"It's the highest-volume railroad corridor in the state," said Jason Orthner with the N.C. Department of Transportation's Rail Division in Raleigh. "The volume continues to increase. It's becoming more of a high-traffic area as the area around Charlotte develops more and more."
Track improvements will enable trains to increase their speed, from 79 mph on the existing track to 90 mph, according to Orthner, while the addition of a parallel track will allow two trains to run at once and help relieve the current bottleneck of trains waiting their turn in the busy corridor.
The track was laid out in the 19th century with a number of curves that must be straightened, Orthner said. The straighter track will improve travel time while decreasing wear on the tracks and help fuel efficiency for the 40 trains that use the corridor daily.
All that equals more trains, moving at a faster speed, around a growing University City populace. Planners are prepared to handle that scenario.
"As the volume increases, we need to insure that the trains and the people can operate," Orthner said.
That means eliminating some road-rail crossings, which has raised concerns for some residents and businesses. At a recent District 4 town forum with City Council member Michael Barnes, a resident said he would rather listen to a train blow its horn repeatedly to warn of crossing danger than close some crossings.
Lou Vargochik, who owns Xtreme Custom Screenprinting, agrees. Closing one local crossing would cripple his Orr Road business and many others in the area.
"We've never had any problems here," Vargochik said of the crossing where Newell Hickory Grove and Old Concord roads come together at Orr Road. "There's no reason to close it. We absolutely need this one."
Vargochik acknowledged he's seen tractor-trailers get stuck on the tracks, as the roadway drops off on both sides of the raised rail line. Signs in the area warn of the potential danger. A stop sign immediately on one side of the tracks also causes backups that could potentially result in a driver stopping in front of a train. Because of that, transportation officials have identified the Newell Hickory Grove Road crossing as one they'll likely close, in favor of building bridges over the tracks further down the line.
"That would be devastating," Vargochik said. "That would make it almost totally impossible to get here."
But with "safety being one of the paramount elements" to the project, Orthner said some sacrifices would have to be made. One way to keep cars and trains off the same path is erecting bridges over the tracks. Officials are considering a couple bridges, Orthner said, including in Harrisburg at Pharr Mill Road, at Caldwell Road west of Harrisburg and around Orr Road and Grier Road.
"We can't do it everywhere," Orthner said. "But we'll try to eliminate that conflict (between trains and cars) absolutely to the best that we can."
Rail officials will also continue taking suggestions from residents about ways to improve the plan.
Transportation officials plan at least one more public forum, possibly two depending on how plans for the project change. Vargochik plans to attend the next one.
Orthner said work may begin on the improvements toward the end of 2012 or early 2013. The work could take two to three years and will complement other projects, like rail improvements almost complete at Back Creek Church Road and University City Boulevard.