A grand bargain between railroads and government is needed for the development of high-speed rail

By Maria Saporta

The lure of creating the latest technology high-speed rail network in the United States is intoxicating.

Take the 250 miles separating Atlanta and Savannah, an idea being floated by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to connect both cities by rail. Other countries have proven that it’s possible. High-speed trains in Europe, Japan and China can travel at operating speeds of between 180 miles to 270 miles per hour.

But the rail infrastructure in the United States has been in slow motion — with most freight and passenger trains traveling at an average of anywhere from 30 to 50 miles an hour.

The highest-speed train in the United States is the Acela Express in the Northeast corridor, which runs at average speeds of 72 to 80 miles an hour although it can hit speeds of up to 150 miles an hour.

The average speed of Japan’s “bullet” train is 125 miles an hour, the average speed of France’s TGV train is 173 miles an hour while Germany’s high speed trains travel at an average of 153 miles an hour.

All this to say is that the United States in general, and Georgia in particular, is decades behind in its rail infrastructure.

The obstacles are enormous. The overwhelming majority of the nation’s rail lines are owned by private railroads — companies have been content with slower-moving freight deliveries. One of the biggest sources of business for rail is moving coal, which is not particularly time-sensitive.

Also, the nation, state and local governments have not come up with a stable source of funding to build and operate intercity passenger rail service or urban transit systems.

By comparison, most of the nation’s interstate highway network was funded with national, state and local budgets, and the motor fuel taxes — both federal and state — have been paying for the costs of operating and maintaining the highway system.

As a result, we’ve become a nation with a transportation system that is out of kilter with a heavy dependence on cars and trucks to move people and goods.

Environmentally, however, moving more people and products by rail is the way to go. Rail is the most fuel-efficient mode to transport passengers and freight, providing a much smaller carbon-footprint than car, truck or air.

To shift our dependence from roads to rail, we will need to develop a grand bargain between our government and railroads.

In a grand bargain, the federal government — working in concert with the railroads — would invest in upgrading the nation’s rail corridors so they could operate at higher speeds and with greater flexibility.

In return, railroads would have to agree to allow passenger service on their improved rail lines.

Everyone wins. Railroads would be able to compete better with trucks to move freight, ideally reducing the number of trucks on our highways — reducing congestion and improving safety.

People would have more options to get around. And the more people who would ride trains, the less stress there would be on our highways and roads.

Also, investing in trains encourages the revitalization of towns and cities by serving historic downtowns. That creates urban developments that are more pedestrian-friendly rather than auto-centric.

Georgia has developed study after study on reviving an intercity passenger rail network. It also has put together “high-speed” rail plans for the state.

So far, there have been no realistic plans that would permit people to be able to travel between Atlanta and Savannah in 75 to 90 minutes. It might even be a stretch, using our existing rail infrastructure, to be able to travel between Atlanta and Macon in that time frame.

But we should welcome Mayor Reed reintroducing the vision that we can totally transform Georgia by exploring how the state and the nation can enter the 21st century when it comes to high-speed rail.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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