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Atlanta's Commuter Rail Plan

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Atlanta's Ambitious Commuter Rail Plan

Development of an ambitious plan for commuter and intercity rail networks centred on Atlanta, Georgia, United States, has had the brakes put on while alternative solutions are analysed.

PLANNERS are balking at the $US 1.5 billion cost of an ambitious plan for using existing freight lines to create passenger rail networks in Georgia. "It all comes down to money," said Mr Stephen T Roberts, project director of Georgia Railway Consultants (GRC), which was appointed to help implement the 1300km programme during the next decade.

Roberts, who successfully promoted a passenger rail programme in Virginia and headed Virginia Rail Express (VRE) since 1993, moved to GRC at the end of last year. GRC is a joint venture between Moreland Altabelli, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Systra Consulting.

Plans for the rail network have been refined in recent years and seemed ready to go when, earlier this year, a decision was taken to analyse alternatives to a rail solution on the priority routes of Atlanta--Athens (112km) and Atlanta--Macon (145km). In each case there are options such as "do nothing" or adopting an express bus solution.

A series of public meetings will now be held up to the end of the year. Three months of studies will follow in which scenarios for both bus and rail will be tested before final decisions are taken. Money apart, the case for rail appears to have been proven. And, as Roberts told IRJ: "Doing nothing is not really an option because of growing congestion and deteriorating air quality. Buses would certainly be cheaper, but they are also less productive."

In Georgia, as in many other US states, it has become increasingly difficult to justify road building as the sole solution to growing transport demands. Georgia has more than 8000km of rail lines, operated mainly by the Class I freight operators, CSX and Norfolk Southern (NS). Many of the lines could have capacity added to handle passenger traffic.

Studies since the 1980s concluded that, with infrastructure improvements, it is feasible to introduce passenger rail services in several existing corridors. Market research indicated that "significant numbers" of Georgians would use the services. In a separate and unrelated development, the first 64km of the Atlanta--Chattanooga corridor has been selected as one of seven maglev corridors competing for $US 950 million of federal funding.

Extensive studies of the impact of passenger operations on existing freight operations are being conducted and, of course, agreements with CSX and NS will have to be reached and federal clearances obtained before services can start. On current projections, services in the Athens and Macon corridors could start as early as 2003.

The hub of both the commuter and intercity networks would be a new multi-modal terminal in the centre of Atlanta, effectively serving more than 70% of the population of Georgia. The terminal would also provide facilities for Amtrak, house an intercity bus terminal, and provide a direct connection with Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority's Five Points interchange station, the hub of Atlanta's metro and local bus services. The $US 165 million project is seen as a prime candidate for private sector participation.

Once the multi-modal station is built, up to six commuter and seven intercity lines, sharing tracks with CSX and NS, could be implemented. The original Georgia Rail commuter plan was split into two phases, with services to Athens, Senoia, and Bremen implemented first, followed by services to Madison, Gainesville, and Canton. First stage of the intercity network would be a line to Macon via Griffin, with subsequent first-phase extensions to Albany, Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida. The section between Atlanta and Griffin would also be used as a commuter line. Other out-of-state destinations such as Tallahassee, Florida; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; and Greenville, South Carolina could follow.

The preliminary estimated cost of the programme is $US 1.5 billion in 1999 dollars, and includes the multi-modal passenger terminal and rolling stock. The estimated cost of Phase I---Athens to Atlanta, Macon to Atlanta, and the start-up of the multi-modal passenger terminal---is $US 265 million.

The programme will be funded through a combination of federal, state, and local funds. So far, the Atlanta Regional Commission has earmarked $US 230 million in state and federal funds for rail services.


The six-line commuter network would have 39 stations in 22 counties that are expected to house more than 70% of the Georgia state population by 2010. Depending on the level of fares, the lines will handle between 5.8 and 8 million passengers/year in 2010, and generate operating revenues between $US 28.4 million and $US 27.2 million annually. An annual subsidy of between $US 6.5 million and $US 16.2 million will be needed with revenues covering between 68 and 74% of operating costs.

The seven-line intercity network would have 15 stations on about 1300km of upgraded freight lines on which trains would operate at a maximum speed of 175km/h. Total cost is estimated at $US 905 million in 1999 dollars, with about half of it going on the first-priority network covering 635km between Atlanta, Savannah, and Jacksonville.

It has been calculated that the seven lines would carry 1.6 million passengers in 2020. Annual revenues of more than $US 70 million would be more than double estimated operating costs of $US 26.7 million. Net revenues would therefore be sufficient to cover all subsidies required for commuter lines.

Discussions have already taken place with CSX and NS regarding infrastructure improvement works and the impact of the proposed new services on existing freight operations. No operating agreements have yet been reached, however. Indeed, regarding the Atlanta--Macon corridor, NS management has consistently expressed serious concerns about maintaining capacity, and the reliability of container deliveries and deliveries of other time-sensitive freight.

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Hopefully Atlanta will at least be able to get some of this done. Detroit can get nothing done, so it really will take a miracle to get anything....commuter rail or LRT. About the only thing we can get done here is making the bus service better....but that's because it can't get much worse than it already is. LOL.

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It's still a long shot to get any of this built, and if it does get built, they have extremely slow time tables for it. Right now BRT is the most likely to happen, a single line not set to open before the end of the decade.

Pretty disappointing, but the plans are still out there and maybe without some more encouragement, can help become a reality.

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That does sound like Detroit. And it's too bad because Atlanta needs this, especially given the numbers of people that continue to move there. If they don't do this, congestion will just get worse.

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