Norfolk Southern considering transaction that could bring commuter rail to Lake Norman

CHARLOTTE — In what could be a pivotal move for Charlotte and Lake Norman’s future, Norfolk Southern told Mayor Vi Lyles and City Manager Marcus Jones that the rail company is willing to consider a possible transaction for the O Line. If successful, the move could pave the way for commuter rail to Lake Norman.

The Charlotte Ledger first reported the news. It comes from a letter sent by Norfolk Southern Senior VP Michael McClellan to Lyles and Jones on July 25.

“Norfolk Southern is willing to consider engaging with the City of Charlotte and other interested parties in the region regarding a possible transaction of the O Line,” the letter states. “We have not decided upon what form such a transaction might take, whether an outright sale of the O Line or some variant of a lease.”

For decades, leaders have envisioned using the O Line for commuter rail but plans have stalled due to Norfolk Southern’s unwillingness to share the tracks. Plans call for the Red Line to use the O Line tracks and run from Charlotte to Mount Mourne, connecting Uptown to Huntersville, Mooresville, Davidson and Cornelius.

Charlotte City Council voted in September to spend $5 million to update the design of the Red Line. Council did not give any indication that Norfolk Southern’s position changed. However, a spokesperson for the rail company issued a softer statement without fulling endorsing it.

“Though this line remains a strategic part of our network, we have always valued our relationship with Charlotte and the surrounding communities,” the spokesperson said after the September vote. “Wherever we can, we will continue to work with them on projects that intersect with our network, the needs of our customers and the interests of the region.”

In 2016, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the company won’t share because the tracks “have significant strategic value for freight rail operations.” In 2021, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the company’s position hasn’t changed.

The letter from Norfolk Southern to the city made it clear it is not a binding commitment for a transaction.

“This correspondence solely reflects our willingness to engage, and is not a binding commitment that Norfolk Southern, ultimately, would proceed to a transaction,” the letter statement.

In a statement, Mayor Vi Lyles praised Norfolk Southern for being willing to discuss the O Line’s future.

“I’m greatly encouraged by the current discussions with Norfolk Southern. Mobility is a shared priority for Charlotte and the region. Our region’s leadership knows this is good for business, good for opportunity and good for the environment,” Mayor Vi Lyles said in a statement. “I look forward to our continued discussions with Norfolk Southern and finding a path forward for the Red Line, which is an exciting and key part of our mobility vision and something that our partners in Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville have endorsed as part of the MTC. Connecting Charlotte to North Mecklenburg has always been the pathway to unlocking regional mobility and getting state authorization for a sales tax. Working together, this long-awaited opportunity is before us.”

The city of Charlotte declined to comment on specifics but said in a statement the city is hopeful this leads to success.

“We are not going to comment on specifics but Norfolk Southern has advised the City of Charlotte that they are willing to consider a possible transaction related to their O Line, which, of course, is the rail line we would transform into the Red Line,” the city’s statement said. “We are cautiously optimistic that Norfolk Southern will proceed with our current discussions and engage in a fruitful dialogue, and that we will be able to find common ground that would lead to a transaction.”

“Opening up commuter rail to the north of Charlotte would be a massive win for the city, and the region,” Congressman Jeff Jackson said in a statement. “It would bring economic growth and improve quality of life for thousands of people. I’m encouraged by the news and will continue to support expanding transportation options through my work in Congress.”

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