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Container rail service to Port of Wilmington could start in March

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The “Queen City Express,” delivering freight directly from the Port of Wilmington to a transportation hub in Charlotte, could begin in early March, officials said.

“That’s what we’re targeting for,” said Paul Worley, director of the N.C. Rail Division.

The weekly run of freight cars was announced in July by former Gov. Pat McCrory in a ceremony at the Port of Wilmington. Worley said the trains will carry 100 cargo containers “double-stacked.”

“It will be the first time we’ve had intermodal service by rail out of the Wilmington port in about 30 years,” he said.

Worley said officials believe the service will mean an efficient way to move goods and services, resulting in fewer trucks being used to transport containers.

“Being able to move that amount of boxes in one pull to Charlotte is very good for transportation,” he said. “To be able to get it moving is really exciting for us.”

N.C. State Ports Authority spokesman Cliff Pyron said the trains are scheduled to arrive in Wilmington about 3 a.m. on Fridays and depart Wilmington about 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

“It broadens our reach into the western parts of the state,” he said.

The state Board of Transportation is scheduled to approve a nearly $1.5 million project to construct a freight diversion system and storage tracks between Wilmington and Charlotte to accommodate the new service.

 Pyron said officials are aware that CSX plans to bring trains through the Port City during early morning hours once per week.

“While this is certainly a consideration and a concern, trains have historically and currently traverse these tracks throughout the night and into the early morning,” he said. “This is nothing new.”

Worley said officials are continuing to work with rail company CSX on a major intermodal hub that is scheduled to open in Rocky Mount in 2019. The so-called Carolina Connector would connect rail service to other forms of transportation, including trucks, and serve as a distribution hub for rail and road transport.

Officials have likened the hub to a major airport hub and intermodal facilities like Charlotte’s to smaller, regional airports.

And he said the new rail services have sparked officials to study restoring a decommissioned rail line between Castle Hayne and Wallace. The line potentially could mean a shorter path to CSX’s new facility — the current plan involves heading west from Wilmington to Pembroke before turning northeast to Rocky Mount.

That trip is roughly 220 miles, while a direct path from Wilmington to Rocky Mount — through Wallace — would be about 150 miles.

“One of the approaches we will be looking at is what does the Wallace to Castle Hayne line and having that straight shot mean for commercial use?” Worley said. “We would have to make sure the investment gives us an outcome.”

The state Board of Transportation is planning to spend up to $250,000 to study the impact the “Queen City Express” and intermodal hub will have on the port.

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.

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