Comments are welcome (positive or negative), but any self-advertisements or irrelevant posts will be deleted.

No new posts are being added to this blog. For planning news and updates, check out The BIG Picture Huntsville (also on Facebook). For transportation info, check out the Huntsville Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Downtown Atlanta in 90 Minutes? Get on the Train

The above map is my idea for a regional high-speed railway network-- a hub-and-spoke system focused on Atlanta with lines extending out to most major cities within a 300-400 mile radius, and slower "Regional Express" trains on congested routes between smaller cities. All of these lines have been discussed at some point... except one. Can you guess which one?

Last summer, I suggested a possible alternative for the decades-old Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta "superhighway" fantasy-- construct a high-speed rail line along the proposed route. Replacing the proposed Interstate with rail would be cheaper to build, faster than road travel, and more energy-efficient. Not to mention more enticing to 1) Georgia officials weary of another Interstate feeding into an already congested Atlanta road network, and 2) Mississippi officials who have already built an Interstate-grade highway (Future I-22/Corridor X) no more than 50 miles to the south of the proposed superhighway. 

Why Atlanta? The only direct way to Atlanta today from Huntsville is by air. On a normal weekday, Delta and its operating partners have eleven flights between HSV and ATL each way, with total seating capacity between 700 and 750 passengers, enough to fill 2 TGV Sud-Est trains each way. It can be assumed that many times that number take the four-hour drive to Atlanta daily. While a direct Interstate would get you to downtown in about three hours (without traffic), a high-speed rail link running at 125 mph could get you there in half that time.

Non-stop air travel to Atlanta, booked a week in advance, is about $700 round-trip. A high-speed train trip of similar length and time in Germany is about $100 round-trip. It would cost about half that to drive my 28 mpg car to Atlanta and back, but remember, the trip would take twice as long.
The Huntsville rail station would work best in one of two locations-- downtown or the airport. Having the station downtown would put passengers in the middle of the city, similar to many European rail stations. A downtown station would also have plenty of surrounding urban development opportunities. An airport station, however, would be located in the center of the region, eliminating the need for more than one station if adequate mass transit connections are provided, and would provide quick air connections to farther-off destinations. 

How much will it cost, and when will it happen?

The cost of constructing a high-speed rail line varies wildly. A line recently built between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain cost $22 million per mile, or about half the cost of an average Interstate. But the proposed initial segment of the California HSR network will cost $42 billion, or $107 million per mile. Building an Atlanta-Huntsville high speed rail line would require building completely new tracks and would cost significantly more than the Memphis extension, which could use the existing Norfolk Southern line. Then there's possible expenses from outrageous politically-motivated proposals like the "hydrogen-powered Maglev" line planned between Detroit and Lansing, Michigan.

The Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta route warrants more study, of course. But if it's done right, it could become a reality in the next 20-25 years-- about the time the "superhighway" is supposed to be built...

 More info: Popular Mechanics article on high-speed rail


Anonymous said...

Good post.

I would want to be able to take my own car on the train like the Auto Train from Orlando to Washington. I'd be willing for vastly expanded normal train service in the region if I can take my car.

Who would be using the train to get to OUR airport? People from Memphis and Atlanta?

James said...

@Anonymous: The point of HSR is to, with the help of good local mass transit at your destination, eliminate the need for cars. Do you take your car on a plane?

Huntsville International has the expansion space necessary to become a "relief hub" for Atlanta. That's where an airport station would become useful.

Anonymous said...

Everytime I fly I take my car. Who doesn't?

I'm just saying that taking the train to Atlanta is twice as much as driving and then I would have to rent a car when I get over there. Atlanta has a bunch of public transportation, but I would still be hard pressed to get around without a car.

pierre said...

I completely agree with anonymous. Atlanta has it's silly idea of a "subway system" but it pales by comparison to Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, DC and doesn't even touch NYC. Having a car in Atlanta is pretty imperative, just like it is in Huntsville, despite their (and our) public transportation systems.

Also, looking at the map, i don't quite understand why the regional express is between Nashville and Birmingham. I'm pretty sure that the regional express route should be between Memphis and Huntsville and then eventually to Atlanta while the route between Nashville and Bham should be entirely high speed.

James said...

@Pierre: Like I said in the post, the Regional Express trains would fill in the gaps of the high-speed network, going between smaller cities like Birmingham-Huntsville-Nashville (and Memphis-Nashville-Knoxville); routes that outside this region would seem ridiculous if made into "full" high-speed rail.

As for Atlanta's transit system, you have to remember that the high-speed rail connection won't be built tomorrow. It might be completed in 20-25 years, giving MARTA (and its regional counterpart GRTA) plenty of time to upgrade and expand. It also gives them plenty of time to cut back... But I'll take the optimistic route.