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marta12Much is being made of a rail line connection to Emory; presumably this will be a light-rail line from Lindbergh Station which will follow the CSX tracks to the Emory campus.  I even suggested as much a while back, but the prevailing thought at that time was that a heavy rail line should be built along that same route.  The old metric for a heavy rail line was $400 million per mile unless there was extraordinary construction such as hard rock tunneling.  I’m sure that it is more expensive now.

However, there is another alternative that while costing the same, may actually serve more people than just Emory.  In its original design for the heavy rail system, several branches were incorporated into the design that allowed for future expansion.  At the time of original construction of the heavy rail lines, structures were placed at several locations.  These structures typically were short tunnels which “went nowhere”.  There are several.  One is just north of Arts Center station for expansion to the NW.  There is another, an underpass just south of the East Point station for a line to Hapeville.

One is actually being used.  Just west of the Ashby Station, there is a line that goes all of one mile up to Bankhead Station as the Green Line.  This was originally the “Perry Homes Line”, and a portion of it actually got built after lots of local political pressure so that “people living in Perry Homes could get to their jobs”.  Of course, the irony is that Perry Homes no longer exists and is a statement to the fact that heavy-rail construction takes a lot of time in addition to costing a lot of money.  So, for the moment, the Green Line is an operational anomaly, serving one unique station and duplicating the balance of its route on the Blue Line.

Right now, the Green Line runs through downtown, terminating at Edgewood Candler Park station.  It then switches over to a center track passing siding, allowing Blue Line trains to pass by.  The operator walks to the other end of the train and the Green Line train then proceeds westward to Bankhead.  However, just a bit east from Candler Park station, the other end of the passing siding there is an expansion point where the Green Line train could go into a short tunnel, passing under the CSX Railroad.  Like so many other MARTA heavy rail rights of way, the Green Line would then be parallel to the CSX tracks which lead to Tucker and beyond.

atlantamap-mod

So, the Green Line, which is currently underutilized, could be expanded up to the Emory area by following the CSX tracks northward.  By doing so, at least two DeKalb County neighborhoods would have MARTA stations, which could also include the Veteran’s Administration Hospital on Clairmont Road.  After passing under North Decatur Road, the MARTA Green Line would then turn westward, again following the CSX right of way, connecting the main campus of Emory University, Emory Hospital and the CDC facility on Clifton Road.  Emory already has circulator buses in the general vicinity, and perhaps a light rail circulator line could serve not only Emory but also CDC and relieve a bad traffic situation.

Will it get built?  I’ve given up trying to predict this sort of stuff.  Should it be built?  Maybe.

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 Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

 One of the evergreens for politicians are high speed trains.  They get dewy-eyed at the prospect of having high speed trains in their political districts.  For people who have been savvy enough to get elected and have the self-control which allows them to stay in office for long periods of time, politicians can be remarkably irrational when it comes to the subject of railroad transportation.  Especially high-speed trains.

Inevitably, their eyes turn toward the Northeast Corridor.  If they’re lucky, their constituents will send them on a 14-day junket to Europe to survey the passenger railroad situation there.  Like the Intercity Express:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 And when they get back from Europe, they find themselves standing in front of their constituents, extolling the virtues of high-speed trains.  The high speed train is the Holy Grail of modern transportation, that object of exceeding value that must be had by all progressive peoples.  It has become a crusade, just as streetcars have become a crusade.  As just like the modern day streetcar, the real goals of these projects are concealed behind a veil of flowery words and empty promises.

So it is with Columbus, Georgia, which has plans:

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Of course, once the pretty words and pictures are peeled away, there’s still the ugly reality that these trains cost a lot of money.  They cost a lot of money to plan for, they cost a lot of money to buy the rights of way for the tracks, they cost a lot of money to build, they cost a lot of money to operate and, most importantly, they cost a lot of money over the long term to maintain.  Without continuous maintenance, these high speed trains cannot reliably operate.

Already, there have been studies, with civil engineers sitting about with yellow pads and pencils, pulling numbers out of thin air to justify the construction of these things.  Let’s look at the competition:

Automobile

The optimum in terms of transportation availability, the automobile has already won the war in terms of popularity.  Our entire transportation infrastructure revolves around the automobile.  Since much of the cost of that infrastructure is buried out of sight, it is impossible to factor in the actual costs of an individual trip to Columbus from Atlanta.  Using Mapquest, the trip on I-85 is about 126 miles, taking typically 1 hour and 40 minutes.  Except on Fridays on holiday weekends in the rain.  You are, modern soul that you are, driving a 2014 Toyota Prius, using about $10.00 worth of fuel.  (Interestingly, the way to play this is to make the trip having your fuel costs reimbursed by your employer at the current IRS rate, to the tune of about $60.00).  Of course, your mileage may vary.  And, no mention of wear and tear on the car or on the roads.  Nor a mention of the overhead costs such as insurance.

The Bus

Greyhound goes between Atlanta and Columbus, taking between 1 hour 50 minutes and 2 hours 15 minutes.  The one-way fare is around $33.00, less discounts.  Again, because the bus uses public rights of way which are supported by the taxpayers, it is not possible to calculate the actual costs of this trip per person.  But you have to believe that the costs for Greyhound are artificially low.

Flying

Until recently, for example, there were direct flights from Hartsfield to Macon which were heavily subsidized by the taxpayers.  Even then, the air carrier couldn’t make it work out, probably because more time was spent on the ground taxiing than actually flying.  In any case, a Delta subsidiary will get you to Columbus in about 42 – 48 minutes, gate to gate.  The fare is in a general range between $450.00 and $600.00.  As with the other forms of transit discussed so far, the actual costs are hidden from view, making cost benefit analysis difficult.

High Speed Train

The Columbus proposal shows three different options, with the least expensive having trains that operate at speed under 100 mph on existing rights of way.  You can refer to the costs of these plans in the feasibility study document.

What We Had

Just for fun, let’s go back 60 years, to the early 1950’s.  There was a passenger train called the Man O’ War, which ran between Columbus and Atlanta; center of the city to center of the city.

Central_of_Georgia_Railway_Man_O_War_1951

The train was operated by a private company, the Central of Georgia Railway.  This company paid taxes on its revenues, on its equipment and on its rights of way.  Prior to 1956, there were two trains between Columbus and Atlanta (typical running time 2 hours 50 minutes, with several stops) :

passengertr3

The round-trip fare, in today’s dollars, was $31.62, or $15.81 one-way.  Of course, that would be different these days, since fuel costs, taxation and such would have grown considerably faster than the official rate of inflation.  But, there’s still a point to be made.

Popular tastes change.  People got tired of taking the streetcar when they could take their car instead.  So, the streetcars generally went away.  Popular tastes have changed back, with the streetcar becoming a sign of urban progress (and not so much as a sign of improved transportation).  We had it all and let it slip away.  And, we’re paying for it now.  While our elected leaders are dreaming of high speed trains, a more modest train with useful amenities such as Wi-Fi, conference rooms, light food and beverage service, which would be useful for those who travel between Columbus and Atlanta might be a real winner.  It won’t be as fast, but it will be just as useful at a much lower price.

cogmotor

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151572326Atlanta, Traffic

Everybody talks about Atlanta’s traffic problem, but nobody seems to be able to do very much about it.  The premise of this blog item is “What happens if you offer something so attractive that they willingly choose?”  That is to say, people are often forced to choose something and people resent being forced.  In recent years, commuting has become a forced choice.  Allow me now to discuss what if?

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MARTA Heavy Rail System - 2013

MARTA Heavy Rail System – 2013

In looking at the MARTA system map above, you will note that virtually all of the heavy rail system is within the limits of I-285.  There are possible explanations for this, such as here.  Regardless, the original concept of the MARTA system was regional in nature:

MARTA as originally conceived

MARTA as originally conceived

You will note the little arrows pointing outward from the center of Atlanta.  Atlanta wants to be the center of the world, but that is an opinion which is not shared by all.  And the mere mention of MARTA to those outside of I-285 often produces a visceral negative reaction.  Simply put, those outside of I-285 view MARTA as representing everything that is wrong.  And MARTA represents a path for bringing what is wrong into their communities.  So they resist being forced to accept this state of affairs.

Not that MARTA hasn’t helped things along by allowing the system to become hostile to its customers, but that is not a permanent condition.  There are indications that the new General Manager, Keith Parker, is taking steps to remedy this problem.  One example is a new “Ride with Respect” campaign to make the transit environment friendlier.  Another example is a new smart phone app that gives you not only schedule information but also real-time locations of trains and buses.  While this app may not have come from MARTA, the Authority has been willing to share its data, a turning point for them.  It’s going to take a while for this to soak in, and Fulton and DeKalb counties will benefit, but the problem of negative perceptions outside of I-285 will remain.

Wrong Direction

To me, the problem is that we have been thinking about this in the wrong direction.  Rather than having a system map which shows arrows going outward from Atlanta, we should actually have a system map which also has arrows pointing inward to Atlanta.  That is, rather than MARTA reaching out into the Atlanta region, the MARTA heavy rail system really should become a conduit for the region to reach Atlanta’s assets.  I’ll spare you the breathless Chamber of Commerce invective; we’re not talking about making Atlanta into the largest Stuckey’s in the world.  We’re talking about facilitating the region’s ability to conduct business.  We’re talking first about the Airport.  Then maybe the State Capitol, Georgia State and Georgia Tech.  Use your imagination.

What I’m suggesting is that the heavy rail system of tracks currently operated as “MARTA” should be opened up to rail vehicles from around the region.  Since the MARTA tunnels are designed for a certain size electrically powered train, any train traveling on MARTA tracks would have to fit within its standards.  At the same time, this approach allows different parts of the Atlanta region to customize their rail vehicles to meet their specific needs.

An Example

Consider a train leaving the airport, headed toward Doraville.  Externally, it looks like a MARTA train but is decorated in a different livery.  It could be up to eight cars long, and operates from electric power supplied by the third rail of the system.  Yet, this train has major differences from a MARTA train.  It is more like a conventional railroad passenger car, with coach seats and doors at the ends of the cars.  Each car has retention tank toilet facilities.  There might even be special cars with a conference room, a small lounge area that serves beverages and snacks.  This train makes only a few selected stops; say at Fort McPherson, Five Points, Peachtree Center, Arts Center, Lindbergh Center, then Doraville.

Arriving at the Doraville station, the train continues to the current end of track.  At that point, it couples to a conventional diesel-powered locomotive and disconnects from the MARTA third rail.  From there, this train continues on the Norfolk Southern tracks, making stops at Norcross, Pleasant Hill, Buford, Flowery Branch, Mundy Mill Road and finally Gainesville.

The costs for starting this service would be lower than for constructing a conventional transit right of way.  Since the Norfolk Southern right of way that this train would operate on already has passenger train service in the form of Amtrak, upgrading the railroad to accommodate commuter service would be less expensive.  While the Standard Gauge used by most railroads in North America is 4′ 8 1/2″, MARTA is supposedly 4′ 8 1/4“, but this is within the margin of error for railroad operations.

All of this is proven railroad technology, it is solely a matter of design and funding.  And the popularity of the idea.

Connection Points

In addition to the current end-of-track points for the different MARTA heavy rail lines, the MARTA system also has several expansion points which were incorporated at the time of initial construction.  They are located near Arts Center, East Point and Edgewood / Candler Park Stations.  The point near Edgewood / Candler Park Station could provide access to CSX tracks which lead to Tucker, Lawrenceville, Winder and Athens.  The point near the East Point Station, could provide access to NS tracks that lead eventually to Macon (this would be the vaunted commuter train to “Lovejoy, Georgia” that keeps rearing its head).

The MARTA Green Line could be extended to Cobb County, running down the middle of South Cobb Drive.  In this case, the “train” could be a self-propelled diesel railcar that also has electrical third rail shoes for operating on the MARTA right of way. The Green Line could also provide access to NS tracks that continue westward toward Birmingham; as with the Gainesville train, this trackage is also rated for passenger service.

Political Will

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of the recent TSPLOST referendum for the Atlanta region was that the transportation projects identified for funding by the tax were a melange of dribs and drabs.  There was no coherent plan, no larger vision.  In many cases, people were voting on projects for places that they did not know existed.  The voters recognized this and voted the tax down accordingly.  We keep looking for long-term solutions to our regional transit problem.  Perhaps this idea will get the political juices flowing toward a solution that is acceptable to the region.

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It is gratifying to see that there is active interest in building a new transportation station at the corner of Northside Drive and 17th Street.  Please see:

I could go on, but all of this is gratifying because it shows respect for both the railroad and bus passengers it would serve and the operating companies that would use it (Amtrak and Greyhound, among others).  It is gratifying because it is a logical location that would also result in improvements to the surrounding neighborhoods.  And, it’s kind of nice that the idea has caught on, years after it occurred to me.  Please see my blog of April 2009, here.

That said, I want to clarify a point that I made in that blog item of years ago.  In that piece, I suggested that we could use tunnels that had been built originally for the MARTA NW line.

MARTA Tunnels at I-85

MARTA Tunnels at I-85

I want to state clearly that I now think that this would be a bad idea.  It’s a bad idea because we can’t afford it.  Heavy rail construction, such as is MARTA, is very expensive and for any such construction to be financially feasible, it would have to travel much further than just to Atlantic Station.  That means the line would have to continue in a Northwesterly direction, which would take it into Cobb County.  Say what you will, a proposal to construct a MARTA line into Cobb County would meet with substantial resistance.  But there is another way.

Why not build a streetcar line between the proposed Amtrak Station and downtown Atlanta?

Atlanta Streetcar on Display

Atlanta Streetcar on Display

Some bright minds have already discovered Northside Drive.  Consider this study from Georgia Tech:

Georgia Tech’s Mike Dobbins is on to something.  Running with this thought, consider that the Northside Drive corridor between the proposed transportation station and downtown is an underutilized resource.  Building a streetcar line in this corridor makes much better sense than trying to hook the station into the MARTA heavy rail network.  The streetcar line would be cheaper and almost immediately start producing traffic revenue.  Such a line would pass by Georgia Tech, Coca-Cola headquarters, numerous student dormitories and connect with the now-under-construction streetcar line in downtown Atlanta.  Connecting to this car line would also offer access to streetcar storage and maintenance facilities.

Northside is wide enough to allow for such a construction project.  Tech Parkway could be adapted for streetcar traffic.  Luckie Street is underutilized.  Upgrading Northside Drive would also give the DoT something from their wish-list, rebuilding the Norfolk Southern Railroad’s overpass at Northside Drive, an ancient structure.

This is a remarkable opportunity for a city that wants badly to do something about transportation.  And, how long will it be before the Atlantic Station development begins calling itself Atlanta Station?

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