Long-term transportation planning hopes to bring passenger rail back to Wilmington. A feasibility study done in 2005 put it back on the drawing board. The land for a planned multi-modal transportation center on North Third Street—which would house rail, bus, greyhound, and taxi service—has been purchased in preparation for the day the project can move forward. Before that happens, the next leg of passenger rail service to Wallace and Castle Hayne has to be completed, which has an estimated price tag of $86 million.
Changes in the national economy and the state budget since 2005 have set this back a few years, but it is still part of the long-range plan for our area. The intermediate step to making passenger rail a reality is Thruway Bus service provided by Greyhound to connect with the Amtrak Train Station. Right now, that service departs Wilmington in the morning and connects in Wilson, NC, by the early afternoon. Valerie Robertson, a frequent traveler to Washington, D.C. loves the service.
“You can leave Wilmington in the morning and be in D.C. by dinner time,” she affirms. “It’s great.”
In addition, the editor of Cape Fear’s Going Green magazine points out that she doesn’t have to lose a day of working time, like she would in a car. On the train she can take her laptop and spread out. The cost from Wilmington to Washington, D.C. is about $90—far less than the cost of fuel and the expense of parking once arriving by car.
“I hope more people use it so we don’t lose it!” Robertson exclaims.
The last time she utilized it about five other people were on the Thruway connector bus with her. “I felt like I could talk on the phone without bothering anyone,” she notes.
I must confess: I have never taken a Greyhound previous to this. I have been on chartered buses for school trips and the like, but I had never bought a bus ticket and used it for long distance travel on my own. The last time I had been to the Greyhound station in Wilmington was about eight years ago to pick up someone. Decrepit would be a kind description of the station then. Consequently, surprise struck by how beautiful and nice the new Forden Station is off Lennon Drive. It is primarily the hub for the WAVE Transit bus system. But Greyhound has a ticket desk there and uses it for departures and arrivals in the Wilmington area.
Jock took me to meet the bus, and given all the horror stories we had heard about both Greyhound and Amtrak delays and cancellations, he planned to stay until I boarded. My bus was departing at 9:48 a.m., and I was advised to be there no later than 9:15 a.m.
“Am I in the right place for the Amtrak connector?” I asked the lady behind the counter.
“Greyhound opens at 9:30,” she snapped.
“OK, can you just tell me if I am in the right place?” I indicated my travel documents.
“Greyhound opens at 9:30!”
“OK, when that happens, do I check in with you?”
“Greyhound opens at 9:30!”
“Um, OK—it’s my first time doing this. I wasn’t sure. Thank you.”
I mumbled while looking for Jock, who had clearly taken the hint earlier and wandered over to a seat. The lobby slowly filled with people who had done this before.
“Alright, darlin’! This is it!” Jock said.
Twenty minutes later, he kissed me passionately and waved me aboard the bus marked “US Rail.”
On that bright, beautiful Saturday morning, I, with six other people, boarded the Thruway connection in Wilmington. There are two routes like this in the eastern part of the state. Ours begins in Wilmington and includes Jacksonville, Kinston, and Goldsboro. At Jacksonville, I was dismayed to see that the Amtrak Connector Stop was basically a three-walled plexi-glass bus station shack as seen in major cities for municipal bus stops. I have since learned that these are called “AmShacks,” and many are up in locations that used to have beautiful train stations but did not preserve them.
Six more people boarded, most with apparent military connections, according to their haircuts and tattoos. At Kinston, we stopped at the welcome center and had a much-needed bathroom and smoke break. We moved forward on a twisty, windy trip through a residential part of Goldsboro to pick up one more person, and we were on our way to Wilson.
The bus was on-time to the minute for our arrival at the unbelievably cute historic train station in Wilson. All told, it was a four-hour trip. Obviously, instead of heading straight there via I-40 and making it in an hour and a half, we did some winding, and I got to see countryside I haven’t seen in a very long time, if ever.
“You must check in at the ticket counter, or they will give your seat away,” the bus driver reminded us as we lined up to exit. “It’s been nice having you aboard. Thank you for using Greyhound/Amtrak.”
Inside, the line queued at the wood-paneled ticket booth. “Business class is loading at position one,” the nice man behind the ticket counter said. “Take a left out the door, all the way to the end.” He smiled and handed my ticket back to me. “Enjoy your trip.”
“Thank you.” I looked at the lovely wooden benches, the mural similar in style to the one at the Wilmington’s Front Street post office. High windows allowed for plenty of natural light. It was a beautiful day and I was getting ready to spend the next week inside the train, so I opted to sit outside on the platform to soak up some sunshine. Apparently, a northbound and southbound train both headed in on the same track.
“Folks, we will keep you updated as dispatch brings in the trains,” a voice said over the intercom. In spite of the finagling for track space, our train, The Palmetto, northbound arrived on time, loaded everyone quickly, and we were rolling!
In business class, I had a table with four seats all to myself and happily spread out ye olde laptop for a solid five hours of writing time, interrupted only by the need for a soda and snack. One of the major selling points on Amtrak’s website is the amount of space that their seats have compared to airlines. Most airline travel in my adult life has been for international travel with Jock. I have done a few short back-and-forth Manhattan trips, but, by and large, if I’ve gotten on a plane in the last 15 years, it has been for 12-plus hour flights. It’s not as tough on me as it is on Jock, who is six-and-a-half feet and just not designed to fit into an airline seat. Really, you can purchase a coffin that is more spacious than the individual space permitted in an airplane these days. So, I was stunned at all the leg room on the train, the wide seats with electrical outlets to charge your phone or plug in a computer—and no Nazi-like stewardess trying to keep you seated. Amtrak encourages foot traffic and seeing various areas like their lounge car. They want us to make friends and look out the window at our nation.
We were clearly not in Kansas anymore.
At 7:57 p.m., on the nose, our train pulled into Union Station in D.C. My connecting train wouldn’t depart till the next morning. Friends, at 33, I am just not up to sleeping in the train station. I have slept on the floor in JFK International’s departure lounge more times than I want to count, but at this point I need a hotel room. I walked the one block to my hotel and sunk into a hot, steaming bathtub to read a good book. I reflected that this adventure was off to a pretty good start.
It would cost about $100 to fly from RDU to Washington D.C., or about $140.00 from Wilmington. From Wilmington to DC by Amtrak with Thruway service is about $90—less in monetary measurement and so much greater in long-term storytelling potential.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author or ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.