Charlie Harper: Georgia Passenger Rail A Big And Complex Hurdle

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

With the legislative focus on transit solutions for the metro Atlanta area, the topic of intercity rail throughout the state is also receiving renewed discussion.  It seems logical, as the discussion presenting the real potential of extending passenger rail beyond Atlanta’s inner core could lead to a network connecting Georgia’s smaller cities.

Discussion is easy.  Implementation is much harder.

There is a fundamental problem with how Georgia’s rail network is currently configured that impedes the development of both commuter rail and intercity rail.  Most of Georgia’s freight rail network run on a single track line with rail spurs.  In other words, if the rail line runs north to south, all of the northbound trains run for a while, then pull over to side spurs, and the southbound trains then run while the northbound trains are parked.  There’s a delicate ballet that runs all day, every day, to keep the freight moving.

This system works because freight is not as time sensitive as human passengers.  If freeway traffic cooperates, one can drive from Atlanta to Savannah in about 4 hours.  An express freight train will take about 12 to complete the same journey. 

Adding passengers to existing freight rails presents many challenges and ultimately may present a counterintuitive result.  Rail operators are highly reluctant to put passenger trains on lines carrying freight.  This weekend’s accident in South Carolina which killed two including a Georgia based engineer illustrates the unfortunate problem.  No matter how many safeguards are put in place, there is not a system that will not eventually fail.  While few will say it publicly, freight operators consider passenger trains on their tracks a detriment to overall safety.

Still, there are exceptions made, often with the state accepting liability to induce freight rail operators to allow passenger rail on their lines.  In earlier example of a north-south rail line, one would have to stop all freight traffic – both northbound and southbound – to let each passenger train pass. 

That’s the other reason freight operators don’t like passenger rail.  In order to move one train filled with people, the movement of freight – their main source of revenue – grinds to a halt.  The result is that it takes longer to move goods over already congested freight lines, pushing some freight back onto trucks. 

That counterintuitive result?  The passenger rail that is supposed to relieve traffic by taking cars off of the roads may actually put more trucks on it.  Done the wrong way, passenger rail could make traffic worse, not better.

That’s not to say that passenger rail will not be part of Georgia’s transportation plan going forward.  It’s merely a caution that it is neither a simple nor cheap proposition. 

Negotiations continue for MARTA to begin commuter rail operations through Clayton County on underutilized Norfolk Southern freight lines.  Most likely this line would avoid the problem of mixing freight and passenger rail by building parallel tracks to the freight rail. 

The City of Columbus has also begun the study of building a passenger line along I-85 to Atlanta with a stop for commuters in Newnan.  The plan would be to use existing freeway right of way in the median to get the train up to Newnan.  Acquisition of right-of-way from Newnan to Atlanta becomes exponentially more expensive however.  Other corridors such as the Northwest Corridor from Atlanta to Marietta and beyond are under discussion, but would require significant upgrades to the existing rail network in order to work for passenger rail operations. 

The final barrier that is often overlooked in expanding Georgia’s rail network is the condition and capacity of the existing freight network.  The state’s population growth and the rapid growth from Georgia’s ports has increased the demand for freight capacity significantly.  Even without adding passenger rail, much of Georgia’s freight network is in need of significant capital upgrades just to keep up with existing demand. 

Expect to see a significant bill aimed at improving Georgia’s rail network this session, using tax credits to encourage upgrades and deferred maintenance on Georgia’s rails.  This isn’t aimed at passenger rail, but to handle the freight we already have, and will have.

In short, passenger rail is part of the discussion for Atlanta and all of Georgia’s traffic solutions.  We need to understand that freight rail is not an insignificant component of Georgia’s road congestion issues, and that adding a network of passenger rail is not as easy as finding an open piece of track and adding more trains to it.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.