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Burlington residents, mayor rail against new Amtrak schedule that reduces train stops in city

Commuters in Burlington and other parts of central North Carolina are apparently not “all aboard” with a new train schedule that the state’s transportation department has rolled out for Amtrak’s passenger service.

The N.C. DOT’s rail division recently debuted this adjusted schedule in order to reduce the travel time for business commuters who use the federally-owned rail service to shuttle back and forth between Charlotte and Raleigh.

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A conductor emerges from a mid-day train that roared into Burlington’s train depot on Monday. This train is one of several that still stops in Burlington despite a scheduling overhaul that has struck the city from some of Amtrak’s rush hour rounds.

The rail division boasts that this new, streamlined timetable provides “more departures and some reduced travel times for passengers between North Carolina’s two largest cities.” Yet, in order to achieve this increased efficiency, the state agency has found it expedient to remove Burlington and a couple of other, mid-sized communities from portions of Amtrak’s rush hour itinerary.

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The rail division’s new schedule hasn’t exactly drawn a toot of support from passengers in Burlington since the new timetable took effect on July 10. In fact, the mood at the city’s rail depot has been decidedly sour, according to Bob Lawrence, a railway attendant at this facility.
“Everything [has been] negative,” Lawrence recalled on Monday afternoon as he awaited the arrival of an Amtrak train that still stops in Burlington. “That’s all I’ve heard. I think one lady even lost her job – although I couldn’t swear to it.”

The grumbling of passengers also appears to have reached the ears of Burlington’s municipal leaders since the new schedule’s implementation.

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Last week, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler publicly addressed some of these grievances during the latest regularly-scheduled meeting of Burlington’s city council. Butler pointed out that the changes which have vexed rail passengers in Burlington are also steaming commuters in High Point, Salisbury, and Kannapolis – which have, likewise, been shortchanged in the rail division’s new timetable. Meanwhile, John Andoh, Burlington’s transit manager, conceded that he has recently fielded complaints from three local commuters who feel like they’ve been “disenfranchised” by the state’s scheduling changes.

In any event, Butler said that he has already taken up these concerns with some of the top-ranking officials in the DOT’s rail division.

“They readily admit that they didn’t include municipalities enough in their discussion points,” the mayor went on to elaborate during last week’s council meeting. “But, I don’t know, at this point, what’s going to be done.”

The rail division, for its part, largely glossed over these reductions in service when it issued a celebratory news release on July 10 to announce its new timetable for Amtrak. The state agency focused, instead, on the benefits that the changes will presumably bring to people who travel between North Carolina’s state capital and the Queen City.

“Features of the new schedule include five round trips daily between Raleigh and Charlotte,” the news release goes on to emphasize, “a new 1:00 p.m. departure from Raleigh, a 6:30 a.m. departure from Raleigh and a 5:30 p.m. departure from Charlotte with limited stops and scheduled trip times of just under three hours, and schedule adjustments departing Charlotte at 2:20 p.m. and a later option at 7:45 p.m.”

Yet, the costs that these changes have wrought on Burlington and other communities are evident enough in the rail division’s actual schedule.

According to this new timetable, Amtrak’s first southbound train of the day, which leaves Raleigh at 6:30 a.m., no longer makes stops at Burlington, High Point, or Salisbury before it pulls up to the platform in Charlotte at 9:28 a.m. These same three communities are also skirted by a northbound train that departs Charlotte at 5:30 p.m. and which ultimately arrives in Raleigh at 8:29 p.m.

Strangely enough, none of the three bypassed cities are omitted from the itineraries for the two commuter trains that run opposite those whose stops have been streamlined. Indeed, the new schedule for Amtrak’s first northbound train of the day makes every stop between its departure from Charlotte at 6:45 a.m. and its arrival in Raleigh at 10:05 a.m. Meanwhile, a southbound train that departs Raleigh at 5:30 p.m. also hits every station along the way before it pulls into Charlotte some 3 hours and 26 minutes later.

Although the rail division didn’t linger on its service reductions when it touted the revised schedule on July 10, the state agency does seem to have anticipated some of the objections that have since emanated from the communities that have drawn the short straw.

Prior to the schedule’s implementation, the state agency issued a one-page fact sheet that tries to address some potential concerns with the new timetable. The fact sheet concedes, for example, that Burlington, High Point, and Salisbury would be dropped from the itinerary for two of Amtrak’s commuter trains. It also admits that two other trains would rush past Kannapolis despite stopping in each of the other communities that Amtrak serves between Charlotte and Raleigh. The fact sheet nevertheless contends that the DOT hasn’t completely abandoned passengers in these four, newly de-prioritized cities.

“Burlington, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis all retain four…stops in each direction as they do today,” this one-page publication adds. “But schedule times have been adjusted to account for time constraints and accommodate the new daily round trip. Riders in Burlington, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis will still be served by the Carolinian, which travels north to Washington D.C. and New York. Salisbury and High Point will continue to be served by five trains a day, including the Amtrak Crescent that travels to Washington D.C., New York, Atlanta, and New Orleans.”

In the meantime, a campaign to reverse the rail division’s adjustments seems to be gathering pace in Burlington and other communities that have sidetracked by the new schedule.

During last week’s city council meeting in Burlington, Butler revealed that he has been working with his counterpart in High Point to convince the rail division’s top brass to restore rush hour service to their respective cities.

“We’re still in discussions about it,” he added. “But I wanted to let everyone know we didn’t sit idly by. We were caught off guard just like the public.”

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