Passenger Rail for Georgia

Attention to high-speed rail in the United States has picked up recently with the inclusion of funds for it in the newly signed stimulus bill. I've been exploring high speed rail plans in my corner of the country, and passenger rail in general, since reading JH Crawford's book Carfree Cities.

appropriate modes of transportation for given distances

appropriate modes of transportation for given distances

As a form of passenger transport, rail can easily be the lowest energy per passenger-mile requirements. The 2008 US Transportation Energy Data Book places rail third (after van pools and motorcycles), but this is due to dismal ridership rates. It cites an average number of passengers per train at 24, which is less than even a bus can carry. Raising it to a mere 50 passenger average easily puts rail back at the top of the efficiency list (keep in mind that a typical train has capacity for 800 passengers). Also consider that new technologies and lighter materials can make the trains more efficient as well.

Rail also takes up far less land as compared to the multilane highways we rely on now to move large numbers of people (which, incidentally, typically do not move as many people as quickly as a well run rail line). And electrification of rail lines opens up the possibility of powering trains with renewable energy sources, compounding rail's climate and pollution advantages.

To get a drastic reduction in car-dependence for urban dwellers, you have to consider alternatives that provide reasonable autonomy and efficiency in place of automobiles. The good news is that in appropriately dense cities, and getting between them, rail provides a very good option.

 appropriate modes of transportation for given distances

current high-speed corridor plans

In Georgia, there is very little passenger rail service. Inner metro-Atlanta has MARTA, and there are all of two meager passenger rail lines run by Amtrak: one in the north, and one along the coast. The passenger rail options only directly serve two of Georgia's 10 most populous cities. Plans for extending MARTA to Atlanta's outer suburbs have stalled time and again. There are thousands of commuters into Atlanta, Augusta and Georgia's other largest cities that have no viable alternative except to wade their way through traffic jams day in and day out.

There is a set of nationally designated high speed rail corridors proposed for Georgia. However, I feel that there are real problems with Georgia's current rail plans:

  • The high speed rail only serves three of the state's top 10 most populous cities. It seems to avoid Athens (Georgia's 5th most populous city) on its way from Greenville, South Carolina to Atlanta for the sole reason of reusing the right-of-way already established by the current Amtrak route.
  • It makes a stop in Jesup, with a population of 9k per the 2000 census. Again, there's existing infrastructure here (an Amtrak station), but high speed rail benefits from as few stops as possible, so you want to make those stops count.

Atlanta was founded as a rail-town. Certainly Georgia ought to be able to reclaim some of its legacy by building a modern passenger rail system for its citizens.

better serving urban population centers

Georgia's most populous cities

Atlanta: 519,145

Augusta: 192,142

Columbus: 188,660

Savannah: 130,331

Athens: 112,760

Sandy Springs(1): 97,898

Macon: 97,606

Roswell(1): 87,807

Albany: 76,939

Alpharetta(1): 65,168


Johns Creek(1): 62,049

Marietta(1): 58,478

Warner Robins(2): 48,804

Valdosta: 43,724

Smyrna(1): 40,999

East Point(1): 39,595

North Atlanta(1): 38,579

Rome: 34,980

Redan(1): 33,841

Dunwoody(1): 32,808

(1) exurbs of Atlanta  (2) exurb of Macon

Part of the dilemma with providing effective rail service in Georgia is that the population is so spread out. The term "exurb", denoting the ever-expanding tracts of suburban living farther and farther from urban centers, could do with no better example than the metro-Atlanta region. Per 2007 figures (via Wikipedia), the city-proper of Atlanta is home to 519 thousand people, while an additional 4.8 million reside in the metro area, an area 62 times larger than the urban core. If where I live in Athens is any indication, even within the urban boundaries of most of Georgia's largest cities, the living arrangements are much more suburban than urban, making car ownership a near-necessity and hurting the chance for effective, ubiquitous public transit.

Riddle me this: is it easier to convince more than 100 thousand people to relocate their city to be closer to existing rail structure, or to put down new rail lines that would better serve existing urban centers? This is the question regarding the designated high-speed rail corridor currently proposed traveling from Greenville, South Carolina to Atlanta, bypassing Athens. First, consider that high speed trains can't use existing cargo rail; they will likely require upgraded or entirely new track to achieve the speeds desired, so the only real loss rerouting through Athens would be the existing right of way, not the actual infrastructure.

Next, consider that Athens is home to the University of Georgia, with a student body 34 thousand strong. Student populations typically both have low car ownership numbers but are also highly mobile as they travel regularly between home and school. I expect that a high speed rail link into the Atlanta Airport (and Atlanta nightlife), as well as to cities beyond Georgia, would be most welcome and heavily used by students. This, paired with more ubiquitous public transport within Athens, would likely encourage more students to forego bringing cars to school; increasing safety, reducing pollution and the ever-expanding need for parking space. It might also alleviate the immense floods of traffic that converge on Athens whenever the UGA football team has a home game. Now also consider that all but one of Georgia's most populous cities have significant student populations.

In order to maximize use of inter-city trains (high speed or otherwise) each destination city ought to prioritize improving their public transportation within the city. In turn, public transportation benefits from denser city structure. Making it easy to walk or bike from home to a transit stop, or from a transit stop to a destination, increases the chances that people will choose transit over personal cars. It is also an endorsement for mixed-use zoning, which brings destinations of all kinds closer to hand.

of population and density

What is a Car Free City?

In this section I refer several times to the urban design specified in the book Carfree Cities by JH Crawford. Essentially it calls for high-density, mixed-zoning districts strung out in a transit-oriented city topology. For more background, visit the carfree cities website, or take a look at how I mapped this idea onto Athens, GA.

If I had a free hand to reshape Georgia urban and transportation policy to get as many citizens car-free as possible, it would look something like this. First, I am going to advocate that all designated cities follow something approximating the reference design from the Carfree Cities book. To determine which cities ought to receive this treatment, we need to look at some population and labor numbers.

Of the 9.7 million people living in Georgia, over half of them live in the metro Atlanta area. The reference design suggests a population of 1 to 3 million per city; Notice that in the top cities table above many of the designated cities are actually exurbs of Atlanta. To fit the 5.3 million metro-area residents, well designate 3 "sister-cities" linked by an intercity rail loop as Crawford advocates when dealing with populations larger than is practical for the reference design. On a whim I've named the new sister cities after the counties where they reside, but you could also call them collectively ""Atlanta"; and consider each sister-city a borough, similar to how New York City is organized.

3 cities for Atlanta leaves some room for population growth. We'll look at the rest of Georgia in the same light. I've chosen to designate 10 cities for the 9.7 million residents. But not everyone will live in these cities. Some will live in more rural environs, either by choice or as required by their vocation.

From the categories listed in the Georgia Department of Labor 2004 statistics I've gleaned that only 11.9% of jobs in Georgia do not work well in an urban environment (Agriculture and Mining; I've also lumped in Manufacture, to take into account that this may include heavy industry that you would not want in a human-scale city). So, understanding that jobs and population count are not a 1:1 relationship, using a naive model we can start by mapping 12% of the population to the countryside, and count on 88% of Georgians to live in our 10 cities.

These numbers need some padding, though. First, we need to consider that if Michael Pollan is right, we're going to need a lot more hands on the land in order to produce our needed food crops. There are also plenty of jobs that need to be filled in small towns to support non-urban workers. I don't have a good sense of this, but lets take a stab and say that 20% of Georgians will live outside of cities, leaving us with 7.8 million urban residents.

With 10 cities on my map, that gives us a lot of head-room -- anywhere from 2.2 million to a whopping 22.2 million new people. Now, even considering that 2008 estimates of state population indicate Georgia gained 1.5 million new residents since 2000, this is probably excessive. But you will see that I chose to designate cities that are already well-established as major population centers, distributed across the state. The Carfree Cities model speaks of 2 million as a comfortable size and 3 million as a practical upper bound for the reference design; cities can grow into the model by adding districts or transportation loops as merited by population count.

revised rail corridors

So, back to rail. The map here identifies 8 cities across the state as major urban centers. The Atlanta area gets split into three cities to handle the burgeoning population there, bringing the total number of car-free cities to 10. The blue lines are what I feel are a better routing for the currently proposed high speed rail corridors. I've eliminated Jesup as a stop on the coastal route, and included Athens in the Northern Route from Greenville, South Carolina to Atlanta. I've also suggested we extend the inland route up to Memphis, Tennessee, another major urban center and destination in its own right.

I've assumed that it would also be necessary to include a more local service along these same rights of way, though probably not using the same tracks. Particularly while Georgia transitions away from suburban sprawl, and eventually to service towns that support rural vocations, a local service will be needed to make rail available to a larger number of stops than is practical with high speed rail.

Aside from the intercity ring between the three Atlanta sister-cities, the black rail lines represent rights of way and local passenger service between Georgia's other urban centers. Eventually it would be good to see high speed lines laid down along these routes as well.

The speed advantages of high speed rail over car travel for the distances here are significant. 200km/h represents the lower bound of typical high-speed train speeds around the world, and more countries are starting to run trains at 300km/h or greater. I see no reason we should not have the ambition to operate the world's most effective public transit systems in this country.


Transportation is a major element of national infrastructure in any nation. A good metric for setting national priorities is serving the broadest number of people. Among the various transportation options, public transit clearly meets this criteria. Road-building only provides transportation to those who have enough wealth to afford the large up-front costs of purchasing a vehicle, and the ongoing costs of fuel, maintenance and insurance. As we're seeing right now, easy credit isn't an answer to closing that gap either. And even could the economic hurdles be overcome, broadening the availability of car ownership to everyone runs up against environmental limits -- air pollution, increased storm-water runoff from more and wider roads, and global warming.


A recurring complaint about passenger rail in this country is that it seems impossible for Amtrak to make a profit. Consider, however, that the subsidies that go to rail programs are a pittance to the hidden subsidies propping up road and air use. The airlines do not solely fund the construction and maintenance of airports; States and the federal government care for the roads as the public good that they are. And yet somehow we expect rail to be self-sustaining. It is good to see signs that this country is starting to take rail travel more seriously; it is yet to be seen whether this will turn into a sustained commitment, or merely a brief dalliance with sound transportation policy.