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Columbia Business Monthly

It’s high time South Carolina had a Euro-style passenger train service

Jan 08, 2019 10:51AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By John Temple Ligon

It’s been 50 years since the Carolina Special passenger train last pulled out of Charleston for Columbia and Asheville and points farther west to Cincinnati, a 25-hour ride that began operation in 1911.
To gain the regulators’ approval to drop the service, Southern Railway spent a few years deliberately delivering bad service, according to newspaper reports, running off passengers to the point where ridership fell considerably, enough so they could openly complain that too few rode the route to keep it going. Profitability was impossible.
One would think any passenger train service that connected the Lowcountry with the Upstate by way of the Capital City could operate in the black. But the Carolina Special could not.
While American passenger train service was being consolidated into Amtrak in the early 1970s—a move that reduced service—the Europeans were building tracks for the really fast trains, the TGV in France, for example. The TGV between London and Paris takes just three hours, with an average train speed of 180 miles per hour.
As a proud patriot, I get disappointed in my country whenever I take the train from Florence to Washington, D.C. I take the Florence route because the train leaves Florence for Washington around 11:12 p.m., while the Columbia ride to Washington leaves Columbia at 4:01 a.m., a wretched hour.
The staff is polite and professional, but the food they serve is second-rate, particularly when compared with the fare served between London and Paris. Smart money, in fact, takes the first-class seat because the French (in partnership with the Brits and the Belgians) prepare the food, and the French fare is superb. The price is right. First-class fare on the London-Paris TGV is one of the world’s best buys.
And what do we get between South Carolina and Washington? Remember the jokes about hospital food? American passenger train food is carving out its own genre.
What can be done?
First, build up your bias and get a two-week European railpass called Eurail. I did that in 1998. Cost me a bit more than $500 at the time. With the pass, I could hop on just about any train in Western Europe and show my pass to the conductor and ride everywhere. For a ride on the TGV, a reserved seat was required, and that was another four or five bucks.
All told, for the two weeks, I rode 8,000 kilometers, or 5,000 miles. One trick I learned was to try to sleep through the ride, keeping the start and finish at least 1,000 km apart, which essentially gave me a free hotel night. The train fare was a sunk cost, so I saved on hotel nights.
More recently, I followed Phileas Fogg’s footsteps around the world in 80 days. Remember, Fogg’s run was set in something like 1872, so Fogg had to hug the surface of the earth. So did I. No flying. Train travel, mostly. It helped that we—you should always try to bring a travel companion—had a member’s letter of introduction at the Reform Club, where we were invited to into the card room. The card room was where Fogg’s wager was made and won.
I took the train across the Indian subcontinent, what Fogg called Bombay to Calcutta, but the longest train ride was from Saigon to Beijing.
Back in the USA, I rode the rails down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles. From LA, I rode the southern route to New Orleans, then to Washington, where I stayed at the Hay-Adams and left for Columbia after one night.
Now that you see what’s available elsewhere in the world, get mad and get impatient with the quality of the American passenger train system. We deserve better. And as the world’s greatest economy, we can afford better.
What if the Carolina Special tracks were updated to serve a ridership between Charleston and Asheville, touching down at Columbia and Spartanburg?
The Carolina Special could pull out of Charleston heading northwest at 7 a.m. Columbia would be two hours away with a reasonable wait. Getting to Spartanburg would be two hours, and Asheville, two hours plus. I say “plus” because I can’t remember how long it used to take the “Carolina Creeper” to crawl up the Saluda Cut. Friends of mine going to summer camp or later the Asheville School for Boys all complained about the slow climb to Asheville.  
The Carolina Special would spend the night in Asheville, sort of like the way the Southern Crescent spends the night in New Orleans. On my honeymoon back in the Dark Ages, our sleeper slipped out of New Orleans for Washington around six in the morning while we slept.
The Carolina Special would be targeted as a loss leader, connecting tourists and commercial interests in the Lowcountry, the Midlands, the Upstate, and the mountains.
From the outset, the whole operation would be ranked for its great food and service and smart-buy status.
The possibility for vacation packages is all too obvious. Golfers would play the Ocean Course and also a mountain course in Asheville. Offshore fishing would be part of a fishing package that includes trout on the Davidson River. A hotel deal could be put together among the hotels at the Biltmore, the Marriott in Spartanburg, The Bridge over the Congaree River in Columbia, and Charleston Place.
Start traveling the rails and start complaining.