King’s Grant

May 10, 2013

By Temple Ligon
May 9, 2013 

Amtrak, the American passenger train service, began almost 50 years ago. Amtrak brings one train through Columbia after midnight for Savannah and Florida, and another passenger train heads north through Columbia for Raleigh and New York in the wee hours of the morning, neither train’s schedule being an ideal customer friendly timetable.

On the other hand, Columbia is truly lucky to be on the New York-Savannah-Florida route, as are Florence and Charleston. America is loaded with small cities that have no passenger rail service whatsoever.

Charlotte connects with Raleigh through its intrastate train, the Piedmont, which gives Charlotte connections to New York train service on the Carolinian out of Raleigh. One-way Raleigh-Charlotte service is $28. Heading into western North Carolina, running between Salisbury and Asheville, is Amtrak service planned for the near future. Another passenger line is planned a little later to head east to Wilmington and the beaches.

Greenville and Spartanburg are part of Amtrak’s Crescent, heir to the Southern Crescent between Washington and New Orleans. But Greenville and Spartanburg don’t have passenger rail connections with Asheville to the northwest or in the opposite direction passenger rail connections with Columbia and Charleston and Savannah. And none is planned. Not now, anyway.

Through the late ’60s there was a Carolina Special passenger train that originated in Charleston, came through Columbia, and connected with Spartanburg and Hendersonville en route to Asheville and points farther north.

What if Columbia could find itself in the middle of a passenger rail route reminiscent of the old Carolina Special, but this time originating in Savannah and still coming through Charleston and Columbia and Spartanburg, terminating in Asheville? Columbia would be strategically situated in an ideal spot roughly equidistant between the mountains and the sea, both connected by passenger rail service.

A number of names would be fitting for a passenger train connecting Savannah (Hilton Head, Parris Island, Beaufort), Charleston (Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach, Seabrook, Kiawah), Columbia, Spartanburg (Greenville), and Asheville (Tryon, Saluda, Hendersonville). Terms that include mountains and sea would work well, as would the area’s history as private enterprise from the founding of Charleston in 1670 until it became a crown colony in1721.

General Oglethorpe started Savannah in 1733.

For now, for the purposes of this written piece, King’s Grant is the name of the train.

All told the proposed King’s Grant runs along about 400 miles of existing track, one-way, all apparently owned by Norfolk Southern from Savannah to Asheville.

Amtrak runs the short-haul Piedmont in North Carolina, as it runs the passenger rail connector between Harrisburg and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and other short-haul routes across the country for local government subsidies, typically contracting each route for a state subsidy.

The King’s Grant connects three states, so subsidies can come from same three states.

The King’s Grant would be a day train, originating in Savannah at 7:00 a.m.

Charleston, a bit more than 100 miles away, would board less than two hours later, departing Charleston at 9:00 a.m., say.

The run to Columbia, almost 120 miles, would take another two hours. The King’s Grant would take 10-15 minutes in the Columbia station, hopefully something one heluva lot better than what Columbia has now.

Spartanburg, remembering the tracks of the old Carolina Special, is almost another 100 miles from Columbia, and with time in the Spartanburg station, the King’s Grant pulls out of Spartanburg for the mountains around 1:15 p.m.

Now the whole schedule comes into question. How long does it take to climb through the Saluda Cut to reach the elevations of Hendersonville and Asheville, the final stop? Back in the ’60s the Carolina Special was called the Carolina Creeper because it took so long to run from Spartanburg to Asheville.

Well, no matter. The King’s Grant is for people with time on their hands, people who enjoy the mountain experience. Besides, whatever time the King’s Grant takes to get into the Biltmore Village station, the train stays the night, just like eastbound passengers from Houston on the Sunset Limited stay the night in New Orleans in their sleeper cars, which pull out for Washington on the Crescent early the next morning.

The next morning in Asheville at 7:00, the King’s Grant leaves Biltmore Village and returns to Spartanburg, Columbia, Charleston, and Savannah, and a few points in between.

Try to imagine the tour package possibilities with all the variety offered among the mountains, the foothills, the Midlands, and the Lowcountry, not to mention the commercial advantages of passenger rail connections among South Carolina’s largest cities.

And in the middle of it all is Columbia. 

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