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The Elon Train

Past, present and future

By Madalyn Howard

On the afternoon of Nov. 19, a handful of Elon students milled around the small holding area of the Burlington, NC Amtrak station. 


One of those students was Elon sophomore Georgia Bontempo, who disembarked from her Uber and shuffled inside. She clutched a floral duffle bag containing everything she would need for a Thanksgiving break spent at home in Charlotte, only a two-hour Amtrak ride from Burlington. 


She would be home before dinner - the train itself wasn’t an issue. For Georgia, the tricky part was getting to the station. 


“I Ubered here, and that’s just never fun,” Bontempo said. “Having to pay a whole bunch for a car to a place where I’m already paying to go home.”

Bontempo wasn’t alone. Freshman Charlie Kapustin also had to Uber to the station, which lies about 5 miles from Elon’s campus. 


“The Uber here costs as much as my train ticket,” Kapustin said. 


A coach ticket from Burlington to Charlotte cost Bontempo and Kapustin around $25 each, but to get to the station, each paid over $10 in Uber fares, or around half the cost of their tickets.  


For Elon students who are without cars and rely on the train to travel, it is common to use a ride share service to get to the station, the price of which must be factored into the overall travel cost. But decades ago, Elon residents didn’t even have to leave campus to access the rail. The history of Elon's former train station has been largely forgotten. 


The Mill Point Depot served Elon residents and students for 80 years before it was demolished in 1961. 

Photo courtesy of the Elon University Archives. 

Both Kasputin and Bontempo expressed a desire for the Mill Point Depot to return to Elon’s campus. 


“It would definitely save a lot of costs,” Bontempo said. “And I like the train. I think it’s fun, and honestly, it's the best way to travel.” 


Kapustin agreed, emphasizing the convenience. 


“If it was on campus,” he said, “I’d just walk over there and jump on the train instead of Ubering.”

Years before Bontempo and Kapustin dreamed of a train station on Elon’s campus, Elon philosophy professor Ryan Johnson’s love of public transportation and disdain for traffic had fixated him on the topic. 


“I hate cars,” Johnson said. “I hate traffic.

It feels like I’m dying inside.”

He began taking the train each morning from his home in Raleigh to Burlington, then biking the five miles to campus, a feat made more difficult by local infrastructure Johnson claims is “completely car centric.” 


So Johnson founded the Elon Train Committee, a small group composed mainly of faculty pushing to rebuild a passenger station on Elon’s campus. 


Though he recognizes this is a lofty goal, Johnson's motivations are numerous. 


“The value of public transit, I can’t say highly enough,” he said. “Physical, environmental, economic.” 


Johnson is currently on sabbatical in Toronto, ranked the best Canadian city for public transportation, and he described the accessible transit as “liberating.”

​Public transportation is linked to a healthier lifestyle, increased productivity and lower mortality rates.

It saves energy while
reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Higher rates of public transit also improve traffic congestion and the likelihood of deadly traffic accidents.


These two maps compare the rate of traffic accident fatalities and alcohol related traffic accidents in 2019 for every N.C. county. The state's Amtrak routes are overlaid in orange. On average, the counties with the highest rates are further away from public rail. 

In 2019, Johnson, Elon staff, leaders from Elon’s Student Government Association and representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation met to discuss the Train Committee's goals. 


The group created three action items, and while the coronavirus pandemic has significantly limited progress, Johnson is hopeful the Committee has a path to reach its goal, be it in a matter of years or decades.

3 Steps to a Station

The first step is to raise awareness among students by connecting them with the history of Mill Point Depot.


Both the Town of Elon and Elon University have been heavily influenced by the location of the railroad. Elon’s development over the past few decades has been focused largely on the north side of campus. Thus, students often refer to the train tracks and downtown area as being at “the back” of the school. 


But observing the orientation of Historic Neighborhood landmarks, like West Residence Hall and Alamance Building, reveals that the “front” of Elon College was originally Mill Point Depot and the railroad tracks. 


Johnson suggested implementing this information, as well as field trips on the train, into the Elon Core Curriculum for freshmen students. 

Once students become familiar with the history of the train's impact on campus, then the University must prove a substantial interest among them in riding the train. 


One way to demonstrate this second step, according to Johnson, is to subsidize train trickets for Elon students, faculty and staff. 


Elon already provides travel reimbursement at a cost of 0.58 cents per mile. When the cost for car travel is calculated for average distances driven by faculty, staff and commuters, the cost of a train ticket to Burlington is substantially less.

A second option, one favored by Matt Watterson, a former NCDOT public transportation specialist who spoke at the 2018 meeting, is for Elon to provide a reliable shuttle service to the Burlington Station. 


“The department’s ability to provide funds would be limited,” Watterson said. “But if Elon could provide buses to connect to the Burlington Station, there is a possibility that could be reimbursed.” 


Elon University does already provide shuttle service through the Elon Express, but the Burlington Station would be far beyond the reach of existing trams, meaning this solution would require a new route taking students into downtown Burlington.

Only after Elon University could prove ridership at the existing Burlington station could talks be initiated for step three: building a station on Elon’s campus.


And because of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on travel, progress in the past two years has been extremely limited by Johnson's admission. 


However, the recent passage of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal has been touted by President Joe Biden and his administration as the largest federal investment in public transit in history, as well as the largest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was founded 50 years ago, according to a White House press release

$66 million dollars was allocated to Amtrak, a number that pales in comparison to the over $300 billion given to highways but is still exciting to Olyvia Ellis, who works as an attendant at the Burlington Station. 


“It'll bring better public transit for the whole country,” she said. 


Ellis said it is still too far out to know how that money will be distributed or the effect it could have on the Train Committees bargaining. 

But with a plan in place and travel returning to pre-pandemic levels, Johnson is hopeful for the future of his humble committe and hopes to stir more student interest in the future.


Kapustin believes there is interest among the student body to rebuild the train station and said it would help in bursting the “Elon bubble.”

“It would make it a lot easier,” he said, “and people for the weekend could go to wherever they want — Charlotte, or Greensboro or wherever.”

Bontempo expressed a similar desire to explore the region by Amtrak, even though the station’s distance fom campus presents a monetary obstacle.


“I’d like to visit my sister in Savannah,” she said. “I’d like to go visit a whole bunch of places I haven’t had the opportunity to.”

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