Multimodal passenger terminal

By David Ibata

Much hand-wringing by transit advocates followed the Norfolk Southern’s recent letter to the state that high freight volumes precluded commuter trains using its tracks to reach downtown Atlanta and a proposed multimodal passenger terminal (MMPT). But was that the final word? A railroad official and a transportation consultant give their thoughts.

More trains, tough choices for region

By John H. Friedmann

Regardless of whether you think more passenger trains for Atlanta is a good idea, a shared understanding of a few key facts is critical to the discussion about a downtown multimodal passenger terminal. Norfolk Southern would be pleased to work with developers and the state on the project, recognizing some geographic realities up front:

* Atlanta has a single rail corridor used by both Norfolk Southern and CSX through the downtown Gulch area. Every freight train that can’t go through this corridor means 250 to 400 more trucks on Atlanta highways.

* The downtown rail corridor is hemmed in by development, limiting land for new tracks for passenger trains.

* MARTA construction in the 1970s used up a lot of railroad right of way, meaning less vacant land is available now.

Norfolk Southern has worked hard to grow its business in Atlanta and throughout the country, and our routes here are busier than ever. Our freight volume through downtown Atlanta has grown by 78 percent in the last 30 years. Since 2001, Norfolk Southern has invested $162 million in new Atlanta-area terminals and tracks for handling the growing traffic. All that new freight uses the same century-old right of way, which is more constrained now than ever.

That’s why Norfolk Southern lacks capacity for new passenger trains inside Atlanta’s perimeter. Can new capacity be created? Sure, with tough choices about new passenger rights of way and public investment. Those choices should be part of any discussion about the MMPT.

Norfolk Southern is optimistic about growing our business by taking trucks off of Georgia roads. We have worked with the state, the Georgia Ports Authority, and local economic development agencies to improve our routes to the ports of Savannah and Brunswick so freight can move by rail — mostly through Atlanta. To handle growth, we’re making our trains longer, heavier and even higher by stacking containers two-high on our trains.

Atlanta sits astride Norfolk Southern’s Crescent Corridor, an award-winning public-private partnership that is working to move a million trucks a year from the roads to the rails. Norfolk Southern employs nearly 5,000 Georgians, and we are hiring more to move our freight trains.

Norfolk Southern is working with planners on 38 active passenger rail projects in 17 states. And Norfolk Southern will work with planners in Georgia to see what is possible in or around Atlanta. But any planning for the MMPT must answer the basic question of how passenger trains will get there. Not doing so would be akin to designing terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport without considering the runways.

John H. Friedmann is vice president of strategic planning for Norfolk Southern Corp.

Railroads must be partners in projects

By Doug Alexander

A tempest has been brewing among politicians, planners, activists and advocates over a letter recently sent by Norfolk Southern Corp. to the Georgia Department of Transportation. The letter outlined the railroad’s position on the long-proposed and hesitantly proceeding multimodal passenger terminal, or MMPT, to be built near the sites of the late Terminal Station and Union Station in the heart of downtown Atlanta.

Rail traffic in Atlanta has been growing steadily as the economy has improved. Both Norfolk Southern and CSX, its main competitor in the South, have been making significant investments in their plants in and around Atlanta and the state to accommodate this growth.

According to the Association of American Railroads, 10.3 million truckloads of freight are moved by rail into, out of and through Georgia every year. If the Port of Savannah is deepened as is hoped and bigger cargo ships come to eastern ports instead of off-loading on the West Coast, freight moved through Georgia and Atlanta could increase exponentially. The railroads know that without new capacity, rail traffic in Atlanta could become as congested as I-285 at rush hour. Sticking passenger trains into that scenario would be a losing proposition for everyone.

With this in mind, Norfolk Southern told GDOT that while it had no objection to the development of the MMPT itself, the state and city should not expect that the railroad will be able to allow access to its tracks for commuter and/or intercity trains to use the facility. There just won’t be enough room on its rails in Atlanta to move its own freight and state-sponsored passenger trains through the center of the city.

The response to this announcement was predictable. The railroad was accused of having a “bad attitude”; it lacked “concern” for the city, and it was just bring ornery. Some wailed that the hopes and dreams for downtown Atlanta’s future were ruined.

Railroads are not insensitive to public opinion. But those who represent the public first must understand that railroads are primal capitalistic creatures; their First Priority is the health of their bottom line. Railroads exist to serve their customers, not politicians or planners or activists or even cities, states or the nation.

Built and operated with private capital, railroads often avoid public funds and all the strings that come with them. Yet when they are convinced that a public project can benefit their First Priority, railroads have been known to become excellent partners in bringing public projects to fruition.

Norfolk Southern’s letter does not close the door. It is instead an opening gambit. The railroads have long lists of things they want so they can serve their customers efficiently. Public funds may not only help the railroads ease their congestion issues, but they may also “pay the price” for future access for passenger trains.

But for that to happen, politicians, planners and activists need to start talking with the railroads, rather than at them as they often do. It’s hard to do, but necessary. The future depends upon it.

Doug Alexander is an Atlanta-based transportation and  policy consultant.

4 comments Add your comment

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June 25th, 2013
6:54 pm

Nobody wants to pay the REAL cost of roads either. That is why they are paid for with tax dollars, just like rail would be.

Whether people choose rail ultimately only comes down to price and time. If they can come up with a commuter rail system that gets people where they want to go in a competitive amount of time and for a competitive price relative to driving, it will succeed.

The problem with MARTA is that it tries to be both a commuter rail and an inner city transit system and doesn’t really successfully do either one. In cities with working public transit, the commuter rail serving the suburbs and the transit system serving the city proper are usually separate entities (like the MTA and LIRR/NJ Transit in New York, or the T and the commuter rail in Boston).


June 25th, 2013
3:45 pm

Political decisions cannot override the laws of economics. If passenger service though the corridor was viable it would already be in place. Government intervention into transportation issues beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s abuse of power on behalf select railroads over others in the mid 1800s has guaranteed that the market forces that create better products and services for lower cost would never be operational in this sector. Now in 2013, with electric rail destroyed by local city councils in favor of big-3 automaker buses, federally-subsidized interstate highways, and various zoning regulations they are trying to made something functional out of the impossible.

There are no customers willing to pay the REAL cost of rail service. Only through subsidies and the like will anything even remotely functional be feasible and the tradeoff is more polluting trucks and more congested highways. Freight by train is probably the most energy and cost-efficient means of transit on land there is. Only the government could look at this efficiency and want to screw it up by demanding more empty passenger trains instead.


June 25th, 2013
2:21 pm

I’m sure if a demand were to exist for viable passenger rail service these companies would be willing to work with the state and local authorities to make it happen. After all it would mean more profits and a higher profile image for the organizations.

However, I’m still a little fuzzy on who the passenger will be. While I can see the benefit to expanded MARTA service I’m just not sure there’s a big demand for passenger rail service outside the Metro-Atlanta area. For instance a trip to Savannah would mean driving or taking MARTA to the Atlanta rail station, a few hours on the train, a shuttle to the rental car lot and then a drive to your hotel. The reality is most folks can make that trip faster and cheaper in their car.