Inland Port spurs talk of Upstate-Charleston passenger train

A vintage Norfolk Southern passenger train arrives at the State Ports Authority’s Inland Port near Greer in early 2014 as part of a special event.

The success of the State Ports Authority’s Inland Port has a group in the Upstate thinking about using the Charleston-to-Greer rail route for passenger service.

The South Carolina Passenger Rail Consortium is floating the idea of having twice-daily passenger service between the two cities, according to a report last week in The Greenville News.

“We believe we can fill the coaches with vacationers and business travelers,” Frank Ezell, founder of the consortium, told the newspaper.

The proposed route would include stops in Greer, Spartanburg, Union/Pacolet, Columbia, Orangeburg, Summerville and North Charleston. Amtrak, the federal passenger rail service, has trains that pass through South Carolina’s major cities, but none of those trains connect the Lowcountry with the Upstate.

So far, the consortium’s plan has been met with lukewarm reaction.

That’s largely because the cost would be prohibitive. The all-freight line would have to be upgraded to passenger rail quality, new tracks would have to be installed, and passenger platforms and other infrastructure would have to be built. Norfolk Southern, which owns the track, has no plans to spend money on passenger service, and there is no money in the state budget for such a plan.

There also are questions about the demand for such a service, which would require the cooperation of Amtrak and the federal government.

“It’s going to take money — a lot of money, as a matter of fact. But it’s something that needs to be done,” Ezell told the newspaper.

While passenger rail might be a pipe dream, the route between Charleston and the SPA’s Inland Port has been an overwhelming success, according to the maritime agency. The port, which moves freight such as Greer-made BMW cars on trains running between the Upstate and the Holy City, is on track to move 100,000 cargo containers this fiscal year.

Passenger volume at Charleston International has soared 10 years into the future.

The Federal Aviation Administration projects the number of passengers for airports for several years ahead based on past performance. In Charleston’s case, the FAA has said the airport would reach 1.6 million departing passengers in 2025.

“We are going to hit that number this year,” said Sean Tracey, director of planning and development for the Charleston County Aviation Authority. “We are ahead about 10 years.”

What that means is that the airport may have to move up plans for the next round of construction. The current $189 million expansion of the main terminal is expected to be completed early next year. Airports director Paul Campbell has already mentioned the need for a third wing to add more gates, a second parking deck and more ticket counters.

“We are slowly filling up our capacity,” Campbell said. Additional parking and more ticket counters will be first up, taken up next year, he said. The new wing is about three years out, he added.

Last year, the airport saw a record 3.1 million passengers arriving and departing. That number is expected to rise this year as the Charleston region continues to grow, especially with the expansion of Boeing and the announcements by Daimler and Volvo Cars to each build $500 million auto manufacturing plants in the Lowcountry. Charleston’s thriving tourism industry is drawing more air travelers as well.

He didn’t use them much during his driving career, but brakes are bringing former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace back to the region next month.

The stock car race analyst and hall of famer is the keynote speaker for the 33rd annual SAE Brake Colloquium and Exhibition to be held Oct. 4-7 at the Charleston Area Convention Center. The Warrendale, Pa.-based trade group’s industry gathering is all about the latest in braking technologies for cars and motorcycles.

Wallace is already familiar with the local landscape. Daughter Katie was a student at the College of Charleston about a decade ago.

At the time of his retirement in 2005, Wallace was ranked as one of the top five money winners in NASCAR history, with nearly $50 million in career earnings. His is the sport’s No. 8 winner, with 55 victories.

Frequent fliers who’ve paid $85 to be precleared for airport security to move quicker through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint have a beef: The Pre-check service isn’t always available at Charleston International Airport.

Why? It’s purely a function of supply-and-demand, agency spokesman Mark Howell said last week.

Travelers who pay for the expedited service don’t have to take off their shoes or belts, or remove laptops and liquids from carry-on bags as they head to their gates.

In Charleston, Howell said, the Pre-check lane is usually open during peak travel times in the early morning or late afternoon. But it’s typically closed during off-peak or low-volume periods.

He said the reason for that is the TSA would have to take employees from the other checkpoints to work the lesser-used lane, possibly causing delays for all passengers.

“We get passenger-load projections from the airlines in advance that warrant the lanes being open or not,” Howell said. “If we have 100 passengers coming through at any given time and 10 of them are pre-check, we are not going to open it up. It’s a waste of manpower and service because we have to take workers off other lines.”

Bob Baker, assistant federal security director of screening for all of South Carolina’s airports, added, “If we have 100 or 125 Pre-check passengers coming through in an hour, we would more than likely staff the Pre-check lane.”

In any event, Howell said the average checkpoint clearance time for a passenger in the regular lanes is seven minutes or less at Charleston International.

If Pre-check patrons have to use the regular lanes, Howell said, they can still get expedited treatment, though they have to remove computers and liquids from their carry-on bags.

Simba might consider flying first class the next time he takes a trans-Atlantic trip.

The 7-year-old French bulldog was in the cargo hold of an Air Canada flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto this month when the heating system on the 787 Dreamliner malfunctioned. The Everett, Wash.-built 787-8 — Boeing Co. also makes the Dreamliner at its North Charleston campus — was just about to head over the Atlantic Ocean, where high-altitude temperatures plummet. So the pilot diverted the flight for a quick stop in Germany, where Simba was transferred to another plane and later reunited with his owner.

The diversion cost an extra $10,000 for fuel and delayed the flight by more than an hour, but an airline analyst told Toronto-based CityNews TV show that the pilot made the right choice. “The captain is responsible for all lives on board, whether it’s human or canine.”