Is high-speed rail really feasible for Georgia?

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:

  • cheaper: a search Tuesday of fares two months from now found it was about $150 less expensive to go to London by train than by air; for Paris, the train was almost $700 cheaper;
  • faster: allowing for 90 minutes at the airport (to cover both check-in and deplaning) vs. 30 minutes at train stations, it’s 15 minutes faster to get to London by train than by plane; for Paris, the train saves you more than half an hour;
  • more convenient: train stations are generally closer to downtowns than airports are, and European train schedules often allow for as many or more departure times as airlines’ timetables do.

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):

ATL-BIR

ATL-JAX

ATL-LOU

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

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360 comments Add your comment

jconservative

June 27th, 2012
5:54 am

You convinced me.

Road Scholar

June 27th, 2012
5:56 am

Kyle did you factor in the stops the train would make? That may increase the duration of the trip by train.

Dbaj

June 27th, 2012
6:20 am

Kyle, One thing that makes train travel in Europe easier is that when you get to your destination, the public transit systems are SOOOOOOOOOOOOO much better over there than here. If you ride the train here, you would very likely still have to rent a car to get around where over there, you just get on the subway or bus and go where you want.

One thing public transportation advocates forget is you have to have the COMPLETE (trains, buses and subway) infrastructure for any of it to be feasible.

Something else that is different over in Europe than here in the US, communities themselves here are SOOOOO spread out compared to communities and city’s over there. When people live close together, like in Europe, public transit works.

jolliffe

June 27th, 2012
6:27 am

perhaps someone with the tech savvy could give us the co2 emissions per passenger by both
air and rail. I believe this is factored in to a lot of European planning, they seem to be a lot more concerned about global warming than we are in North America

Brent

June 27th, 2012
6:28 am

A true financial analysis of driving costs would include wear and tear on the car. A fairer figure would be 50 cents per mile

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 27th, 2012
6:33 am

{{”Is high-speed rail really feasible for Georgia?”}}

No. At least not at this time and not in the foreseeable future.

Now at a time in the seemingly distant future when rail travel may possibly become much more popular, high-speed rail may quite possibly become feasible for Georgia, a major problem right now is that rail travel and travel by transit just is not all that popular at the current time as there is virtually no base of existing local transit ridership to make long-distance and out-of-town travel by high-speed rail viable.

Instead of attempting to promote the feasibility of long-distance high-speed rail routes as an alternative to air travel, the state should be in the somewhat substantially long-overdue process of developing SELF-FUNDING (WITHOUT taxpayer subsidies) and FINANCIALLY SELF-SUFFICIENT regional commuter rail lines along existing rail right-of-ways and transportation corridors as a much-needed parallel peak-hour mobility alternative to crowded rush-hour and peak-hour severely-congested and often-gridlocked spoke freeway corridors in and out of the city (I-75 NE, I-75 S, I-85 NE, I-85 SW, I-20 E, I-20 W, etc).

Tanner

June 27th, 2012
6:48 am

Excellent work here.

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

June 27th, 2012
6:58 am

I think you answered your own question, didn’t you?

Ayn Rant

June 27th, 2012
7:10 am

By the way, Kyle. You should stop referring to Europe as the Old Continent. Take a close look at modern Europe: it’s shiny, clean, and new where it matters. The US is becoming quite shabby by comparison.

iggy

June 27th, 2012
7:31 am

I fail to understand the fascination/obsessions with the EuroTrash and their practices. See EU, Spain, Italy, Greece financial crises.

That being said. These high speed rail lines will be a bust, a waste and probably loss more money than Amtrak or other govt backed stupidly thought out programs.

Whirled Peas

June 27th, 2012
7:32 am

Ayn Rant, If you are suggesting we should be like Europe, you are just plain crazy. Europe has so much debt they are sinking in a sea of debt. Europe, as well as the US, needs to learn to live within its means.

Skip

June 27th, 2012
7:32 am

Whats a plane ticket cost for tomorrow, the two month discount is huge.

Dumb and Dumber

June 27th, 2012
7:37 am

Who cares if its economically feasible? Its not politically feasible and that is all that matters. GDOT needs to quit wasting its time playing with trains and change its name back to the Highway Department — that is all they have ever been and ever will be.

Whenever the State of Georgia gets involved in transit, it screws up. Look at GRTA for the last 10 years. Instead of creating a unified bus transit system for the suburbs (everything but Fulton and DeKalb) GRTA went into the transit business in direct competition with Cobb and Gwinnett Transit and MARTA. Its hard to imagine anyone on the left, right or center, who think that the State of Georgia should compete directly with local transit lines — but that’s what we have here. GRTA runs buses from Discover Mills, Cumberland, North Atlanta, etc., into downtown. And so does Gwinnett Transit, Cobb Transit and MARTA.

Under the TSPLOST — Cobb, Gwinnett, (and Clayton) will be getting millions to continue to compete with GRTA, which is also getting millions to compete with Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton and MARTA. The TSPLOST is going to make the balkanization of transit systems worse. Truly a dumb idea. All of this was pointed out to the folks under the Gold Dome, but they did not have the sand to deal with it.

To heck with high-speed rail. Figure out how to create a unified bus system and then, maybe, talk about commuter rail or high speed rail. But don’t hold your breath. That vision is lacking at GDOT, GRTA and the Gold Dome. (And yes, once you take a bus to Lawrenceville, you don’t have any way of getting around — its OK if you want to go to the mall, but that’s it).

Vote no on the TSPLOST and, by the way, enjoy your car.

Cosby

June 27th, 2012
7:54 am

Hmm..wonder how United Nations agenda 21 fits into the DOT plan

iggy

June 27th, 2012
7:55 am

And one more thing. The first high speed rail crash will have all the democrats up in arms, wringing their hands and spending billions more to improve safety. Just another boondoggle.

jd

June 27th, 2012
7:57 am

Kyle,

The cost of owning and operating an automobile involves much more than the price of gas. so — at 51 cents per mile, the allowable IRS rate, your cost of operating the vehicle is more like $150. Now, add your amortized cost of the highway infrastructure that you use to travel to Birmingham, and the opportunity cost of driving yourself versus time spent doing other things (like writing another column to earn additional cash) — and the true cost of transportation alternatives, from a rational economic point of view, becomes clearer.

@@

June 27th, 2012
8:10 am

“The Gulch”

Starting from a point of erosion?

JohnnyReb

June 27th, 2012
8:11 am

Great piece, Kyle.

So, high speed rail is not the thing to do. That means the same idiots who decided to make the Belt Line part of TSPLOST will try to put it in place.

Bob Loblaw

June 27th, 2012
8:12 am

@Dumb and Dumber: I’m trying to figure out which comments are dumb and which are dumber.

50 cents a mile is more accurate.

The comments about Europe having transit available from the train station is exactly why high-speed rail isn’t feasible in the South as of yet. Hooking up some big cities might bring changes in that regard, but exiting the station and standing on the curb with your suitcase is the image I see if I train it to Birmingham.

Tiberius - Banned from Bookman's and proud of it!

June 27th, 2012
8:16 am

I’m still trying to figure out why I’d WANT to go to Birmingham in the first place.

Tiberius - Banned from Bookman's and proud of it!

June 27th, 2012
8:17 am

Otherwise, the short answer to Kyle’s question appears to be “No”.

Thomas Heyward Jr.

June 27th, 2012
8:22 am

Wingfield spent to much time in Brussels…………the nation of meddlesome statist bureaucrats.
He was infected.
.
A Well functioning, consumer-driven,market-drivenpriced, Train system does not have to involve government.
.
When government DOES get involved………you have AMTRAK.(tax-payer slushed/subsidized ,1000 dollar ticket,three-day trip to Washington from Atlanta).
.
The tracks are already laid to J-ville, Savannah, Lousivile, or even L.A………..
Only Brussels-type government bureaucrats stand in the way.
.

DagnyT

June 27th, 2012
8:27 am

If you take the train to Birmingham at considerably more expense than driving, how do you get around town to see what you’d like to see? I lived there. Public transportation is not an option for a tourist. The only reason to go to Birmingham was to fly Southwest, but they’re here now, so why a train to Birmingham?

md

June 27th, 2012
8:31 am

Marta…..always in the red.

Amtrak….always in the red.

Half our airlines in bankruptcy…..

I don’t see how a piecemeal system of trains is going to be any different.

As for comparing to Europe…..different geography, density, ideology and mindset…..and if folks care to look they aren’t exactly in a position to pay for what they have either……it all comes at a cost and must be forever maintained……..

No artificial flavors

June 27th, 2012
8:39 am

Georgia is not ready until we are ready to heavily subsidize the rail infrastucture and fares. I would be ok with this is the results were visionary AND if the subsidies came not from new funds but from dollars used to add new lane miles of highway each year. However, most Georgians have never experienced anything but endless highway construction and are too resistant to change their menality about transportation. We cant even extend Marta for goodness sakes much less move along on the brain train from Athens to Atlanta along the 316 corridor. Georgia = transportation fail.

@@

June 27th, 2012
8:40 am

Europe seems to be a lot more concerned about global warming than we are in North America. Maybe so…but their concerns haven’t produced results.

When it was launched in 2005, the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) was hailed as a major step forward in the fight against climate change. Covering 12,000 power plants, factories, and other industrial facilities — and nearly half of EU CO2 emissions — it was the world’s largest cap-and-trade project to date. EU officials saw it as the first of many carbon-pricing schemes that would eventually cover the globe.

Six years later that vision is looking a little clouded. With the EU ETS accused of failing to reduce carbon emissions, countries outside Europe delaying companion cap-and-trade systems, and critics charging that the carbon-trading mechanism has opened the door to fraud, profiteering, and “gaming” by participants, serious questions have arisen about the future of the EU’s grand emissions plan.

A scheme, “in deed”.

iggy

June 27th, 2012
8:43 am

No artificial flavors

June 27th, 2012
8:39 am

You seem very intelligent. Please tell us more oh great Swahmmy…

StephenD

June 27th, 2012
8:44 am

Do the European rail systems get national tax support? If so, add that to your real costs for rail.
Hard rails, once installed, cannot be moved or rerouted easily if business takes a down turn. Buses can change their routes if the route is unfeasible. If you want to induce rail ridership, close the roads.
That said. unlike a private business, if a federal/state-owned business is headed for failure, gov’t won’t let it fail, so citizens will be taxed to prop up a political mistake.

@@

June 27th, 2012
8:45 am

A lousy economy is the solution to reducing CO2 emissions. Since Obama failed to initiate his Cap&Tax scheme, he’s implemented the next best solution…

a lousy economy.

schnirt

Rail fan

June 27th, 2012
8:48 am

I partially agree and partially disagree.

I think rail can work on some of the aforementioned routes, and those should come first. Ie, Birmingham and Chattanooga should come first because of their proximity and lower cost. GA should look at this incrementally, not as an either / or solution. It would be helpful to have an alternative travel option over flying, which often suffers weather delays, or the car, which is so often subject to awful congestion.

In addition, the expensive part is the construction. It would be smart to acquire the rights of way now, when the land is cheaper. The corridors can no doubt be used for something, if rail ultimately fails (power lines, gas pipelines, another highway, etc.)

iggy

June 27th, 2012
8:49 am

@@ 845 – Touche’

Vince Wilson

June 27th, 2012
8:49 am

Kyle Wingfield nailed this one. Very well thought out. I’m a transit/rail advocate, but I’m realistic also. For the reasons Wingfield mentioned and others, I agree that high speed rail probably would not work here. With more companies using video conferencing and other technologies to eliminate the need for travel, businesses (in addition to travellers) won’t need rail as much either.

Eyenstine

June 27th, 2012
8:51 am

The mindset of most Georgians doesn’t lend itself to change, therefore there’s no way a high-speed rail system would be profitable. Doesn’t seem to be too many forward thinkers in these parts. Remember back in the 80s, when Gwinnett County voters time and again shot down Marta expanding rail service to the county? Metro Atlanta citizens are the very reason we have virtual gridlock these days on our highways during rush hour. Over the past 20 years or so we haven’t asked, nay demanded, that our elected officials address and fix these problems. (But hey, at least we can take our guns into the airport, can’t we?)

Sorry, but I’ll be voting a big fat NO on proposed tax increase to support the GDOT plan that would require me to spend money to travel in lanes that my tax money went to build in the first place. Much too little, way too late.

Metro Atlantans made their bed, and now they can lie in for time immemorial for all I care.

finn mccool

June 27th, 2012
8:53 am

Build theouter perimeterfirst.

No artificial flavors

June 27th, 2012
8:57 am

Intelligent, yes I am. My question to you is are you ok with the status quo? If so, my point is proven. If not, what alternatives would you enjoy?

finn mccool

June 27th, 2012
8:58 am

Iggy, you ever hear of european countries called switzerland, belgium, germany, norway, sweden, denmark, hungary, serbia, croatia, france? Didn’t think so!

Cassie

June 27th, 2012
9:12 am

Pro for high speed rail:

I hate flying so much nowadays that I have severely curtailed my air travel and now fly only a few times a year. (I had basal cell carcinoma a few years ago – so as a reward for having had cancer, I get groped at the airport every single time. Yay!) High speed rail as an option would be very attractive.

Con:

What do you do for a car at the other end? Even as a tourist in Savannah, you can get more done with a car.

dennis

June 27th, 2012
9:16 am

It is si sad and boring to hear anti-rail highway zealots ask questions like this. Is sunshine in Georgia feasible? Is dinner in Georgia feasible? Is shopping in Georgia feasible?

Of course quality rail passenger transportation in Georgia is “feasible”. All this nonsense about density, our supposed addiction to cars, etc. is just so much nonsense. Check out populstion density in France between Paris and Lyon, between which one of the most successful passenger rail operations in the world travels — it is less dense than most US passenger corridors under discussion.

What kind of transportation system we have is just a matter of political choice — Europe chooses both rail and roads, asphalt lobby dominated Georgia thus far just chooses roads.

ByteMe

June 27th, 2012
9:16 am

Kyle, good job on providing details on this. I agree: rail for short-haul (within 4 hours drive time) and air for longer routes is the most efficient and cost-effective solutions. Dbaj is also right: having just rail is not enough if it dumps you on the edge of nowhere with few choices for getting around. So it should be part of a larger solution.

Rail to Charlotte/Birmingham/Nashville/Knoxville/Savannah and even the Gulf Coast makes sense… provided that what we’re really doing is providing a way to reduce the number of regional airports that require FAA and local funding.

iggy

June 27th, 2012
9:17 am

I will let you figure that out, oh great SoothSayer…Lead us to the land of “People moving Milk and Honey.”

A Realist

June 27th, 2012
9:20 am

So you are comparing the lowest ticket cost for air – and the average expected ticket cost for rail….
Sorry, that’s not an appropriate comparison.

Air is efficient for long distances, rail for medium, and automobiles for short.
That’s how the economics work out. Allowing the customer a choice, with alternatives, equally subsidized is an appropriate solution.

Rail pollutes less that air or automobile, and is more energy efficient – but that seems not to be important to those that think energy is an infinite resource.

I demand to see Cheesy Grits Birth Certificate- Long Form Please

June 27th, 2012
9:21 am

When government DOES get involved………

You get things like the US Interstate system. At least when its done right.

The system is named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who championed its formation. Construction was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and the original portion was completed 35 years later. The network has since been extended, and as of 2010, it had a total length of 47,182 miles (75,932 km).[2] As of 2010, about one-quarter of all vehicle miles driven in the country use the Interstate system.[3] The cost of construction has been estimated at $425 billion (in 2006 dollars),[4] making it the “largest public works program since the Pyramids.”[5]

Eric

June 27th, 2012
9:22 am

A few people have commented that they have no reason to go to Birmingham. There really isn’t anything to do in Atlanta either, so not much reason for them to go to Atlanta, surely the dullest huge city anywhere.

Stevie Ray...Clowns to my Left and Jokers to my Right here I am....

June 27th, 2012
9:22 am

Kyle,

I think the biggest issue is that the demand for these particular routes may not be sufficient for business model…if system included access to NYC, DC, Chicago et al…I think you got something…

iggy

June 27th, 2012
9:23 am

Finn, you can take all the choo choo trains rides you want in Duluth. Perhaps the EU could learn something from them.

http://www.srmduluth.org/default.shtml

ViewFromMidtown

June 27th, 2012
9:23 am

Funny how so many commentators (and the columnist) seem to forget (or conveniently ignore) that commercial air travel is heavily subsidized and yet is still consistently and historically unprofitable. Witness the recently enacted Georgia state tax breaks for airlines, just one in a long history of subsidies.

Highways are subsidized, expensive to build, highly in-efficient and underutilized (when looked at over the fullness of operating times, i.e. 24×7x365) and require continuing operations and maintenance costs, yet anti-train/transit zealots routinely ignore those facts while attacking transit on those same points.

No one is trying to force you to use mass transit (locally) or trains (regionally), but by preventing their existence and taking those choices away from others, you ARE forcing people to have cars and drive.

Don't Tread

June 27th, 2012
9:25 am

Atlanta-Chattanooga might work. Atlanta-Macon might work. Atlanta-Savannah and Atlanta-Birmingham is about the break-even point, I think. I’m not sure the ridership would make it cost effective.

Rail works in the Northeast (think Washington-New York-Boston area) due to the population density, and they have enough demand to keep it going.

Tiberius - Banned from Bookman's and proud of it!

June 27th, 2012
9:30 am

Midtown seems to forget that airlines are also highly REGULATED by government, which also adds to their fiscal woes.

A Realist

June 27th, 2012
9:31 am

When are you going to provide the average air ticket vs. average rail ticket prices?

Otherwise your comparison is not valid. (guess you flunked that stats course way back, huh?)

Grasshopper

June 27th, 2012
9:32 am

Well thought out piece Kyle. The train romanticists must be plotting their revenge.

I’d be interested in knowing how many people actually travel back and forth from Atlanta to Birmingham on a regular basis. I know none.

Is the thought that Birminghamians would use a train primarily to get to Hartsfield?