December 2019.

Two routes likely to qualify for federal funds

Based on federal transit planning criteria, the study showed that of the six initial scenarios, a route running 40 times a day between Garner and West Durham would be most likely to qualify for federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts grant program. Those criteria include ridership, access and cost.

Scenarios evaluating routes between Hillsborough and Clayton and Durham and Clayton were studied as well, and those results became available Jan. 8, 2020.

The updated study shows that a route between Durham and Clayton in Johnston County with 40 weekday trips also likely would meet the federal criteria. Johnston County would decide whether to create a designated transit funding source to help pay for extending the project from Garner in Wake County into Clayton.

The studies also indicated that any viable commuter rail project running in the existing North Carolina Railroad Company corridor would require the construction of at least 34 miles of new parallel track depending on the number of new daily trains. Future analyses, in coordination with the North Carolina Railroad Company and the operating railroads in the corridor, would further refine capital requirements for adding tracks, bridges and other infrastructure.

To qualify for federal funding in the New Starts program, a transit project is evaluated based on local financial commitment, mobility improvements, environmental benefits, congestion relief, cost effectiveness, potential for economic development and existing land use, and an overall rating of medium is needed to receive a federal grant. Federal funds can pay for up to half of the total transit project cost and must be matched by other funds.

A look at preliminary numbers

The Garner-Durham route and the Clayton-Durham route with eight trips in each direction during peak hours and two each during the midday and evening were the only scenarios that appear likely to score a medium. The Garner-Durham scenario, which would eventually carry an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 passengers a day, would cost approximately $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion to build and $29 million a year to operate and maintain. The Clayton-Durham route would cost $1.7 billion to $2.1 billion to build and $37 million a year to operate and maintain and is projected to carry a similar range of passengers.

By comparison, stretching the route from Mebane to Selma with the same number of trips would cost approximately $2.5 billion to $3.2 billion to build and $57 million a year to operate and maintain while carrying 8,000 to 11,500 daily passengers.

It is important to note that all estimates from the initial studies are preliminary and likely will change after additional study and any early engineering work.

A team of key stakeholders including representatives from NCDOT, four counties, two metropolitan planning organizations, the Research Triangle Foundation and the North Carolina Railroad Company has been meeting regularly to review and discuss study findings and opportunities for the commuter rail project.

The Greater Triangle Commuter Rail Study Phase I Final Report provides those interested in the project detailed information of the work done to date. After the studies showed that there were at least two routes that could qualify for federal funding, GoTriangle presented the findings to boards of elected officials, who voted this spring to move ahead with additional preliminary planning. The next planning phase will include:

  • Facilitating proactive and comprehensive community engagement to share information and get feedback from the public.
  • Refining what railroad infrastructure improvements and construction would be needed.
  • Evaluating critical success factors to the project.
  • Deciding, based on the findings of this study phase, whether to allocate additional local funding in Durham, Wake or Johnston counties to begin to implement the project and pursue federal funding.

Spring 2020

To identify mutual goals, tasks and expectations for the next project phase, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by GoTriangle, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, Wake County, Durham County, Johnston County and the North Carolina Railroad Company.

Under the memorandum, GoTriangle became the project sponsor and is working with all parties to achieve consensus on an initial project concept that includes items such as station locations, grade separations, roadway network changes, additional tracks, frequency of trains and train storage and maintenance requirements. The initial project concept is a starting point for what the project could look like and is needed to pursue federal funding. If the project moves forward into the design phase, refinements can still be made.

The memorandum also includes a directive that GoTriangle work out details with other authorities that have jurisdiction over portions of the project on how the parties intend to work with one another going forward.

The latest phase should indicate whether the project is technically, financially, legally and politically achievable. If so, the governing bodies would then vote on whether to proceed with the project and apply for entrance into the federal Capital Investments Grants pipeline.


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