I grew up an hour and a half outside outside Chicago in a small town on Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest rail. We were the third-to-last stop on the line — about as far away as you could get and still claim to be “from Chicago” — but taking the train into the city was very much a part of life.
Here in Charlotte, light rail aside, the train is a far less dominant mode of transportation. And although a major line runs straight through the city from New York City all the way down to New Orleans, I’ve been here 8 years and had never taken it anywhere — until last week.
After schlepping my way up to Raleigh too many times to count (and collecting some speeding tickets along the way), I finally traded I-85 traffic for free wifi and unlimited coffee on the tracks. I may never make that drive again. Here’s what to expect if you’re a fellow first-time train rider in Charlotte.
Where can I travel to by train from Charlotte?
The Piedmont from Charlotte to Raleigh includes stops in Kannapolis, Salisbury, High Point, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham and Cary along the way.
Trains leave Charlotte for Raleigh at 7 a.m., noon and 5:15 p.m. and the trip takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes.
The price of your ticket varies depending on how far you’re going on the route and which class seat you want. For the full trip to Raleigh, coach seats are $32.50 – $39 one way and business class seats are $52 one way.
Honestly, the coach seats on the train were such a luxury compared to coach seats on a plane — big cushy chairs with tons of leg room, outlets, trays and no middle seats — I thought I’d wound up in business class on accident.
No need to print your ticket in advance. If you had an e-ticket delivered via email, they’ll scan it as you board the train.
Where is the train station in Charlotte?
For now, it’s at 1914 N. Tryon Street — just outside Uptown — and is nothing to write home about.
The station is in desperate need of an upgrade into the 21st century but it’s not the house of doom some people make it out to be. Bottom line: it gets the job done. Charlotte’s station was clean and quiet with super friendly staff. I’ve seen nicer bathrooms in interstate gas stations though — and I mean those ones where you have to ask for a key and then walk outside to get in.
Game-changing plans to relocate the station to Uptown to create a swanky new “station district” known as Charlotte Gateway Station are currently underway. Until then, we’ll make the most of what we’ve got.
Agenda story: Will Uptown one day have a booming “Station District”?
Amtrak recommends arriving to the station at least 30 minutes ahead of your scheduled departure, which is more than enough time. I got there about 30 minutes early and had way too much time to kill, but they’ve got TVs and vending machines if you’re waiting around.
We started boarding about 15 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave.
What kind of luggage can I bring?
The baggage policies are generous. Each passenger is allowed two personal items (up to 25 pounds) and two carry-on bags (up to 50 pounds). Beyond that, you can check up to four additional bags (up to 50 pounds each) — two for free and two more for $20 each.
On certain routes, the Piedmont line to Raleigh included, you can travel with your bike and your dog, but an advance reservation for each is required at the time of booking. The Raleigh train has space for up to 6 carry-on bike reservations (free) and 8 carry-on pet reservations ($25 each). Dogs and cats up to 20 pounds and at least 8 weeks old can travel on board in approved carriers with required paperwork.
Ok, but what’s it like on the actual train?
You’ll be directed to a specific car upon boarding depending on where your final destination is and can select any seat in there. I spent most of my time at one of the booths with a table so I could spread out and work.
Free wifi is available and worked great on the way up but was spottier on the way back for some reason.
The train is staffed with onboard attendants if you have questions.
I’m a rule follower and was operating in flight passenger mode so I felt it necessary to ask an attendant if it was ok for me to walk to the lounge car. It reminded me of my first day of college when I asked my RA if I was allowed to leave my room. The answer is yes, you can do anything you want.
The lounge car was located about two cars back and you can go to it any time. On a short trip like the one from Charlotte to Raleigh, this amenity isn’t as exciting as the meal cars on longer routes but it has vending machines, more booths and free coffee and bottled water.
What do I do when I get to Raleigh?
Whatever you came here to do. Have a friend pick you up, ride the bike you brought with you, walk or do what I did and get a Lyft to your hotel. Before exiting the train, you can also ask an attendant for a Transit Pass, which is good for one free ride plus a transfer on public transportation at all stops between Raleigh and Charlotte.
The station is downtown at W. Cabarrus Street and I strongly recommend a stop at nearby Videri Chocolate Factory and The Fiction Kitchen. I also grabbed lunch to go at Parkside just around the block before catching my train back home to Charlotte the next day.
Overall, I was impressed with Charlotte’s Amtrak service to Raleigh. My coach ticket was about $70 roundtrip, which is more than I’d spend on gas but it bought me almost 7 hours of relaxed working time that I otherwise would have tossed out the window in order to drive.
Where to next? I think the 18-hour trip to New Orleans in a sleeper car sounds like a good test of my true train enthusiasm.