Published: January 10, 2023
By: Adam Burns
In spite of a population now greater than 10 million, a topography that ranges from the Appalachian Mountains in the west to the coastal plains in the east, and an interesting history with railroads that spans everything from narrow to standard-gauge systems, North Carolina surprisingly is home to only a few public excursions.
The state's most notable heritage line is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) based in Bryson City that operates 53 miles of the former Southern Railway's Murphy Branch between Dillsboro and Nantahala Gorge.
This section of railroad is magnificently scenic, situated within the Nantahala National Forest, which is located next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The scenery, and location, draw thousands to the GSMR every year; it typically sees around 200,000 passengers annually. Excursions have been hosted since 1988 and since 1999 has been part of the American Heritage Railways group, which also owns the popular Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge in Colorado.
The Aberdeen, Carolina & Western Railway (AC&W) is a successful short line freight carrier a component of the original Norfolk Southern Railway from Charlotte to Gulf, via Star. At the latter community the line branches to Aberdeen offering connection there with CSX Transportation.
The railroad began running in 1987 and for much of that time has been freight-only. However, with the acquisition of former Norfolk Southern (current) streamlined "F" units in December, 2019 the AC&W unveiled its very own business train.
While the railroad does not offer excursions to the general public this train is available to rent for wedding receptions, conventions, and corporate events that includes food service during the trip. For complete information about booking this train please visit the railroad's website linked above in the title.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has a multitude of trains which include full course meals within a variety of classes along its route following the beautiful Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina.
As mentioned above the railroad owns a total of 55 miles of track between Dillsboro and Nantahala Gorge. All trips depart from the restored Southern depot in historic Bryson City (completed in 1900) with trains running either easterly to Hillsboro along the Tuckasegee River or west to the Nantahala Gorge where one can see more mountainous terrain and cross Fontana Lake.
The GMSR is one of the premier scenic train rides, not only in the eastern U.S. but also throughout the country. There are some trips which are now even hosted by an authentic steam locomotive.
The railroad's popularity is thanks, in part, to its first-class services. Many trips offer some type of food service, or on-board beverages (alcohol is also available for adults). To learn more about everything available please check out of their website for complete scheduling. The GSMR hosts trips year-round.
The New Hope Valley Railway is based in New Hill, North Carolina. The organization does not host a dedicated dinner train but they do run specials involving food and/or beverages under the heading of Brew ‘n’ Choo (this event has its own specials during the year).
The New Hope Valley, also known as the Triangle Train, is located in New Hill (30 miles south of Raleigh), is the only heritage railroad in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill region, the so-called Research Triangle.
The organization, which began in 1963 as the North Carolina Railway Museum (then known as the East Carolina Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, Inc.) and remains an all-volunteer operation, utilizes about 4 miles of former Atlantic Coast Line/Seaboard Air Line trackage between Bonsal and New Hill for an 8-mile round. While there also be sure to check out the museum's collection of equipment on display.
While trips are typically pulled by diesel switchers of General Electric lineage, the railroad also operates a small steam switcher, 0-4-0 #17, on occasion.
North Carolina's finest railroad museum can be found in Spencer at the North Carolina Transportation Museum. The organization maintains the former Southern Railway's shop complex here which includes the Bob Julian Roundhouse, Flue Shop, and Master Mechanics Shop.
Since its inception in 1977, NCTM has also acquired a fine collection of historic equipment, some of which is operable, that can be viewed around the grounds and within the roundhouse.
Their 60-acre property also features short train rides, which now includes special events during select holidays throughout the year. For many years the museum never offered food service during trips but that has since changed.
One such event is "Wine & Dine On The Rails" hosted during the Valentine's Day holiday. According to NCTM: "This special event features a cocktail hour before boarding for a leisurely train ride around our 60-acre historic site, and a three-course meal served aboard the train."