Thursday, February 19, 2009

Envisioning a New Rail Hub for Atlanta: Part I

This is the first of a three-part series looking at Amtrak's fight against Atlanta's Beltline and potential solutions that will make everyone happy. Today, I look at the context.

Part I: Context
Rail Network
Atlanta has long been one of America's most important rail hubs. Since the Civil War, the rail lines that radiate from the city have supported the South's economy. Today, Atlanta has the world's busiest airport. In fact, the local joke is that when you die, no matter what your religion, you'll have to change planes in Atlanta on your way to the afterlife. But before the age of air travel, Atlanta was one of America's superhubs for passenger rail.

The city is now only served by a meager two passenger trains a day. Each morning, the Amtrak Crescent leaves for New Orleans via Birmingham and is followed each evening by the northbound Crescent to Charlotte, Washington, and New York. The Crescent stops at Brookwood Station, several miles north of Downtown, a former commuter station on the Southern Railway.

As rail traffic fell across the country, railroad companies began to disuse portions of their network. Many merged or were absorbed by larger companies. Today, Atlanta is served by only two major railroad companies, CSX and Norfolk Southern (NS). A ring of railroad bypasses around the city center has been left disused or very lightly used over the years. In a few places, they've been made discontinuous. Because of this consolidation rail routes within the city are less duplicative, but that also means that there's less flexibility in the system.

The Beltline
But Atlanta is a growing city despite its loss in rail traffic. As it has become more urban, the city has invested in its transportation infrastructure. Beginning in 1979, the MARTA subway system started transporting passengers. Today, MARTA stretches 48 miles and includes 38 stations. Centered on the Five Points station in the center of downtown, the subway has four lines.

Several years ago, a graduate student at Georgia Tech proposed using a set of disused railroad bypasses around the city center to create a ring of transit, parks, and redevelopment through some of the city's old streetcar suburbs. This proposal is called the Beltline, and for the past few years, the city and MARTA have been working toward realizing the vision.
The transit line would be a light rail or streetcar link, connecting to the MARTA lines and allowing better connectivity and alternate routes for transit passengers. Surrounded by parks, apartments, and condos, the Beltline would help to redefine neighborhoods like the Old Fourth Ward and Capitol View while bringing new life to places like Ormewood Park and Reynoldstown.

The Crescent
Amtrak's home in Atlanta is Brookwood Station. The station serves as a through station with two tracks on either side of a center platform. It has some severe limitations, notably the small building limits capacity. The narrow platform includes a holdout rule, which means that no trains can pass through the station while the Crescent is present. Furthermore, the station is located far from the central business district in a mostly residential area.

In order to solve these issues, the Georgia Department of Transportation wants to construct a new station in the center city. This facility, called the Multimodal Passenger Terminal (MMPT), would eventually grow to become the hub for commuter and inter-city trains. As currently proposed, this concept calls for the rerouting of the Amtrak Crescent through the east side of Midtown. This unfortunately creates conflict with the Beltline Proposal.

This rerouting will send trains over the tracks planned to be used for the northeast segment of the Beltline. Late last month, GDOT and Amtrak asked the Federal Government to stop the light rail line in order to preserve the corridor for inter-city rail.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II: Conflict.


Anonymous said...

Just a note for future maps. In the railroading world, CSX is traditionally illustrated in green, NS in blue, and Amtrak in red.

Matt' said...

I was not aware that there was a general convention other than for Amtrak, however I did choose the colors with something in mind.

Since CSX's livery is blue, gray, and yellow, I chose Blue.

NS uses a black and white scheme. Since black is usually used to denote borders, roads, or general rail, I chose green, the traditional color for Southern Railway.

I hope it's not an insurmountable obstacle.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff Matt, I'm looking forward to the updates.