High-Speed Rail

Southern High-Speed Advances

High-Speed Rail from Charlotte to Macon

Transportation officials from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia have released a report (PDF) considering the development of a high-speed rail segment from Charlotte, North Carolina to Macon, Georgia, via Greenville, South Carolina and Atlanta. The route would form the principal extension of existing plans for a Southeast High-Speed Rail corridor, which would run from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte, via Richmond, Virginia, and Raleigh, North Carolina, though another segment, from Raleigh to Jacksonville, Florida, via Columbia, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, is also being considered.Southeast High Speed Rail Network

The study, prepared by the Volpe Center of Cambridge, Massachusetts, evaluated several options, including diesel locomotives and electric trains, running at speeds from a modest 90-mph to a world-class 200-mph, with an assumed frequency of 6 trains a day. Improvements might range from upgrading of the existing one-track corridor for a 5.5 hour journey time, or the construction of a second track with 200-mph service, allowing for a 2.5 hour journey.

The cost of implementing such a proposal ranges from $1.7 billion for 90-mph service along the existing Amtrak route to $3.3 billion for 200-mph service along a new route paralleling I-75, which means that true, very high-speed service could be achieved at a relatively modest cost (compare that $3 billion to the $6 billion expected to be spent on the Dulles Metrorail extension) along a very important corridor connecting the South’s two most important cities, Atlanta and Charlotte.

But the study recommends a fast diesel train service, operating at 125 or 150-mph (presumably using something similar to the Bombardier JetTrain), costing $2 to $2.5 billion, and allowing for a travel time from Charlotte to Macon in 3.5 to 4 hours. The study concludes that this would be the most efficient use of the funds, because it would break even by 2030, unlike a 200-mph system, which wouldn’t do so until 2040 at the earliest. And a 3.5 hour travel time is a huge improvement.

But on such an important route – which would ultimately be part of a New York-Florida high-speed trunk line – shouldn’t we focus our efforts to make this the fastest, best-quality system we can muster? In an era of high gas prices and global climate change, shouldn’t we focus on developing our electric rail network, rather than continuing to use diesel locomotives?

No decisions have yet been made, but considering that North Carolina has no intention of utilizing electric propulsion in the first phase of the route, it seems unlikely that Georgia would implement it on the second, so if this project gets funded – itself an unlikely prospect – it will be a diesel, moderately-fast service.

Above: Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor, from report mentioned above

3 replies on “Southern High-Speed Advances”

Electrifying Virginia makes way too much sense not to do it, but with a do-nothing conservative as their head of state, it’s unlikely to happen. It could not be justified for HSR alone, but will dozens of commuter trains, a few other long-distance trains to Florida, along with many freight trains, the costs and benefits could be shared by multiple parties.

The VA Legislature has asked DRPT a couple of times to investigate electrifying Washington-Richmond. Each time DRPT has come back with “it’s too expensive.” And that has been under Democratic governors.

My assumption is that DRPT’s highest priority is to increase the capacity of the RF&P sub and doesn’t want electrification to distract from that priority. They put in an ARRA proposal to fully triple track from Alexandria to ACCA (quad track from the Long Bridge to Alexandria and lay new passenger only double track round ACCA), which would roughly double the passenger train capacity of the corridor (it’s a very heavy freight corridor already). And the substance of the ARRA proposal has found its way into the NEC Master Plan. If and when that construction is funded and takes place, I imagine DRPT will be open to considering electrification.

We will discover by August 6th whether Gov. McDonnell will prove “do-nothing” with respect to intercity rail. If VA resubmits its ARRA proposal (or some significant subset) against the $2.5B HSR pot (which this time will require matching state funds!), then we will have to think of him as a do-something governor. If not, not.

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