Wanted: The Ultimate Train Set

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

When I was a kid, there was one Christmas gift that was a constant on my wish lists. I was a big believer that Santa was to bring train sets.  The patron saint of elves in my workshop was Tyco.  Whatever train they were making that year was on the top of my list.

One of my earliest memories of Christmas was receiving my first train set.  I also remember not getting to play with it that morning, as I was too young to really do anything with it.  That, and my father and two uncles didn’t seem to understand sharing that day.  Trains, in reality, are toys for boys of all ages.

Deep down, most of us know this. It’s part of the reason there is great skepticism when a public rail initiative is announced.  Many remain unconvinced that roads aren’t a superior option over commuter rail or that modern flight doesn’t trump high speed intercity rail.

And so, when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed floated the idea of high speed rail from Atlanta to Savannah, it is easy to dismiss the idea of an adult, now in a position of great power, wanting a bigger train set for Christmas.  It should not be quickly written off as a wish list item.

A friend of mine sent me a news clip last evening announcing a new rail terminal to be built on the site of the old Charleston Navy Base.  The new intermodal rail yard will offer access to both Norfolk Southern and CSX, allowing both of the Southeast’s major rail carriers a state of the art facility to transfer freight from arriving ships at Charleston’s soon to be expanded port and distribute the goods throughout the Eastern United States and beyond.

Savannah is currently winning the race to get its port expanded before Charleston does, but that’s only for freight’s point of entry.  The next battle may very well be over improving rail access from the ports to major distribution centers.

Follow up emails with my friend discussed the current logistics of moving freight from Savannah to Atlanta.  Norfolk Southern’s freight traffic, for instance, has to navigate through a rail yard at Macon which generally adds two hours to the trip.  That’s not significant for an overnight freight run, but would be unacceptable for passenger rail, even if not state of the art high speed rail.

In short, our rail infrastructure is adequate but could use some improvement for freight traffic.  It is not ready to handle passenger rail.   It’s debatable if it is ready to handle significant increased traffic from an expanded port.

Our neighbors in South Carolina, however, are investing in upgrades.  They, at least at the Charleston port, are getting their new train set.  We, always interested in the game of competitiveness, need to pay attention to make sure we aren’t left behind.

As such, a major review and possible upgrade of our rail infrastructure is warranted.  Yet freight traffic is generally considered dull and unlikely to inspire the imagination of a large number of Georgians, despite the critical nature it represents in Georgia’s logistics backbone.  Passenger rail, on the other hand, is something people can relate to.  Leaving Atlanta and rushing by the I-75 bottleneck in Henry County to arrive in Savannah just over an hour later is not only relatable, but something average Georgians could add to their Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and Summer wish lists.

Governor Deal said after July’s T-SPLOST defeat that rail was off the table for the foreseeable future, yet plans continue for a huge, multimodal facility adjacent to Five Points in downtown Atlanta.  Mayor Reed will need some trains to make this project worthwhile.

Governor Deal is interested enough in the Port of Savannah expansion that he appointed his longtime friend and business partner Ken Cronan to the board that oversees the port.  The Mayor and Governor, who worked closely together on T-SPLOST and Savannah Port funding before taking opposite sides in the Presidential race, have again pledged to work together on items that benefit the state.

A Republican Governor from North Georgia and a Democratic Mayor from the state’s largest city wouldn’t always have ties that bring them together.  But the line that links the two may well one day have high speed trains running along it, if they can make their wish lists come true.


  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “Leaving Atlanta and rushing by the I-75 bottleneck in Henry County to arrive in Savannah just over an hour later is not only relatable, but something average Georgians could add to their Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and Summer wish lists.”

    But that’s the problem with this discussion of high-speed intercity passenger rail service directly between Atlanta and Savannah…That the discussion seems to totally disregard any much-needed action to ALLEVIATE the daily bottleneck on I-75 in Henry County in the form of long-overdue and still non-existent commuter rail service south of Atlanta.

    Instead, the conversation has unexplanably and illogically jumped straight to talk of spending billions of dollars in already severely scarce transportation funding to construct an intercity passenger train line that will only be used by casual travelers for the occasional weekend or holiday trip to Savannah and the Georgia Coast, if that.

    Though I do agree with the emerging need for an upgrade to accommodate high-speed FREIGHT RAIL service between Atlanta and one of the fastest-growing seaports on the planet at the increasingly busy and logistically-important Port of Savannah.

    Heck, if we’re going to talk about high-speed rail between Atlanta and Savannah, the conversation should be starting with serious talk of upgrades to accommodate high-speed (or at least much higher-speed) FREIGHT rail service in that corridor, which would help take many of the freight trucks off the road that contribute to the daily traffic cluster**** that is I-75 south of Atlanta.

  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “Many remain unconvinced that roads aren’t a superior option over commuter rail”

    …But rush-hour parking lots (roads) ARE a superior option over commuter rail! Haven’t you noticed? Just take a peek at any Atlanta-area expressway or major surface road (and many minor ones, too) during rush hour and you’ll see!

  3. saltycracker says:

    Savannah – Atlanta is a freight route.
    Passenger train routes along high density corridors might be eligible for discussion (see I-75) but Savannah ? Not even Mega Bus runs Savannah – Atlanta .

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    Incremental supporting freight rail infrastruture improvements associated with Savannah Port traffic have been progressing with public support, but without fanfare. An extended and improved NS passing siding, a public private partnership between NS and the local Development Authority, was recently dedicated at McIntyre. (McIntyre was a bottleneck because NS’ single main track was being blocked many hours each day switching, spotting and marshalling cars for local kaolin industries.) I understand NS is considering other siding extensions / improvements along its Macon-Savannah line at Millen or Rocky Ford.

    Also, it’s my understanding one of two new railroad connections in Savannah will be completed in the near future. (I’m guessing it’s not been completed because I haven’t seen anything, even a small mention, in the AJC.) The new connections will knock off on the order of an hour’s rail travel time for NS (but not CSXT) intermodal traffic between Savannah and Atlanta (and between Savannah and everywhere else for that matter, as Savannah is an end-of-the-line within the NS network).

    One new Savannah connection will shorten the rail route between the Port’s Mason Intermodal Yard and the main track. The distance the route is shortened is only a few miles, buts there’s significant travel time savings because the new route bypasses slow speed track (some 25mph but mostly 10mph track) and also congested Central Junction, where two CSXT and one NS lines cross each other at grade.

    The other new Savannah connection complements the first. It enhances yard access and yard operational flexbility. The project may include an increase in Intermodal Yard capacity, or if it doesn’t, it’s being undertaken in part in aniticipation of a relatively new future increase in Intermodal Yard capacity. One of the reasons the Savannah Port has been so successful and fast growing has been timely improvements and capacity increases (all modes – water, rail and highway), most visibly being exemplified by Savannah being ahead of other eastern ports with respect to channel deepening.

    NS has also recently made improvements to and increased rail traffic on its Atlanta-Macon line through Griffin. That line was used by only a few trains a day serving only the line’s local customers in the 1990’s and 2000’s. (Indeed traffic was so light that there was discussion of Georgia purchasing it from NS in the 1990’s when US railroad downsizing was in full swing.) The improvement and new traffic are a result of congestion on the NS Atlanta-Macon line through McDonough. (It’s not only highways that are increasingly congested.)

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