Ready for the return of the Nancy Hanks passenger train connecting Atlanta and Savannah
This is an op-ed by James M. Moher, a Savannah resident and veteran of state government commissions, such as those proposed to study passenger rail transportation in Georgia.
There is a lot of interest in the potential return of passenger rail service between Savannah and Atlanta. People are thrilled to board a modern, high-speed version of the legendary train, the Nancy Hanks. Many celebrations will take place as she departs Savannah on her maiden voyage…. one day.
Until one day Georgians experience frustratingly slow progress in making rail service a reality. The success of the enterprise requires the cooperation of political and railway institutions.
Savannah-area House Representative Carl Gilliard (D-Garden City) is behind a bill to study implementing the route. Be prepared for many commissions and councils that will contribute to the project. These will cover traffic, operations, costs, safety, revenues, construction and environmental factors.
Keep in mind that Amtrak’s proposed route is part of a huge infrastructure bill that has yet to pass Congress. Likewise, the political world will always defer to this function that Southerners affectionately call “bidness”.
A good example of what we face is the decades-long and oft-studied, proposed, and debated extension of the old route from Boston and Maine north about 75 miles from Lowell, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire.
The situation in New England is a perfect warning of what we in Georgia will have to avoid. Political, regulatory and economic issues are only one aspect of the creation of the rail corridor. Complex practical issues are another. The trains and the tracks they will use must all be new.
The planned route is owned by CSX, the successor conglomerate of the Central of Georgia and Southern Railway. As Savannah Morning News columnist Jane Fishman attested, “the freight rules.” The Nancy Hanks will share the tracks with trains departing from the Port of Savannah and the historically significant Atlanta Railroad Center.
CSX is all about the aforementioned “bidness”. The conflict between revenue-generating freight traffic and expensive passenger trains must be resolved. Then there is the question of the tracks themselves. High-speed trains require heavily welded rails. The current tracks are outdated. This means building two new sets of tracks about 250 miles long, as straight as possible and without crossings.
With the exception of Amtrak’s Acela, high-speed trains do not exist in America. We are hostages to equipment similar to that of the 1940s; too big, heavy and inefficient.
Even the Acela can’t compare to the high-speed trains of Europe and Japan. One of the reasons is government and industry overreach. Designers and engineers must apply the same standards, techniques and materials that we see in modern automobiles and aircraft.
Environmental concerns will dictate the engines. The new, lighter Nancy Hanks will run on smooth tracks powered by locomotives controlled by a sophisticated signaling system and powered by an overhead electric grid.
Service frequency and travel time are critical. It’s about an hour’s flight from Savannah to Atlanta or four hours’ drive. To be an attractive alternative, the train must be faster than a car and cheaper than the plane. A two-hour journey is easy to achieve, but to generate enough revenue, three to five trains a day, each way, will be needed.
Rail passenger transport between the two most important cities of Georgia can be a reality. As citizens, it is our responsibility to ensure that political, commercial and railway establishments do not impede the day we cheer Nancy Hanks as she finally leaves the station.