Saturday, February 21, 2009

Envisioning a New Rail Hub for Atlanta: Part III

This is the final entry in a series looking at conflict between Amtrak and Atlanta's proposed Beltline. Part I looked at the context. Yesterday, I considered the conflict. Today, I look at solutions that will result in a win for everyone.

Part III: Solutions
The Gulch & The MMPT
As I pointed out yesterday, there are some issues that must be resolved between the different parties, however solutions are possible that will result in a win for everyone. The situation is difficult because of the shape of Atlanta's rail network. The map below shows the location of the currently proposed Multimodal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) in relation to Atlanta's former railway terminals. Despite having a Union Station, Atlanta never actually had all of its trains under one roof. The stations were several blocks apart. With a multitude of railways serving the city, it was difficult to locate a station convenient to all.

Both of the stations were demolished in 1972 after their passenger services ceased. The larger of the two was The Terminal. It was one of the flagship stations of the Southern Railway. Constructed in 1905 and served the Southern, Seaboard Airline, Atlanta and West Point, and the Central of Georgia. The tracks at the station were oriented in a north-south manner.

Several blocks north, was Union Station. This station's tracks were located east-west, parallel to Marietta Street. Although it's name suggested a larger operation, the station only served 3 of Atlanta's 7 railroads. Trains from the Georgia Railroad, the Atlantic Coast Line, and the Louisville and Nashville called at Union Station.

Since the mid-1990s, the Georgia Department of Transportation has proposed building a facility in Downtown Atlanta to handle all of Atlanta's ground transportation needs. Located along Forsyth Street, the proposed Multimodal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) is directly across the street from Five Points, the hub of the MARTA subway system. This MMPT would handle all Amtrak services, any commuter rail services that come about, and all regional and intercity bus services.

Dealing with the Conflict
In relation to the Beltline, the design of the MMPT is very important. With east-west platforms, which are all that is currently proposed, the Crescent can only serve the station two ways, assuming it continue to run on a New Orleans-Birmingham-Atlanta-Charlotte-New York routing. Amtrak's preferred method is for the train to diverge from its current routing at Armour Yard, traverse the Decatur Belt (Northeast segment of the Beltline), pass through the MMPT, and then return to its current routing along the western trunk.

An alternative approach for the Crescent would have it arrive from and depart to the north. It could follow its current routing to the wye near the waterworks, turn south along the trunk line and pull into the MMPT from the northwest. To depart, the train would back toward the south before switching to a northbound track. Returning the same way it came, it would return to its present route at the wye next to the waterworks.

I pointed out yesterday; Amtrak has an aversion to backing trains. Many cities’ grand terminals and convenient downtown stations have faced the axe because their location would require trains to reverse out of them. This policy is what has created the fight over the Beltline. I’m not sure if this conflict would be solved by having a switcher engine in Atlanta to pull the Crescent out of the station and around the wye.

Another alternative approach, which I suggested yesterday, would be to reroute the Crescent to New Orleans over its original routing through Montgomery. For this route, the MMPT would require north-south platforms, but that’s probably a necessity anyway if Atlanta is ever going to have a decent commuter rail network.

In order to maintain service to Birmingham and Meridian, I propose reinstating the Southerner, merged with the Crescent in 1970, to run from Atlanta to New Orleans over the current route of the Crescent. It makes sense to extend this route through Augusta to Columbia, where it could follow the Silver Star to New York. This route would use the east-west platforms at the MMPT.

Another gap in the Amtrak network could easily be filled by way of Atlanta. Also using the north-south platforms I propose adding at the MMPT, could be a new service linking Chicago to Miami. I've shown these three potential Amtrak routes/reroutes on the map below.

Commuter and Intrastate Rail
In addition to these routes, Atlanta's new MMPT could become the hub of rail lines serving Metropolitan Atlanta and other areas in Georgia. Rail travel, especially if it were able to be upgraded to higher speeds, would serve as an excellent link between Georgia's smaller metropolitan areas. Rail lines linking Chattanooga, Macon, Savannah, and other cities would help to make Georgia's transportation infrastructure more robust and would offer an alternative to intraregional air travel which can be very expensive and inefficient.
Atlanta, with its history as a rail hub, is an excellent place for a commuter rail network. There are 11 radial rail lines with Atlanta at their center. Commuter rail is a cheap way for Metro Atlanta to create a regional rail system. A basic system has been being pursued by GDOT for over a decade, but so far funding has not been able to be organized.

I intend to do an in-depth post on this topic later, but for now, I'll stop with this teaser. The map below shows a potential Metro Atlanta and State rail network centered on the Atlanta MMPT.

Rethinking the MMPT
I've sketched out a conceptual plan for a rail terminal in Downtown Atlanta. The station's headhouse would stand across Forsyth Street from the Five Points MARTA station. The starter platforms provided for the proposed Griffin commuter rail line and other services from the south are shown in red. Eventually, the station would need to expand to increase capacity, including adding platforms to serve trains from the east (blue, purple) and from the north (green, blue, yellow).

The concourse from the main building to the north-south tracks could continue to the Dome MARTA station and Phillips Arena/CNN Center. The entire gulch could be redeveloped, as is proposed, with air rights development over the tracks.

Station Details
Under my proposal, the station would be used as follows.

Section A: 6 tracks, 3 platforms
  • Georgia Inter-City Trains
    • Atlanta-Macon-Savannah
    • Atlanta-Macon-Valdosta
    • Atlanta-Macon-Albany
    • Atlanta-Newnan-Columbus
  • Atlanta Commuter Trains
    • McDonough Line
    • Griffin Line
    • Senoia Line
    • Newnan Line
Section B: 3 tracks, 2 platforms
  • Any commuter or Georgia trains from sections A or C
Section C: 3 tracks, 2 platforms
  • Amtrak
    • Southerner: New Orleans-Birmingham-Columbia-New York
  • Georgia Inter-City Trains
    • Atlanta-Augusta
    • Atlanta-Cartersville-Chattanooga
  • Atlanta Commuter Trains
    • Madison Line
    • Athens Line
    • Gainesville Line
    • Canton Line
    • Cartersville Line
    • Rome Line
    • Bremen Line
Section D: 4 tracks, 2 platforms
  • Amtrak
    • Crescent: New Orleans-Montgomery-Charlotte-New York
    • Comet: Chicago-Nashville-Savannah-Miami
  • Overflow from Section E
Section E: 4 tracks, 2 platforms (Optional, added as capacity dictates)
  • Atlanta Commuter Trains
    • Athens Line
    • Gainesville Line
    • Canton Line
    • Cartersville Line
    • Rome Line
    • Bremen Line
Regardless of how this situation is solved, an amicable solution must be reached. Amtrak should not be against local transit. Indeed, Amtrak will benefit from a more urban and pedestrian friendly Atlanta. And MARTA and the Beltline will benefit from improved Amtrak service. This debate shows how much we need to have a discussion in this country between different levels of government. It also shows how much we need to create a uniform transportation policy in this country--one which looks at all modes as complementary components of one transportation system.

I encourage all parties involved to work toward a win-win situation. Everyone needs to be willing to make compromises, but we should not have to sacrifice one great transit project for another great transportation investment.


Jacobean said...

awesome maps! would like to see a larger version of the regional rail line diagram, but it wouldnt open when i clicked on it

Anonymous said...

So, to ask a foolish question - why won't Amtrak back trains? You mention it's policy but never say why. My guess is it's a safety concern? Getting some flexibility on that front would seem to finesse away several problems.

Matt' said...

It's not a foolish question. Part of the reason I wrote the post was to demonstrate that Amtrak is making a foolish decision.

That said, I have no idea why Amtrak won't back trains. I have contacted them and am awaiting response. I will certainly post the answer, so stay tuned.

If I had to speculate, I would guess safety is the official reason.

There are really should be no serious concerns. The Canadian operated by VIA Rail Canada backs on its way out of Toronto (not in the terminal, actually to switch rail lines north of the city).

Backing at Atlanta would require backing around 100-200 yards. A switcher unit could easily solve the problem in my opinion.

Paul Wilson said...

The aversion to backing does not apply to Chicago, where all the long-distance except the Empire Builder routinely back into Union Station. I think trains also routinely back into New Orleans and LA, both of which are stub-end terminals. Perhaps the main reasons are operational complexity and it makes more work for the crew and increases the potential for injuries. A trainman has to ride the rear end during the backing operation.

Paul Wilson said...

Oh, by the way, great piece on the challenges in Atlanta.

Matt' said...

All the maps have been fixed. You can now download larger images.

Sorry for the delay.

Anonymous said...

I took the Amtrak Cascades from Portland to Vancouver, BC last year with a stop over in Seattle. Coming into Vancouver, our Amtrak train backed up a few miles from Pacific Central Station. Apparently backing up isn't a problem for Amtrak while in Canada but maybe they have different safety rules in the Great White North.

Jay said...

Nice series; you have a very good grasp of the Atlanta transit environment (although I could pick nits about your post #1 characterization of the neighborhood surrounding the current Amtrak station) but I see now you were undergrad at GT so that explains that.

To update the situation, Amtrak/GDOT did come to an agreement with the City/MARTA/ARC so abandonment of the Decatur Belt for the Belt Line could proceed.

As to your alternate MMPT vision, I'm curious why all the Amtrak trains couldn't use your platform D and loop back to the other trunk split (on the other side of the GWCCC) to proceed back to the north as necessary to avoid backing.

BTW, there's actually already a study by GDOT in final phases on HSR from Atlanta to Chattanooga. And in good news, Sonny Perdue came back from a summit on HSR with VP Biden with a new outlook on rail (presumably because he sees more $$ coming from the feds).

AthensRails said...

Very interesting blog, as someone who hopes to go into urban planning (First year student at GA Tech) and someone who has a great interest in railroads this is fascinating to me. I found GDOT's attempt to kill the beltline a bit odd seeing as they never care about rail anytime else, i can see the city doing alot more with it in the near future. That being said, i dont see why the line could not be shared, at the moment it is just one train each way which could not cause that much disruption. I do not know the details of what kind of system is intended to be built, but in St. Louis and San Diego the transit systems share their right of way with freight operations. Th trains would probably be doing no more than 25 mph at that point anyways but i guess it would still not be a ideal situation.
Backing the train in sounds much easier than it looks, for one you would have to back through Howell tower, one of the busiest railroad Junctions in the Southeast and would involve having to get permission from both CSX and NS. Backing moves by nature are time consuming as the train must operate at restrictive speed, the only way to make this work is by as you said stationing a switcher to pull the train back in. To make this effective GDOT would need to construct a third track around the east end of the Wye at howell that ties into the Piedmont division in the north, and the CSX terminal in the south making for a smooth transfer with no need to navigate the mess of crossovers and diamonds. In the morning the Southbound Crescent could take the switch and head in with a straight shot to the Multimodal center. While the passengers detrain the switcher could couple onto the rear of the train and pull the train back to Howell at trackspeed, where it would be uncoupled. To save time the engine could be left at a newly constructed siding at Howell to Pull the Northbound crescent into the multimodal center. The downside of this plan is that it would require a dedicated crew for the switch engine, and it would take time to connect air hoses and such at Howell eating into the schedule. The cheap way (GDOT likes that word) is to run a dedicated shuttle bus between Peachtree Station and the MMPT, but then again it is still a bus.
Personally after reflecting on the options i think backing into the station with a switcher would be the best of all three options, as it would allow trains to operate at track speed the full time. If GDOT actually cares about getting Amtrak to the MMPT, they will pay for the costs of building the connector at Howell and for maintaining and paying the crew of the Switch engine, which would still be cheaper than rehabbing the belt line like they would have had to if they had blocked the abandonment.

Anonymous said...

None of this is going to happen because Georgia Republicans rule the state house and enate, and they are in bed with the road builders in GA, led by giant C.W. Matthews.

Also, GA Republicans believe that rail users tend to be moderate or liberal. They like the fact that all of the exurbs tend to vote Republican. They want more and more massive highways.

Too make matters worse, the Georgia Democratic Party has shonw absolutely no leadership on this issue. Yes, GA Dem's don't have any mojo to begin with, but they aren't even willing to put up a little bit of fight for rail.

Things are bad here, and the only hope is some moderate Republicans like Cobb's Sam Olens and Dunwoody's Fran Millar and Dan Weber lead the charge for rail.

Unknown said...

Wow, funny how I was able to get more information on the Atlanta MMPT proposal from your site then any of the GA DOT sites. Probably not a great vote of confidence for the project. The most recent info I found there (not on the garail page as that domain had apparently expired now) projected commuter services from Lovejoy to be running by 2006 (not happened yet), and completed MMPT and service to Athens ready by the end of 2009 (yeah right). I am very familiar with the area, and as an avid train enthusiast would love to see these plans reach fruition, but I don't think it will happen any time soon. Atlanta/Georgia in general has been way behind in the rail arena for some time now. I can remember when I was young and Amtrak was discussing a proposed line from Chicago to Jacksonville via Louisville-Bowling Green-Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta-etc that was ultimately cnx due to Atlanta's unwillingness to build a new station. I completely agree that the current one is a disaster, hell the baording platform is on a bridge over the down-town connector, not to mention the long stair-trek to get from street level down to said bridge/platform. Thanks for the great blog, will definitely have to check out other stuff here.

Unknown said...

To add to the last comment, I forgot to mention that Atlanta is I believe the only metropolitan area in the top 15 most populous in the nation without some form of commuter or light rail. MARTA just can't offer what commuter rail could. But hey, what do I know, Nashville probably needs commuter rail more than Atlanta . . . Right.

Unknown said...

Here are the current plans for the MMPT project downtown that the city has earmarked to begin construction next year pending federal funding.

Anonymous said...

Folks I'm a conductor for Amtrak and the idea of backing trains up by conductors is not a favorite amongst us because of the time to do it, and safety concerns! Hooking a switcher up to the train would also take a considerable amount of time due to the connection of hoses, brake test, and finding a crew to operate the switcher, which would be borrowed by Norfolk Southern or CSX unless Amtrak dedicates one of their own engines/switchers. However if it has to be done we will do it. Moreover, the residents along the Beltine are against Amtrak using that route. Someone also said Atlanta is far behind with rail and that it may not happen because of the republicans. Commuter rail will come to Atlanta in due time.

Anonymous said...

This the conductor again! As far as the crescent being rerouted, and the southerner being instituted most likely will not happen at least in the near future. As far as the Chicago train that is more likely to happen once the mmpt is built. Right now the focus for Amtrak is on the high speed rail project connecting Washington, DC, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville to Tampa/Miami by way of the mmpt! So the commuter rail project has to be done some time in the near future. It is essential for Atlanta to get it done because the city is part of a bigger rail project that will benefit the city, state, and region!

Anonymous said...

Amtrak backs into Tampa Union Station, by the way.

Diverting the Crescent to its original route M'tgy would cause the train to run 2 or 3 hours slower via B'ham. This poses potential difficulties in New Orleans when turning a late inbound train to make the next morning's departure; it also changes the northbound times at Atlanta, Washington, and New York.

If you were to do this, what would make sense is the Dallas-Atlanta train via B'ham that has been intermittenly proposed. Extending such a train Augusta-Columbia would require an expensive PTC installation on the currently unsignalled Augusta-Columbia NS line.

As for Chicago-Atlanta-Miami, the fundamental problems are (1) how to get such a train through Illinois or Indiana and (2) lack of capacity on either CSX or NS between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Those problems are more difficult to solve than the Atlanta terminal situation.

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Unknown said...

With your plan, would it be possible to connect the MMPT directly to Turner field?

Matt' said...

Sorry for the delayed posting of your comment. I recently started comment moderation to combat spam, and yours slipped through the cracks.

Turner Field is quite distant from the Gulch, so there is no feasible way to connect the MMPT to the baseball stadium.

Pedestrian connections to the Georgia Dome, Georgia World Congress Center, and Philips Arena would be quite easy, however.