It’s been decades since Sanford — named for a train engineer — has had passenger rail service available to the public. The state and the city are hoping to change that in the coming years.

By Gordon Anderson

Almost 150 years after its founding, trains still come through Sanford every day. It makes sense. Sanford is named, after all, for C.O. Sanford, the first civil engineer who worked on the train tracks that very literally led to the city’s incorporation in 1874.

The trains that pass through every day mostly do just that — they pass through. While they pick up and drop off some of the freight they’re carrying, passengers can’t embark or debark. In any case, not only do those rail lines still exist, they’re still active.

So it makes a certain amount of sense that those rail lines — so essential to Sanford’s past — have a good chance of paving the way into Sanford’s future, particularly with regard to transportation.

It’s a ways off. Assuredly, there’s a lot of red tape to cut through, and a lot of things that need to go right. But the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the city of Sanford are preparing for the possibility that passenger trains could in the foreseeable future not only stop in Sanford, but also service the entirety of the state’s portion of what’s known as the “S Line” — a rail line that runs from Virginia to South Carolina, from Henderson in the north, through Wake Forest and Raleigh and then Sanford, and then from Southern Pines and through Hamlet to the state’s southern border.

The line’s current use is largely for freight, but many leaders see prioritizing it for commuters as the way of the future.

A passenger train passes through Sanford during the 1940s in this image courtesy of the Railroad House Museum at Depot Park.

The state’s preparations for this possibility comes on the heels of a $3.7 billion agreement between Virginia and CSX to purchase 350 miles of that state’s portion of rail corridor through the state. This included Virginia’s portion of the S Line, and the state has committed public funds to developing new passenger rail opportunities there.

“Right now, the major freight carriers and railroads are evaluating their assets to see which ones they want to hold onto as part of their core system, and some that possibly could be spun off to provide other opportunities,” explained Jason Orthner, the director of NCDOT’s Rail Division. “And the S Line is one of those lines that the state has been proactively looking at for some time both north of the Triangle region and south of the Triangle region.”

According to Lisa Mathis, a Sanford resident who serves on the N.C. Board of Transportation, a very tentative proposal is being floated to put a temporary platform at Depot Park as part of a pilot program that would provide commuter rail service between Sanford and Raleigh while testing the S Line’s feasibility statewide. The hope, she said, is that that pilot program would be funded by a federal grant.

“We think it’ll take between $3 and $6 million really to get a pilot program off the ground,” Mathis said, noting that’s not a “local money” number. “But the way we work through that doesn’t mean that Sanford has to come up with $6 million. We have a lot of big stakeholders, that are not necessarily local stakeholders, that would benefit from that pilot program. But it’s just too early to know exactly what this looks like.”

The Railroad House Museum in downtown Sanford serves as a museum to Sanford’s rich rail history.

Mathis’ role as a transportation board member, though, has not been to be a part of any DOT discussions about how and even whether to re-prioritize the S Line for use by commuters. Instead, she’s been meeting with the stakeholders she mentioned, which range from large industries who could envision using the line for freight or to bring workers in and out to community nonprofits like the Temple Theatre, which stands less than a football field away from the potential train platform.

“You get all the creative stuff, like, ‘oh, we could do some theatrical performance, or do o a Temple train ride — I mean, there’s just so many neat things that can happen when you get more minds on the project,” she said. “And for example, well I’ve got a meeting up at the airport. We’re going to talk to the Airport Authority about what positives and negatives they could see about the S Line coming through. We’re talking about how it can affect the (Moncure) Megasite and how it can attract companies there. We could attract millennials who would much rather ride a train, maybe they live in Raleigh and they want to get a train down to work and then get a train back. That’s what we’re doing, trying to get people to add to the conversation.”

While Sanford does have a rich history with rail, the mode of transportation might not exactly jump out at the average person as the next step in transit’s future. But its potential use in expanding the options locals might use to get around has implications for the future as the population grows and the state struggles to keep up with infrastructure that’s related to travel. And think of it this way: people in Sanford don’t ride trains because, well, Sanford doesn’t have trains.

“Multi-modal means of transportation is something we’ve got to look at,” said Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, who along with Wake Forest Mayor Viv Jones is co-chairing a committee aimed at educating the other cities that are on the line about the project. “And it’s not even about today, it’s over the next 20 years. Let’s face it — in 20 years, getting into downtown Raleigh by car may be next to impossible. And it’s so much easier and cheaper to add a rail line than to build new highways.”

Orthner echoed that, and said Sanford is strategically located for a test run of sorts.

“It’s part of a larger conversation that’s happening regionally and across the state about how to move people around on a system other than just congested highways,” he explained. “And Sanford is in a good place because obviously it’s one of those growing communities inside the greater Triangle area. The idea is that the rail system can support connecting rural and urban areas in a way that allows them to continue to have mobility.”

According to Lisa Mathis, a very tentative proposal is being floated to put a temporary platform at Depot Park as part of a pilot program that would provide commuter rail service between Sanford and Raleigh (above) to test the S Line’s feasibility statewide. Photo courtesy of N.C. DOT

According to Mathis, the idea has been well received — she said she’s only heard from one person who opposes it — in large because trains are not just a large part of Sanford’s past, but the entire country’s. That legacy, she said, can help put folks’ minds at ease when they’re learning about transportation challenges the state could face in the future.

“We’re not talking in this instance about drones, or automated cars, or things that can scare people at some level. With trains, we’re looking at our past. We were told that 50 percent of the growth in the United States in the next 10 years is going to occur in four states, Georgia, Texas, Florida and North Carolina,” she said. “We know we need to do things differently. And this opportunity of this rail line coming up for sale, it feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to affect congestion up and down this area and help people make decisions about their mobility.”

One benefit many leaders see in the project is the opportunity it will provide for economic development both in Sanford and statewide. For Orthner, that means his division works on a project that could benefit an entire multi-city corridor through the state. For Mann and Mathis, that means a mechanism by which to continue redevelopment efforts that have recently begun in east Sanford. Mathis pointed to an east Sanford redevelopment study done on behalf of city government which had some unexpected results.

“What they found was that the perception of East Sanford wasn’t actually what was happening there. That even though there might be some areas that are blighted, that doesn’t reflect the community as a whole at all. And the economic data that they got made them very encouraged that this would actually be a very good place to help boost along the economic growth there, because the people that are there want to stay there,” she said. “So the economic data is showing that they wouldn’t be forced out, if that makes any sense. They’d be able to stay there. There are people that are buying houses there that are very capable of spending a lot more money, and would have, but they couldn’t find anything like that.”

That information could also serve to allay any concerns about gentrification that may arise when discussing a move that could have such far-reaching economic implications. Mann noted the Brightline Rail that’s been put into service in the Miami area as an example.

“There has been $7 billion in economic development activity connected to that line,” he said. “It’s been a major hub of growth. Now, we’re not Miami, and we won’t have billions of dollars, but the S Line could mean tens of millions of dollars in economic growth for the region. You see when these things happen, that retail, parks, new residential, even things like bus stops spring up around it. We’ve really got an opportunity here to revitalize a part of east Sanford.”

“We were told that 50 percent of the growth in the United States in the next 10 years is going to occur in four states, Georgia, Texas, Florida and North Carolina. We know we need to do things differently. And this opportunity of this rail line coming up for sale, it feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to affect congestion up and down this area and help people make decisions about their mobility.” — Lisa Mathis

For his part, Orthner pointed to Denton, Texas — a town about 40 miles outside of Dallas — as another example of a smaller city which has benefited economically from a rail line connection to a bigger one. But an even bigger impetus is a method by which to help bridge a divide across the state that in addition to being economic is social, cultural and sometimes even political.

“Denton has a commuter service that’s helped their smaller city grow really well,” he said. “But I think generally, the idea with these types of systems is to connect more rural communities with urban communities to help them flourish and grow while not having to deal with traffic patterns, while also creating economic development around station sites.”

Mathis concurred, noting that because the way we travel is connected to just about every other part of our lives, the ramifications are bigger than just economic development, or having a train stop in town, or any other single issue.

“Think about people with mobility issues that could go up and down on the train and then not have to worry about a car. What if somebody lives in Raleigh but can’t afford to live there? Or works in Raleigh, right?” Mathis added. “But they can totally afford to live down here or a little ways out of town. It would absolutely help with affordable housing as well. I think it’s a jobs issue, I think it’s an economic development idea. I mean, it helps with a lot of things.”

Harry P. Edwards began building passenger railway equipment in Sanford in 1917 and formed the Edwards Railway Motor Car Company in 1921. Edwards turned out more than 130 cars over a two-decade span and made a name for itself among major South and Central American railways, as well as on U.S. Class 1 and short line railroads. The Railroad House Museum contains vintage photos of the old Edwards cars and a painting showing the Sanford-made car used near the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico.

But make no mistake — the economic benefits are real. In Denton’s case, the Texas county’s A-train commuter rail has led to benefits such as $11.8 million in new property and sales tax revenue for cities who are members of the Denton County Transit Authority, an influx of upwardly mobile professionals, significantly reduced transportation costs, and a reduction in emissions harmful to the environment.

“DCTA is keeping Denton County open for business. Since opening in 2011, our A-train commuter rail service has attracted new professionals and businesses, spurred new market investment, and expanded the countywide tax base while providing an alternative form of transportation to address air quality and cost-of-living,” reads a report on that county’s transit website. “In addition to other countywide strengths, including a high quality of life, skilled workforce and a welcoming environment to new land development, the A-train has helped to build the local economy.”

And while many commuters may initially jump at the chance to use the train between Raleigh and Sanford for work purposes (many companies, for example, provide shuttle service for employees, something that could be eliminated or drastically curtailed by the presence of a train station in Sanford, potentially in exchange for some private buy-in), there’s an even broader opportunity for those traveling further, whether that travel is for business or pleasure.

“What it does is it opens up the possibility for us to get to a train literally anywhere north of Richmond. Once you get to Richmond, it just all opens up. And we could take a train, then, from Sanford to D.C. We could take a train from Sanford to New York City,” Mathis said. “The success of what can happen here can affect the entire East Coast. It’s bigger than just us. This is a big deal, is what this is.”

One thing Mathis, Orthner and others are looking for is feedback. Although meetings with stakeholders like area employers, community groups, and other cities and transportation entities is vital, she said the broadest conversation possible will help deliver the best product possible. Those with input can contact the N.C. DOT Rail Division at (919) 707-4700.

“I think what folks are saying is that it’s an opportunity for these communities where the town grew up around the railroad. There are visions of kind of recreating not just their downtown, but possibly even creating opportunities outside of the town for manufacturing and such to go along with an improved freight rail component of the line. They view it as a real economic development opportunity,” Orthner said. “A lot of them see it as a way to kind of return to just the that these towns experienced when the railroad first came through the town.”

His first Edwards rail cars carried passengers between downtown Sanford and the Jonesboro section at the start of the 20th century. By 1907, the line had extended to Broadway. Between 1917 and 1948 folks could ride in a passenger car like this between Sanford and Lillington for 50 cents.

It was mentioned earlier in this piece that this is all still very theoretical, and a large number of dominoes will need to fall in the correct order for even a pilot program to become a reality. But given the attention paid and the work already put in by both state and local government, it could be closer to reality than not. That said, the early stage nature of such a project made it difficult for anyone involved to give any kind of definitive timeline for forward progress.

Mann said it depends on a number of factors — most particularly the grant application the city and DOT plan to submit soon. And while he feels optimistic based on several details (Sanford has been chosen for a potential pilot program based in large part, he said, on the work that’s gone into revitalizing downtown and attracting new industry), he said the fact that Virginia has sort of paved the way as boost to the city’s prospects.

“We were able to join hands with Virginia on our grant application, and I think that will really help us,” he said. “But so much depends on this federal grant. If we’re funded, it could be five years. If not it could be 10. But this is something we need to get ready for now. If we don’t do this today because we think it’s not for us, or that people won’t ride a train, there will come a day where it’s too late. And it would be such a cool calling card for Sanford. We’ve had more than one economic development prospect ask us about public transportation, and it’s something we lack. This could check that box.”

Mann said there’s sometimes a perception of Sanford as just another small town that isn’t entirely correct, and having a passenger train on the S Line stop locally could help reconfigure the way others see the city and the way the city sees itself.

“We’re the 27th largest city in North Carolina,” he said. “That’s not the biggest, of course, but we have not just an opportunity, but an obligation to lead and try things that could be a model for other parts of the state. This is one of those things.”