Archive for September, 2011

Commuter Rail In Atlanta

As sure as the daffodils in spring, there is an idea which periodically shows up in Atlanta.  Atlanta’s numerous railroads could have commuter passenger trains operating on them to solve traffic problems in the region.

Before there were Interstate highways, before there were state highways, before there were even a large number of city streets, there was the railroad.  Atlanta was and is a railroad center:

Atlanta Railroad Region

Atlanta - Railroad Center

Atlanta quickly became number one on General William T. Sherman’s hit parade because of its central location on the railroads.  Even though these railroads did not always share a common track gauge at that time, Atlanta was a railroad town and worthy of destruction.

After the Late Unpleasantness, Atlanta rebuilt and maintained its position as a powerful railroad center.  The map above has been edited for clarity, but there are a large number of railroad lines which make Atlanta the crossroads of the Southeastern United States.

The idea of Atlanta using its existing railroads for commuter service is not necessarily a bad one, but there are a lot of “ifs” that make for a complicated matter.  What people commonly imagine is found in Chicago; here, a METRA train makes a stop:

Suburban ChicagoIt’s simple enough.  You have the track, you have the passengers, you have the train.  Let’s roll.


Before you get too excited, there are a few issues that need to be raised.  The example that often comes to the enthusiast’s mind is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s Chicago Speedway.  And why not?  This three-track main line connects Chicago to Aurora, Illinois, a distance of over 40 miles.

Commuter train on BNSF Chicago - Aurora Line

Because of this railroad line and others in Chicago, people can have employment in the downtown center of Chicago and be home at night for the bucolic delights of suburban towns such as Hinsdale, Wheaton and Flossmoor.  The three track Speedway is an intense bit of railroading, since it also handles numerous freight trains:

Freight Train on the Chicago Speedway Main Line

And, just to make it even more interesting, the BNSF line handles Amtrak intercity trains such as the California Zephyr and state operated trains such as the Illinois Zephyr.

So, with a high number of trains operating over this railroad daily, combined with a large number of frequent passenger trains, the BNSF Chicago Aurora line is a very expensive slice of railroading.  It is expensive because of the signal systems needed to protect all those trains and the continuous ongoing process of maintaining the railroad to be able to support this sort of traffic.

Consider also that the Speedway (as are most other American railroad rights of way) is owned by a private entity, the BNSF Railway.  The BNSF pays taxes on the property which the railroad and its related structures occupy, along with numerous other taxes.  The BNSF maintains its right of way and Chicago’s commuter trains pay for the right to use that trackage.  Fortunately, investor Warren Buffett liked railroading so much that he bought one.

Back to Atlanta

The most recent notion of railroad commuter trains in Atlanta is the Georgia Rail Passenger Program.  Commuting Atlanta stuck its toe into the water with the “line to Lovejoy”.  It was a lot easier for Norfolk Southern Railway to give away one rail line when it had two rail lines between Atlanta and Macon.

Commuter Railroad to Lovejoy

This proposal got a very tepid reception in Atlanta, if for no other reason than it seemed to serve nowhere.  I’m sure that if you lived in Jonesboro, McDonough or Fayetteville, you didn’t feel that way.  But for those on the north side of town, it seemed to be a pointless exercise that was largely driven by the presence of Federal funds, an $87 Million earmark from Congress.

The lukewarm reception came before Congress began struggling with its little spending problem, which tells you something about the absence of a compelling need to build the Lovejoy line in the first place.  In part, everybody seems to understand that $87 Million is just the tip of the iceberg.

On the other hand, rather than “lose” these funds, the focus shifted to a new passenger station in downtown Atlanta.  This project has largely been a non-starter, too.  Atlanta currently enjoys two passenger trains each day to and from Washington, DC.  The Georgia DoT refers to the downtown station as the MULTI-MODAL PASSENGER TERMINAL.  Which sounds a lot nicer than what it really will be, a BUS STATION.  Like so many other non-highway ideas from the Georgia Department of Transportation, this idea seems destined to not happen.  I’ve flogged the idea of another location in a previous blog.

To Tax, or Not to Tax

Now, Atlanta is starting to consider a self-imposed transportation tax for the region, and the words are beginning to flow.  A proposed alternate solution which uses existing railroad lines:

Here, a breathless description of a railroad commuter train solution in Cobb County, which is NW of downtown Atlanta:

Spending $856 million of a very limited pot of funds to build one mile of a rail line that would take more than 15 years to construct and would likely not advance past that point for decades while being proposed to be extended up through an aging corridor of automobile-oriented development up Cobb Parkway to supplement a car-dependent lifestyle that is showing some clear signs of decline is NOT a good idea at all and is a very poor use of those limited funds, ESPECIALLY, when there are two existing freight rail lines in the CSX and Georgia Northeastern Railroad lines that run through several cities and neighborhoods with historic downtowns and town centers in Cobb and Northwest Georgia looking to foster and expand on the walkable developments that they already have with future commuter rail lines that could come on line on existing tracks much easier than the proposed light rail lines.

Those proposed commuter rail lines could also not only serve Cumberland Mall, but also Vinings, Smyrna, Marietta, Kennesaw, Acworth, Emerson, Cartersville, Calhoun, Dalton and up to Chattanooga on the CSX line and could serve Woodstock, Holly Springs, Canton, Ball Ground, Jasper, Ellijay, Blue Ridge, Mineral Bluff and other assorted locations in and along the 575/515 Corridor all the way up into extreme Southwestern North Carolina (Murphy, NC and eventually beyond, possibly to Asheville).

The two proposed commuter rail lines that run through the center of Cobb into Northwest Georgia and the two proposed commuter rail lines that run through extreme South Cobb into West Georgia, Eastern Alabama and extreme NW Georgia have infinitely so much more potential upside than the proposed misguided token light rail line.

The proposed commuter rail lines on existing rail beds have the potential to make an exceptionally tremendous positively overwhelming impact not only on gridlocked regional traffic, but also on residential and commercial land use patterns, economic development and real estate values while the proposed light rail line only seems to expand on a failing and outdated transit model/philosophy in present-day MARTA, a model with numerous shortcomings that urgently needs to be overhauled before becoming the core urban centerpiece of a larger regional mass transit network.

Whew.  I’ve got to admit that I’ve had this idea myself, but before you get too excited, let’s take a quick reality check about operating commuter trains on existing rights of way in Atlanta:

  • Railroad Management – Every time that any city comes up with the idea of operating commuter trains on their rights of way, management visibly flinches.  The presence of passenger trains makes the operation of their railroad considerably more complicated, both operationally and from the maintenance perspective.  Railroad management doesn’t like the idea and will resist at every opportunity.
  • Traffic – One of the reasons that railroad managers don’t like commuter trains is that there will be a much larger number of trains using their right of way.  This means more wear and tear on the physical plant.  It also means passenger trains getting in the way of freight trains which generate revenue for the railroad.
  • Liability – People riding inside passenger trains operating on a private railroad.  Use your imagination.
  • Physical Plant – In addition to the wear and tear on existing physical plant (which means more frequent maintenance to a higher standard), the presence of commuter trains means a significant increase in the type of signal systems used to control train movements.  Freight railroads have one set of standards for their signals, which get higher as speed and volume of traffic increases.  Commuter trains will make things even more expensive.

That’s just a Whitman’s sampler of the issues that are raised by the notion of using existing railroad rights of way to operate commuter passenger trains.  After looking at things from that perspective, consider this.

MARTA, the Beltline, and any other light rail, bus rail, private bus way, whatever you want to call it, currently use or will be using a dedicated right of way.  Say what you will about MARTA, it is operating its own railroad with its own equipment, maintained by its own personnel.  It runs its trains when it wants to run them without worrying about the movement of container trains, grain blocks, and numerous other railroad freight trains.

The Atlanta Marietta line currently sees about 60 freight trains a day.  Just estimating, but commuter service probably add 50 weekday commuter trains to a line that already sees heavy traffic.  You currently can’t stand in the Marietta Square for more than 15 minutes before a train passes; commuter traffic would add considerably more trains.

While the notion of commuter trains on private railroads are often successfully resisted by the private railroad owner, the line from Atlanta to Marietta (and beyond) is slightly different.  While most railroads own their right of way, the line from Atlanta to Marietta to Chattanooga has a different owner, The State of Georgia.  The current operator of the trains on that line leases the railroad from the State.  Which makes for an interesting opportunity.


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