Guest post: We Need More Trains

A look at the Southeastern United States

Heya folks! I am in the process of moving from DC to Denmark. To fill in for me while I am preoccupied with my move, I have a series of guest posts. The first is from Joe James who is an editor and (irregular) contributor for Exponents. His point of view on improving intercity passenger rail in the United States is really interesting and cuts in the opposite direction of the “all high-speed rail all the time” party line of transit Twitter.

To start off,  I am not a transit expert or urban planning scholar. I’m just a guy who moved to a more public-transit-friendly area (the Washington, DC area) from a car-heavy state (South Carolina). Since moving here, I’ve not filled up my gas tank in almost two months and I’m seriously considering selling my car in the next couple of years. I never imagined I’d ride a train to work or take a strong interest in the logistics and viability of passenger rail until I moved here and now I’m borderline radicalized. 

I think there are lots of people who are just like me, who could be induced into riding trains for trips between cities of all sizes, and from that comes a ripple effect where people demand housing that’s close to train stations which will increase demand for walkable and dense cities, creating virtuous cycles for our economy, environment, and quality of life.

Many pundits agree with me and this has led to them preaching the virtues of building high-speed rail, and that has led some of them such as Matt Yglesias to turn their nose up on smaller, more practical, intercity rail projects. I think this is wrong-headed. 

I’ll spare you the rant about how Yglesias hasn’t checked the privilege of experiencing a high-quality rail system (being from New York, going to college in Boston, and living in DC) his entire life, but on a basic level, he’s wrong. If one has the goal of building and expanding passenger rail to help cities become denser and take cars off the road, helping the environment, high-speed rail will take way too long to build and be way more expensive relative to other rail investments. Just look at California

Alon Levy, who is a big HSR advocate, I would argue indirectly agrees with me when they go so far as to say that some HSR routes - like one to New Orleans - just aren’t feasible. And building on the already-decent northeast corridor would definitely be good, but most of the population in this country is moving South and will require non-car transportation options to prevent sprawl, protect the environment, and safeguard their quality of life.

To do this, we need to make non-HSR intercity rail (like Amtrak) faster, more convenient, and more frequent. And to start, we have to start subsidizing it more on the state level. To demonstrate this, let’s look at one of the failures of state-supported passenger rail

South Carolina’s Passenger Rail Failure

South Carolina has made the policy choice to be a passenger rail failure. Despite having three metro areas housing over 750,000 people each, lined up on interstate I-26, and not being more than 2 hours of a drive between them, you can’t get a train from any of them that takes less than 30 hours.

To be clear, Amtrak has a list of built-in disadvantages when it comes to why their trains run so slow. They don’t own the vast majority of the track they run on, which means they yield right of way to slow freight trains. But what makes South Carolina’s case study an egregious one is that, according to the Southeast Corridor Commission’s Southeast Rail plan, most of the tracks in South Carolina experience low daily freight volume (and none experience high daily volume-you can find the specific charge on page 34 here). The problem is not Amtrak, and it’s not even the rail infrastructure in South Carolina (though that needs improvement), it’s the state’s political will to support rail.

Amtrak doesn’t have a route connecting Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville because South Carolina doesn’t want them to create those routes. There could be one or two or three or more trains running from Charleston to Greenville every day (these lines would likely not inconvenience the rail companies that own the tracks). And though there aren’t tracks completely adjacent to I-26 (and so it would be slower than driving) and for the most part aren’t double-tracked, having this option would still make a positive impact. 

This includes alleviation of traffic on the interstate (which is already a problem), reducing the state’s carbon footprint, and creating a culture of train ridership that over the long term may create the political incentive for a better, faster passenger rail line in the Palmetto State. But South Carolina officials choose not to do this.

I bring up South Carolina for many reasons (it’s my home state and it’s egregious on passenger rail), but the main point is that South Carolina isn’t special. There are probably dozens of states that have similar low-hanging, passenger rail fruit that they could pluck and have huge impacts on the environment, congestion, and culture of ridership. But they choose not to.

Given the prohibitive costs and timelines of HSR, we should turn our political focus on this low-hanging fruit.

Make Passenger Rail As Fast As the Northeast 

At this point, Tom is tugging in my ear and telling me I need to share a map, so I’ll cut to the chase: what if we made passenger rail outside of the Northeast just as fast as it is in the Northeast? Or if we settled and just made it faster?

People don’t realize that the reason why high-speed rail is so expensive is that it requires building entirely new elevated infrastructure, which often requires environmental review and hassling with NIMBYs. 

But what they don’t realize is how slow Amtrak is, and how much cheaper it would be to fix. To make these gains you wouldn’t have to build entirely new elevated tracks, but update some surrounding safety infrastructure, double-track routes, and make other infrastructure investments. These improvements wouldn’t be overnight and they wouldn’t be free, but they would probably be cheaper, faster, and better than holding out for HSR or expanding another interstate.

To put these improvements in context, let’s understand some basic facts about Amtrak. If you open up their app and type in two destinations, the estimated speed of the train (outside of the Northeast) will usually be about 55 miles per hour.  The reason why this is is simple: for most tracks that Amtrak operates on outside of the NEC and some lines around the Chicago area, the speed limit is 79 miles per hour, which is only a few miles per hour faster than a well-paced drive (like myself). 

If we could increase the average Amtrak train speed to 79mph outside of the NEC (right now, many trains in the NEC go faster, though I have a hard time finding the specific average), you almost immediately make train travel speed competitive, and for long-distance trips (like South Carolina to Virginia) an immediate superior value (5 hour+ driving trips are awful). 

Notice, this proposal is not for high-speed rail. High-speed rail requires an elevated infrastructure supporting trains that go at least 125 mph. What I’m proposing is for higher-speed rail, reaching average speeds about 20-40 mph faster, perhaps at a 100 or 110 mph speed limit, to make passenger rail speed competitive with driving.

So without further ado, let’s finally get to the map part of this post to illustrate what the transit benefits would be if we “NEC”-ed the passenger rail infrastructure in the southeast.

Charleston to Greenville

Current Driving Trip ETA: 3.25 hours

Current Rail: Does Not Exist, but you can find it for 30 hours

79mph Average Amtrak train: roughly 3.25 hours on current tracks, assuming the route is Charleston-->Sumter-->Columbia-->Greenville

Charleston to Atlanta

Current Driving Trip ETA: 4.75 hours

Current Amtrak Rail: roughly 35 hours (seriously)

79mph Rail Average (current tracks exist from Charleston to Yemassee (SC) to Augusta (GA) to Atlanta at roughly 300 miles): roughly 4 hours.

Kingstree, SC to DC

Current Driving Trip ETA: 6.75 hours

Current Rail: roughly 8.5 hours

79mph Average: 5.75 hours

Note: it’s a similar distance from Savannah to DC as DC to Boston, which has an ETA of 7.5 hours driving and about 6.5 on an Acela.

Further note: While writing this post, I didn’t realize that the average trip from DC to Boston on Acela is actually slower than 79 mph. What’s interesting about this is that on the weekend before this post is published, I rode the Palmetto 89/90 from Alexandria to Florence. One thing I did not know or realize about Southern railroads is that they are for the most part in rural areas with few stops through similar towns as the NEC. On Sunday, the trip between Florence and Alexandria took 7 hours and 7 minutes (we were traveling at that 79ish mph speed limit for most of the trip - I checked with GPS tracking). By rail, Florence is only 30 minutes North from Kingstree. The fun thing about writing this post as a non-expert is that it’s frustrating and exciting. Frustrating because we are leaving so much on the table with passenger rail, and exciting because there are so many easy ways we could make passenger rail better in this country, without even trying with HSR.

If you found this interesting, you might also like my two-part series on high-speed rail between the northeast corridor and Pittsburgh or my map of where the Class I railroads are in the eastern half of the US.

Maps for the Getaway
Class I Railroads of the Eastern US
The second part of my two part series on connecting the North East Corridor with Pittsburgh, PA is going to be released in a few days. If you missed Part 1 it can be found here. To tide you all over until then, here is the track owned by each Class I railroad in the eastern US. I don’t really have a narrative or story here. I would like to point out how ……
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