HAMLET — No passenger trains will glide to a stop at Hamlet’s landmark station, if President Trump’s suggested transportation budget wins approval later this year.
The budget proposes cuts of nearly 13 percent, or $2.4 billion, in money earmarked for airports, trains and other transportation providers. Specifically, it would eliminate subsidies for Amtrak long-distance train routes, which likely would shut down because they aren’t profitable even with the subsidies.
“We get people from all over the area that drive up here to take the train,” said Hamlet Mayor Bill Bayless, who added that Hamlet officials did not yet know how they would address the potential cuts.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers says 33 percent of North Carolinians live within 25 miles of an Amtrak station. Approximately 700,000 Amtrak riders passed through some part of North Carolina in 2016, it said.
The budget process is in its early stages. Trump has proposed what to spend and what to cut. By October, when the fiscal year begins, Congress must decide whether it likes Trump’s plans, its own budget provisions or a combination of the two.
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-Charlotte, said Thursday that Trump was showing willingness to propose bold spending cuts.
“He is starting a necessary conversation,” Pittenger said. “The next step is for Congress to work through an open and transparent budget process, which includes listening to the needs and concerns of communities like Hamlet and balancing them against other spending priorities.”
U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, could not be reached for comment.
Should they occur, cuts to the transportation budget wouldn’t mean the loss of any jobs in Hamlet — the station is unattended. Passengers guide themselves as they take the Silver Star north at 6:14 a.m. daily or south, at 11:18 p.m.
The Silver Star is actually two trains, running north and south between Florida and New York, with intermittent stops along the way, such as Hamlet, Fayetteville and Rocky Mount in North Carolina, and Camden, Columbia and Denmark in South Carolina.
The rail passengers association has denounced the reductions in federal financing, saying that they would eliminate a valuable means of travel for commuters and those in small towns. The association is the largest advocacy organization for train and rail passengers in the United States.
Almost 5,000 passengers used Hamlet’s station in 2016, the association said — a figure that has remained relatively the same for three years. Highest Amtrak ridership occurred in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, which logged well more than 100,000 passengers each last year.
Besides the daily runs of the Silver Star up and down the East Coast, the association says, the proposals would eliminate Amtrak service to 220 towns throughout the country.
“It’s ironic that President Trump’s … budget proposal undermines the very communities whose economic hardship and sense of isolation from the rest of the country helped propel him into office,” association president Jim Mathews said of the proposed budget cuts.
Whether Richmond County residents favor such budget cuts or not, they did favor Republican presidential nominee Trump in 2016 — 54.2 percent vs. 44.1 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
City Manager Jonathan Blanton said Hamlet would be “incredibly disheartened” if Amtrak ceased to be the gateway for local travelers. But, he said the city would face any challenges “with determination, optimism and innovation.”
State Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, lamented that there wasn’t much local politicians could do about a federal proposal, but questioned why the administration would cut train service soldiers used to get to and from Fort Bragg outside Fayetteville. The Silver Star runs through there, too, logging approximately 54,000 passengers in 2016, according to NARP.
“Anything that diminishes our visibility in transportation is not a good thing for us,” Goodman said of Richmond County, “but we can’t do anything about it.”
Goodman noted that the train had brought movie stars to Hamlet in its heyday — “back in the Thirties, the Forties, early Fifties.”
“That was just a really busy place. There’s quite a history there.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this article. To reach reporter Christine Carroll, call 910-817-2673.