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Project Targets Removal of At-Grade Crossings

Train rolling through Elon, North Carolina
The $520-million Piedmont Improvement Program will include new tracks, sidings, and crossovers as well as the elimination of as many as 23 at-grade highway crossings along the freight and passenger rail corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina. Wikimedia Commons/MPD01605

A complex improvement program by the North Carolina Department of Transportation will bolster infrastructure robustness to improve reliability.

August 6, 2013—The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has undertaken a $520-million project called the Piedmont Improvement Program—a series of rail improvements projects along the Piedmont Corridor that will include new tracks, sidings, and crossovers as well as the elimination of as many as 23 at-grade highway crossings. Each day between 30 and 38 freight trains and 8 passenger trains rumble along the corridor, which links Raleigh, the state capital, with Charlotte, the state’s largest city and an important economic hub.

The project, funded via a grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, is aimed primarily at bolstering infrastructure robustness, enabling the addition of two round trips per day by passenger trains. But it is also meant to improve safety and reliability. “Our approach with our improvement project was not one of trying to reduce travel time further, or trying to increase speeds, but trying to build more reliability into the system so that we could run additional trains,” says Paul Worley, the director of NCDOT’s Rail Division.

“This has been a corridor that we have worked on for over 20 years, improving safety [between] Raleigh and Charlotte,” Worley says. “We have eliminated many crossings and this will actually take us through a whole [new] round of improvements and crossing eliminations.”

In written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online, Jason Orthner, the manager of design and construction for the NCDOT Rail Division, said he sees a clear connection between safety and dependability. “The elimination of at-grade crossings significantly improves the safe operation of the corridor, but also allows for increased reliability and train schedule adherence,” Orthner said. “Many incidents are possible at at-grade crossings, such as broken gates, stalled vehicles, or collisions, all of which have the ability to slow down or stop the railroad operation.”

Orthner added that the projects would increase safety and improve traffic flow for vehicular traffic as well. “As railroad traffic levels are increasing, delays associated with waiting on passing trains, the resulting queuing, and the delays related to preempted traffic signals will increase,” Orthner said. “Replacing crossings with grade separations guarantees the motoring public can safely cross the railroad without delay.”

The project includes the design and construction of nine major highway bridges, ranging from a 150 ft, one-span structure on McLeansville Road, to a 544 ft, six-span bridge on Turner Road. The project also includes five significant rail bridges crossing over highways. These range from a 130 ft, three-span bridge over Kimball Road to a 199 ft, three-span bridge over Future Mallard Creek Church Road.

The project involves a complex mix of stakeholders, including the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the multiple railroads that operate on the lines, the governments of the state’s largest and second-largest cities, and smaller municipalities along the corridor. “For example, geometrical improvements to the railroad required by FRA had to meet the track design requirements of the freight railroads,” Orthner said. “The new alignments affected roadways, buildings, utilities, and other improvements inside and outside the rail corridor.

“To overcome these challenges, NCDOT maintained very close coordination with the railroad companies, regulatory agencies, local government, property owners, and utilities throughout the design process,” he explained. “In particular, we engaged the local communities throughout both preliminary and final design to hear their concerns.”

The complex project presents engineering challenges going forward. Many projects are being constructed simultaneously; some are the responsibility of NCDOT, others are managed by the Norfolk Southern railroad of Norfolk, Virginia. All are being constructed on a compressed schedule.

“NCDOT is responsible for the majority of the roadway and railroad grading, drainage, and structures in the program, while the railroads are responsible for track and signal work,” Orthner said. “To construct the project in the most efficient manner while not impeding train traffic, the project phasing must account for each dependent activity.”

Orthner said NCDOT surveyed Norfolk Southern to learn the constraints of the project and then developed computer models to develop program phasing plans that would minimize the impact of construction. “NCDOT and Norfolk Southern are continuing to update these plans as construction begins and progresses to allocate resources effectively between projects to ensure overall program success,” Orthner said.

Although the project isn’t part of plans for high-speed rail, the track alignments will accommodate an increase in train speeds from the current 79 mph to 90 mph, Worley says. But such an increase in speed would require expensive upgrades in signaling equipment, and that investment will be dictated by market demand in the future.

“Right now, there is a lot that can be done better [while] running a top speed of 79 miles per hour,” Worley says. “The whole point is to make the service more reliable and more robust with the additional frequencies. That’s the approach right now.”


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