Ask Atlanta: Will the city ever have a high-speed train?

A high-speed train in Italy

Photograph by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Ask Atlanta is a regular column where we answer your questions about life at ATL – our infrastructure, politics, history and culture, and much more. Have a question? Ask us here!

Question: I want to know when we will have the high speed train. There has long been a high-speed train proposal to connect Atlanta to Charlotte. What happened to that? —Leu Croll

Answer: For a long time indeed: it was in 1992 that the Federal Railroad Administration first floated the idea of ​​five high-speed rail corridors across the country, including a first route from southeast Washington, D.C., to the North Carolina ; later in the decade, the FRA added Atlanta and Savannah to its plans. So: On its 30th anniversary, where are the plans?

Slowly, though they are progressing. In June, speaking to the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Senator Jon Ossoff promoted the idea of ​​a high-speed train between Atlanta and Savannah, noting that he had directed federal funds to fund an initial environmental survey. The broader vision of a southeast corridor here could include routes not just to Savannah but to Nashville, Augusta, Charleston and, yes, Charlotte. “It has the potential to be a really important part of the future of our state’s infrastructure,” Ossoff said.

The obstacles are many. First, engineering. The high-speed train can be powered by electricity on its own dedicated line or powered by diesel on existing tracks. Around our corner of the country, the latter option is prohibited: in the mountainous regions north of Atlanta, the existing freight track traverses topography with many sharp curves and steep grades, said Gary Wolf, president of Atlanta . Wolf Railway Consulting, while high-speed rail is “better suited for lighter grades and easy curves”. New tracks – and the right of way on which to install them – are needed.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s not impossible: just look at the rest of the world. Japan established its first high-speed rail line in 1964 and now has trains that can exceed 300 kilometers per hour, or around 186 mph. China and Europe also have well-developed networks. “We know how to build the track, the equipment, the control systems,” Wolf said. The problem? The money — any rail project this ambitious would require a generous federal investment — and the politics.

The example of a high-speed train project in California, which would transport passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours (compared to about six by car), does not bring hope. In 2008, voters in that state approved a $9 billion investment in what was to be a $33 billion project, slated for completion by 2020. To sum up a long saga: in order to get the With the buy-in from local governments and politicians, the state was forced to adjust the route and add stops, which helped drive up costs while slowing down eventual travel time.

Meanwhile, planners had counted on federal funding of between $12 billion and $16 billion, which isn’t a totally wrong idea, considering the tens of billions the government spends annually on road infrastructure. . By 2010, the Democratic-controlled Congress had amassed $3 billion. But when the Republicans – unsupportive of public spending in general and particularly hostile to trains – returned to power a few years later, the money dried up. Being built in several parts, the California project is not dead, but the estimated costs have soared to more than $100 billion.

High-speed rail in the United States “will now likely require both public and private sector involvement, in my view,” says Jackson McQuigg, railroad historian and vice president of the Atlanta History Center. . McQuigg points to Brightline, a private rail system in Florida that opened its first phase, from Miami to West Palm Beach, in 2018; extensions to the system are underway, with the final phase expected to allow speeds of up to 125 mph. “Florida was a notoriously reluctant partner in the development of high-speed rail until this Brightline model arrived,” McQuigg says.

Yet the efforts of Ossoff and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg somewhat revived the idea of ​​federally funded rail in the United States; Buttigieg’s boss, of course, is a bit of a train guy himself. And there was movement in Georgia. Last year, the FRA and the Georgia Department of Transportation selected a preferred Atlanta-Charlotte route — cost projections range up to $8.4 billion — and are in the process of determining where the stations would be placed on along the estimated two-hour journey. Along the preferred corridor, electric-powered trains could travel at up to 220 mph.

From a passenger perspective, there’s a definite appeal for a quick, scenic trip through Piedmont that doesn’t involve hellish I-85 traffic. But rail, one of the most energy-efficient modes of transport, also has benefits for the climate. On a more modest scale, Amtrak plans to boost its scheduled passenger service by 2035, including a new route from Atlanta to Birmingham that would take four hours and 10 minutes. By modest, unfortunately, we mean modest – in 1940, that same train journey would have taken you two hours and 50 minutes. Consider it another argument for throwing money at a faster alternative.

Research and reporting by xavier stevens and Lucinda Warnke.

This article originally appeared in our October 2022 issue.


Jose P. Rogers