The Georgia DOT recently declared “feasible” three passenger-rail routes from Atlanta to other Southern cities: a straight shot to Birmingham; a line to Louisville via Nashville; and a line to Jacksonville via Savannah. While these plans do not directly relate to the T-SPLOST, they are very relevant to the multimodal transit hub planned for “The Gulch” in downtown Atlanta. But how feasible are these routes, really?
I’ll not comment today on the cost and ridership estimates, except to say the former are almost always too low and the latter almost always too high. What I want to examine is whether the routes are likely to be attractive to passengers at the prices DOT projects for each.
First, a brief detour to Europe. The Old Continent’s high-speed rail system is the aspiration of many an American train fanatic, and I’m quite familiar with it from my time living there. In 4.5 years I traveled from Brussels to London maybe a dozen times and to Paris seven or eight times — always by train. I never even considered flying (or driving, for that matter) because the train was:
So, would high-speed rail from Atlanta to nearby cities be as attractive for passengers?
The GDOT study estimated only ticket prices, not travel times — although we can take some guesses at times based on distances and possible speeds. The tables below show the lowest nonstop, round-trip airfares I could find for each city pairing, for a long weekend two months from now, compared to the midpoint of GDOT’s estimated prices for a round-trip. To calculate the one-way travel times, I used the average speeds, including stops, for: Amtrak’s Acela line in the Northeast corridor (70 mph); the Eurostar train from Brussels to London (117 mph); and the Thalys train from Brussels to Paris (146 mph). It is highly unlikely we would see trains exceeding those average speeds in these three corridors — and remember: the faster the maximum speeds, the higher the capital costs. Then I added 90 minutes to the air travel times and 30 minutes to the rail travel times, as described above, to account for the time spent in the airports or train stations.
With those explanations, here’s what we get (best options are in bold-face):
As you can see, with the exception of Atlanta-Birmingham, the situation is almost opposite that in Europe. (I would note that the current Amtrak service from Atlanta to Birmingham, while even cheaper at $74 round-trip, takes a whopping 282 minutes each way.)
For the latter two routes, air travel is at least as cheap and fast as rail could hope to be. One caveat is that these timetables do not factor in travel time to the airport vs. a train station, because that would be different for each traveler. For a number of people, getting to and from a train station faster could offset some of the time advantage for air travel.
Of course, it’s one thing to buy a plane ticket or a train ticket — and something different altogether if driving is an option. For each of the above tables, driving would be roughly equivalent to rail with an average speed of 70 mph and much slower than rail at the higher speeds. But price would be very different: Even at $4/gallon for gasoline (in a car that gets 25 mpg), you’re talking about spending just $48 round-trip to Birmingham, $118 to Jacksonville, and $134 to Louisville. And that price covers everyone who can fit in the car, whereas each passenger would need their own ticket for air or rail travel. A family of four probably wouldn’t even consider spending more than $1,000 to take the train to Jacksonville when it could spend $118 on gas — and have their car with them, making it easier to get around once they’ve arrived.
There wouldn’t appear to be much flexibility for adjusting the rail prices. At those prices, and given GDOT’s ridership projections for 2020 through 2040, each line would just cover its estimated annual operations and maintenance costs. Given that the cost estimates are probably on the low side, and the ridership projections on the high side, it’s more likely the train fares would have to be higher just to break even. And by “break even,” I am not even talking about covering the tens of billions of dollars in capital costs for the three routes — this, at a time when we are having a major debate about how to allocate the $7.2 billion the T-SPLOST could raise for transportation.
Perhaps shorter segments of the proposed routes — maybe Atlanta to Nashville instead of Louisville, or to Savannah instead of Jacksonville — would be more competitive with air or auto travel. Given the foregoing, however, it’s hard to imagine high-speed rail being a wise use of our limited transportation dollars.
– By Kyle Wingfield