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Maria's Metro

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

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.



  1. writes_of_weigh December 4, 2012 1:54 am

    Maria – the “grand bargain”  was hatched more than a decade ago when rail industry lobbyists convinced then-elected officials to “sundown” the Interstate Commerce Commission, and “replaced” the public-interest protective I.C.C., with a rail friendly agency – the U.S. Surface Transportation Board – which wags quickly tagged, the “surf” board, or more aptly, IMHO, the “serf” board(leaving all those then desirous of more, not less, passenger and freight rail options, akin to the serfs of a more feudal era, needing a Magna Carta. Unfortunately, devastating, dastardly, downsizing of the U.S. rail network was “permitted” in the name of “saving” an industry whose performance(in the eyes of Wall street analysts) had become, to be generous, lackluster, at best. Though Savannah in the early 1960’s had service along a high speed(100 M.P.H.) rail route, that Atlantic Coast Line mainline linked Savannah to Jacksonville and Florida to the south, and Charleston and Richmond to the north(east) ultimately, (via connections) gaining Washington, D.C. and (via the Northeast Corridor)New York. Upon Amtrak’s inception, the lowly Savannah-Atlanta link, the Nancy Hanks, then Central of Georgia(now Norfolk Southern) was deemed not “vital” to the Amtrak “national network”, and though the C of Ga became an Amtrak member railroad(at the insistence of then Southern Railway law department(and future Amtrak president) chair W. Graham Claytor, Jr., the “Nancy” was permitted to be discontinued, thus breaking a near century old rail passenger link from the ocean to the Capitol. Fast forward to the current state of the “grand bargain”, where formerly close ties between government(Amtrak?) and the railroads(Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, CSX) are now, at best, strained relationships, due strictly to money and political affiliation posturing, where-in the current carrier on this “oh -so-critical” route insists that any infrastructure upgrades(including GA Ports Mr. Foltz’s desired Atlanta westside rail link((referenced elsewhere in this Blog)) be done with the public’s (taxed) $ billions, but find that it’s “improbable if not impossible” to operate passenger trains on those same (to be) publicly upgraded tracks(route’s) between Savannah and Atlanta nor from Atlanta (over the Georgia taxpayor-owned(CSX operated) right of way) on to Chattanooga(Rossville, Ga).
    Then there’s the matter of rail safety, or lack thereof. Recent news, has included items relating to high-speed train wrecks in Niles, Michigan, (Amtrak train throttling up to 110 m.p.h. operation, “is routed” off the mainline into a siding and comes to within 22 feet of colliding with Amtrak freight cars full of rock(yes Amtrak owns/runs freight cars to maintain tracks it owns, as in Niles), this occurring only one day after D.O.T. Secretary LaHood, Sen. Durbin(D-IL) and Gov. Quinn(R-IL) traveled from a Chicago suburb(Joliet, IL) downstate to Pontiac, IL to ribbon-cut a high speed Chicago-St. Louis three decade old route “upgrade”. Then there’s the (too?) fast UP train wreck in Midland, Texas involving a veteran’s parade trailer, and the Conrail train dumping chemicals into a waterway next to Philly’s airport(the bridge broke “boss” even though it was repaired the day before). Yes, we can wait a year to find out if we need to fix rail safety problems(thanks NTSB) even though High Speed rail infrastructure is the “solution” to the “grand bargain.” I refuse to pay for it. You will refuse as well, if you educate yourself.  Maria, it’s as if the Credit Mobilier scam just occurred. I’m sure you are familiar. It involved a French Bank and proposed high speed trains. Different centuries, different players, same ol’ scams.Report

    1. Peaton December 4, 2012 1:04 pm

      I’m not sure that you can make an argument about rail safety. In fact,  I’m pretty sure that given the alternative, cars, you can’t: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/deadly-holiday-weekend-on-georgia-roads/nQnQz/.Report

    2. Peaton December 4, 2012 1:07 pm

       I’m not sure that you can make an argument about rail safety. In fact,  I’m pretty sure that given the alternative, cars, you can’t: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/deadly-holiday-weekend-on-georgia-roads/nQnQz/.Report

  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia December 4, 2012 2:04 am

    High-speed intercity passenger rail service as a long-term transportation strategy is something that is good, but the importance of regional commuter rail service as a shorter-term and more immediate bridge to that long-term more wide-ranging transportation vision is something that absolutely cannot be overlooked, particularly here in increasingly transportation mobility-challenged Metro Atlanta.
    To skip right over long-overdue critically-needed regional commuter rail service and start talking about high-speed rail service to Savannah, particularly when a stretch of road like I-75 South is such dire shape from a traffic congestion standpoint during peak hours is unfathomable.
    The conversation about rail here in Metro Atlanta should be about retrofitting existing freight rail right-of-ways to be able to first and foremost accommodate a very high volume of commuter train traffic while also being able to accommodate a growing amount of increasing freight rail traffic so that the operations of high-frequency commuter trains and high-frequency freight trains don’t interfere with each other’s critically-necessary rail operations.
    It is a conversation that should include constructing a vastly expanded and upgraded passenger rail infrastructure that can accommodate both regional and intercity passenger trains.
    For example, the conversation about implementing passenger rail service between Atlanta and Savannah should not start with constructing a high-speed passenger rail line between the two cities when there is such a severely pressing and critical need for regional commuter rail service between Atlanta and Macon.
    The conservation about implementing passenger rail service between Atlanta and Savannah should begin with the discussion of upgrading the existing freight rail right-of-ways to accommodate uninterrupted high-frequency freight rail service on at least one, maybe two sets of tracks and the construction of at least one, maybe two sets of tracks to accommodate uninterrupted high-frequency commuter rail service and, eventually, high-speed intercity passenger rail service after demand for rail service has been cultivated and built up on regional commuter train service between Atlanta and roughly Macon.
    The discussion should start with building commuter train tracks to accommodate high-speed passenger trains as demand increases and dictates.  The discussion should not necessarily jump straight to developing white elephant high-speed intercity passenger rail lines in the face of the severely pressing need for regional commuter rail service here in the Metro Atlanta/North Georgia region.
    Start with the urgently long-overdue development of high-frequency regional commuter service and build the tracks to accommodate BOTH high-frequency regional commuter trains AND high-speed intercity passenger train service.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia December 4, 2012 2:43 am

    If anything, the most viable possible starting point for high-speed intercity passenger rail service here in Georgia would not be between Atlanta and Savannah or even Atlanta and Chattanooga, but between Atlanta and Charlotte on an existing Amtrak/Norfolk Southern rail right-of-way that has been tabbed by the Feds for development of a high-speed rail line between New Orleans and New York by way of Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Richmond and Washington DC.
    That Amtrak/Norfolk Southern right-of-way that parallels I-20 west of Atlanta and I-85 north of Atlanta currently carries the Amtrak Crescent intercity passenger train twice-daily (once-daily each direction) between New Orleans and New York City and would be a much better target for starting high-speed intercity passenger rail service seeing as there is already an intercity route on that rail right-of-way that at least has enough ridership to support one train in each direction daily.
    Even though the Amtrak Crescent/Norfolk Southern rail right-of-way is an infinitely much more viable starting point for high-speed intercity passenger rail service seeing as though the right-of-way already carries a once-daily intercity passenger rail line in the Crescent between New Orleans and NYC, that Amtrak/NS right-of-way still urgently needs to be upgraded to carry high-frequency regional commuter rail service between Atlanta and Anniston, AL on the segment of rail right-of-way that parallels the often peak-hour severely-congested and frequently peak-hour gridlocked I-20 west of Atlanta.
    The Amtrak Crescent/NS right-of-way also urgently needs to be upgraded to carry high-frequency regional commuter rail service between Atlanta and Gainesville (and onto Clemson,SC) on the segment of rail right-of-way that parallels the often peak-hour severely-congested and gridlocked I-85 north of Atlanta.Report

    1. Peaton December 4, 2012 1:07 pm

      @The Last Democrat in Georgia I don’t know about the technological aspects of the Charlotte route, but it is certainly the most sensible in terms of potential ridership. Birmingham,ATL,Charlotte, or ATL,Charlotte, Raleigh.Report

      1. Peaton December 4, 2012 1:08 pm

        @The Last Democrat in Georgia The ATL Charlotte route also has the potential to connect Spartanburg and other SC cities.Report

  4. ko December 4, 2012 9:14 am

    It is unlikely that we would get very good passenger service if it is on freight lines, even “upgraded” lines, so there is not really a win-win there. Unless you can run high speed trains (and I do not think the railroads want to run high speed freight trains except in limited circumstances) passenger rail is not going to be that attractive to travelers. High speed passenger trains need dedicated tracks for both safety and engineering reasons. Overall our rail system is pretty well developed but focused on freight since passenger rail is rarely profitable.Report

  5. SteveBrown December 5, 2012 11:34 pm

    Since Japan introduced high-speed bullet trains, passenger rail has lost more than half its market share to the automobile. Since Italy,France, and other European countries opened their high-speed rail lines, rail’s market share in Europe has dwindled from 8.2 to 5.8 percent of travel. If high-speed rail doesn’t work in Japan and Europe, how can it work in the United States?
    Running high volume freight lines on the same track as high speed rail will reduce the rate of speed of the “high” speed rail.
    The bottom line is Atlanta to Savannah does little to nothing to resolve traffic congestion.Report

    1. writes_of_weigh December 6, 2012 2:52 am

      @SteveBrown The belief of some transpo-wonks is generally that by 2035, and a couple of decades post Panama Canal widening, an increasing flood of (Savannah and other)port  traffic will cause disruption to the U.S. transportation system (highway/rail/air cargo) and if you are a true (local)t- wonkette, you too, subscribe. If you fleece the taxpayers as a drummer in this wonkette corps, your mantra must be that the bridges(sky?) are(is) failing, all rail sidings are full, and and busy aero taxi-way drama at Porschville will make a Braves(home) game clogged connector look like a walk in the (Beltline?)park . The only solution is to try repeatedly to fleece the taxpayers out  of congestion mitigation funds, if we (literally) are buying it. As usual, the free market place will solve this drift IF it every occurs, and will do so sans public money. Just look at what Jacksonville based FEC Railway is proposing within the next three or four years, to connect Miami and greater Orlando and v-v, with HSR, and without Amtrak nor much of any other type of federal involvement. The wonks think that the Taxed (not)Enough Already crowd needs to pay up or “you will sit in the poor folks lane/siding/taxi runway or you can pass the cost of “freedom” on by paying more for whatever imported plastic junque you just must have from your nearby suburban big box retailer(s). You see Mr. Brown……you’re just not looking ahead. You must look South to truly see how tomorrow may move. And to reduce Atlanta – Savannah congestion by 2035, maybe just maybe, we’ll all be driving Boxters or Cayennes down the autobahn to go sunbathing.Report

      1. The Last Democrat in Georgia December 6, 2012 6:06 am

         {{“As usual, the free market place will solve this drift IF it every occurs, and will do so sans public money.”}}
        Your statement raises an extremely valid point…That we are facing a stark reality that our current traditional sources of transportation funding, the current state gas tax that increasingly inadequately funds the state’s road network and the 1% sales tax that increasingly inadequately funds the operation of MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb counties, are not going to provide anywhere near the amount of money needed to fund our state’s increasingly overwhelmingly transportation needs.
        User fees and private sources of financing are going to have play an increasing role in funding our state’s growing transportation needs as the funding power of traditional sources continue to diminish.
        Here’s an example:  The State of Georgia says that it wants to build two partially-elevated reversible HOT Lanes on Interstate 75 through Cobb County and one reversible HOT Lane its outer suburban/exurban spur, Interstate 575 through Cherokee County at a cost of roughly $1 billion.
        The only source of revenue available to fund that project is the state gas tax which only brings in about $300 million a year for new roads, bridges and road widenings after debt service and routine maintenance on the state’s entire road network are paid for.
        Abolishing the state’s gas tax and instituting a user fee of at least $1.00 on all vehicles using Interstate 75 outside of I-285 through Cobb County would bring in nearly $110 million each year just on that one crucial stretch of roadway alone.
        Enabling a stretch of roadway as critical to Metro Atlanta’s fortunes as I-75 to become self-sufficient and pay for its own maintenance needs would allow proposed improvements such as HOT Lanes or something even more massive in its scale and effectiveness, such as freight truck lanes elevated over the right-of-way of the existing roadbed, to pay for itself as needed through the revenues from user fees paid only by those who use that particular road and no one else.  If you don’t use I-75, you don’t pay for I-75 under a system of user fee financing.
        The same concept would be applied to mass transit with sales taxes abolished and revenues from distance-based/zone-based user fees and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from new development along transit lines) financing the operations and maintenance of the system and with subsidies to fares coming from private sources of funding.
        Utilizing user fees and private financing will become even more key as traditional sources of transportation funding gas taxes and sales taxes) increasingly become obsolete.Report

        1. SteveBrown December 6, 2012 1:11 pm

          @The Last Democrat in Georgia  @writes_of_weigh   No problem with on my part with fee for using the interstate system.  It would bring in a lot more funding than transit and will free up capacity on the roads.  
          Some say, “Roads do not pay for themselves.”  GA 400 did.
          High speed rail makes sense in densely packed Japan, but if they are losing ridership, perhaps we ought to focus on some more reasonable, focused solutions.Report

        2. The Last Democrat in Georgia December 6, 2012 4:05 pm

           It’s interesting that you mention Georgia 400, especially in the midst of the T-SPLOST debacle which finally saw the toll ended two years past the date that the state had promised it would end when it made the deal to build the road over two decades ago.
          I fully agree with your observation that Georgia 400 paid for itself with the toll revenue it took in while freeing up severely-limited gas tax revenues to be used elsewhere.
          The problem with the Georgia 400 tolls is that in leveraging the duration of the toll as a way just to get the controversial road built, the politicians weren’t very truthful or forthcoming about how the tolls on the road would free up those severely-limited gas tax revenues to be used elsewhere by in effect making the road self-sufficient.
          The state should have never made the deal to end the tolls on the road after the bonds financing the construction of the road were paid off in 2011, especially as how gas tax revenues were already falling behind our transportation needs in the midst of the explosive population growth at the time more than two decades ago when Metro Atlanta’s population was only about roughly half of what it is today.
          The state should have been up front with the public about the need for the road to finance not only its own construction, but also its own continuing maintenance needs and any potential future upgrades or modifications in the face of a decreasing effectiveness of the gas tax to finance the state’s transportation needs over the long-term.
          Another possibly even more fatal mistake from a road planning standpoint that was made with the construction of Georgia 400 in hindsight was that the GA 400 Extension was not tunneled underground for most or all of its length between the I-285 junction in Sandy Springs and the I-85 junction in Buckhead.
          Instead the Georgia 400 Extension was built above ground through one of the most, if not the most, upscale and influential areas in Metro Atlanta in Buckhead and North Atlanta.
          The extension of GA 400 through Buckhead and North Atlanta was a roadbuilding action that, while providing important direct expressway access between the urban core (the Airport, business districts in Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead) and the northern suburbs and exurbs, likely also completely soured the public’s appetite for additional future large-scale new road construction project after seeing the destruction of a large swath of one of the region’s most highly-desired neighborhoods.
          The theory goes that it was the construction of Georgia 400 through one of the Atlanta region’s most high-profile and affluent neighborhoods in the early 1990’s that more than likely sowed the seeds of the destruction of future large-scale road construction projects such as the proposed Outer Perimeter/Northern Arc in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and the T-SPLOST this past summer in 2012.Report

    2. The Last Democrat in Georgia December 6, 2012 3:59 am

       You make an excellent point about the operation of high-volume freight lines and high-speed rail lines on the same tracks reducing the rate (and effectiveness) of high-speed trains.  If passenger rail operations are ever initiated on existing freight rail right-of-ways great care should be taken to make sure that those passenger rail operations don’t interfere with current high-volume and high-frequency freight rail operations, which is an arrangement which will require a heckuva lot more time, money and care then many seem to be aware of at the moment as the time frame for bringing this high-speed rail service online is not merely within a decade, but closer to 3-5 decades.
      The stuff that we’re talking about is not something that can or will be done overnight, but is something that will take between 30-50 years to fully bring online and complete (circa 2040-2060).  That type of realistic time frame means that we’re going to have lean heavily on a mode of transport that is decidedly much less glamourous and spectacular is regional commuter bus service for the foreseeable future.  We’re also going to have to look at converting to more effective non-traditional forms of transportation funding by abolishing the increasingly ineffective gas tax and turning to user fees, private funding and T.I.F. (Tax Increment Financing-funding in which transit lines are funded by a portion of property tax revenue from new development that pops up along said transit lines).
      And you make an excellent point about high-speed rail service between Atlanta and Savannah doing virtually nothing to resolve traffic congestion as everyone (Mayor Reed in particular) seems to be getting really far ahead of themselves by jumping straight to talk of high-speed intercity passenger rail while completely ignoring the obvious overwhelming need for continuing to expand regional commuter bus service, the long-overdue implementation of regional commuter rail service and a critically-needed upgrade of freight rail service on some of the busiest sections of freight rail track in the Western Hemisphere in the Atlanta region.
      You also raise an important question in asking how can high-speed rail work in such an auto-centric nation as the U.S. if high-speed rail is having such issues in more transit-centric parts of the world such as Japan and Europe?
      The answer to making high-speed rail work in the United States will be in implementing high-speed rail service ONLY where needed and ONLY as demand dictates (like potentially on an Atlanta-DC-Phila-NYC alignment), not seemingly trying to get a high-speed intercity passenger rail line going on corridors (like Atlanta-Savannah or Atlanta-Chattanooga) where there is currently no need or demand for high-speed intercity rail service and much more of a pressing need for regional commuter bus and regional commuter rail service (not-to-mention the desperately-needed construction of truck-only lanes, etc).
      The answer to making high-speed rail work in the U.S. over the long-run is also by proceeding with extreme caution by slowly and patiently increasing currently rockbottom transit ridership rates with something as simple as continuing to implement regional commuter bus service and, where geographically applicable, feeding those regional commuter buses into a MARTA heavy-rail infrastructure that has been overhauled into a much more efficient and much more functional backbone of a regional commuter rail infrastructure.Report

  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia December 6, 2012 4:54 pm

    But rush-hour <strike>parking lots</strike> roads ARE a superior option to commuter rail.Report

  7. writes_of_weigh May 15, 2015 3:10 pm

    @Peaton Yes, I certainly can. ( I assume you can read and can interact with current media.)Report


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