ATL Trains, a proposed mass transportation overhaul for the city, is more than a passion project — it’s Atlanta’s potential. Now, it has an official website to go with it.
In early September, ATL Trains officially launched its website, and with it, a central point to direct advocates and skeptics alike to the idea.
The extensive map was designed by Caleb Stubbs, a railroad engineer who has made it his mission to advocate for better transit and is perhaps one of the few who is qualified to design it.
“300 miles. 90 stations. 11 lines,” wrote Stubbs, announcing the launch of the new ATLTrains website. “Explore in-depth the comprehensive, connected, and financially feasible regional rail vision for Metro Atlanta called ATL Trains that I have meticulously created and refined over the last four years.”
The full map can be downloaded from the website and includes interactive components. The website also allows users to view five different story maps: Explore ATL Trains, ATL Trains Concept Design, ATL Trains Ridership Forecasts, Our Ridership Rail History, and A Nationwide Look at Regional Rail.
The website, according to Stubbs, was six months in the making between his full-time role as a railroad engineer. He hopes it will serve as a functional online space that continually gets updated.
“I wanted to have a place where I can really explore [the concept] and continue to add new content. So it’s an ongoing process. And the idea is no matter if you’re looking for a broad overview of ATL Trains or you’re really looking to dig into the details; the website will allow you to do either one,” Stubbs said.
Stubbs used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Story Maps — interactive pages that tell a story using maps — to help communicate some of the finer details that are up on the website.
So, what’s the likelihood that any of this comes to fruition? Hard to say, says Stubbs, but certainly not just a pie-in-the-sky idea.
“Is it feasible? Absolutely,” said Stubbs, noting different studies have shown that it is feasible on existing rail corridors like ATL Trains proposes. “Railroad rights-of-way in the Atlanta region seem to be some of the most underutilized, despite our status as a major freight hub.”
The Atlanta Region, said Stubbs, is home to the second-densest concentration of Class I railroads (railroads are generally categorized under Class I, II, or III based on revenue and size). It’s a bit of a head-scratcher then, argues Stubbs, that around 80 percent of tracks in the region are a single track instead of perhaps double or more.
One of the most notable parts about ATL Trains is that most of it is built using existing rails — i.e., the groundwork is already laid. That’s not to say that there won’t be costs, but it certainly helps in terms of land acquisition.
Stubbs pointed towards other states like Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina that are doing just as ATL Trains proposes: implementing a more robust passenger rail system. In Florida, Brightline recently made news in late September with an expansion line that connects Orlando to Miami.
“ATL Trains touches every corridor, every major railroad in the Atlanta region. It’s the whole shebang — the whole system would stand to benefit. So it’s just about going through and making a series of improvements that benefit both passenger and freight rail,” Stubbs said.
The hardest parts, said Stubbs, are leadership and making sure everyone — from different counties to the state — is on board. With a project so interconnected and of this size, you couldn’t go at it alone, he acknowledges.
In true Atlanta ironic fashion, Atlanta actually began as a railroad hub called Terminus in the late 1830s. In fact, most people at the time didn’t believe Terminus would amount to much else.
By 1923 — nearly 100 years after its founding — Atlanta, like many cities across the nation, had an extensive regional passenger rail network. Today, it’s all nonexistent. Below, two screen grabs from a StoryMap on ATL Trains show the stark contrast from exactly 100 years ago.
It should be noted that Atlanta is served by MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) — but only locally.
Given Atlanta has cemented itself as one of the country’s greatest cities — with an impact spanning civil rights to music to the film industry and everything in between — calls for public transit that reflects its status as a great American city has been growing in recent years.
In recent years, however, transit projects have been… lackluster, if nothing else — even on a more local level. The Atlanta Streetcar is widely known — at least presently — as a failure on multiple fronts. It remains to be seen if the proposed streetcar on the Beltline project will retroactively turn the streetcar into something more frequently used and appreciated.
Then there’s the fiasco with Clayton County, where the county was promised heavy rail that would connect to MARTA, which eventually turned into bus rapid transit (BRT), to the disappointment of many.
But is the tide turning?
Summerhill, undergoing an array of changes itself, is welcoming the addition of bus rapid transit. It’s ironic, given the negative context BRT found itself in with Clayton County, but Summerhill’s BRT has been proposed from the start.
All that aside, heavy rail like the proposed ATL Trains could be a game-changer both locally and regionally.
ATL Trains is the best-case scenario for implementing trains that make sense on a financial level and can be implemented broadly, said Stubbs.
“Less than 30 percent of the region currently is within a 15-minute drive to a MARTA station, but 85% are within a 15-minute drive of a proposed ATL Trains station,” Stubbs said.
While it remains just a proposal, the ATL Trains movement and alternative transportation movements across the country are just gaining stream and don’t look as if they’ll be slowing anytime soon.