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Chicago-Atlanta passenger rail

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I still think Cincinnati leaders need to be talking to Atlanta.  It's only a matter of time before Atlanta and Chicago will want to be connected by train.  There are two legitimate routes: Chicago, Indy, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta or Chicago, Indy, Cincy, Lexington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta.  They're both about the same distance and have similar complexities to work out, but one of those corridors is the Cincinnati Southern Railway.  That could be a huge boon to the city.  The Louisville, Nashville route has slightly larger cities that could pull the route that way, but there's potential to get Charlotte on board as a logical connection. 

 

 

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I still think Cincinnati leaders need to be talking to Atlanta.  It's only a matter of time before Atlanta and Chicago will want to be connected by train.  There are two legitimate routes: Chicago, Indy, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta or Chicago, Indy, Cincy, Lexington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta.  They're both about the same distance and have similar complexities to work out, but one of those corridors is the Cincinnati Southern Railway.  That could be a huge boon to the city.  The Louisville, Nashville route has slightly larger cities that could pull the route that way, but there's potential to get Charlotte on board as a logical connection. 

 

If the routing is via Louisville, then that's under 750 rail miles from Chicago to Atlanta. Anything under 750 miles is the responsibility for states to undertake. And that's a lot of coordination and a lot of funding that has to be procured from states that have no active passenger rail development programs (except a small one in Indiana). If the routing is via Cincinnati, then it's borderline 750 miles. If it's over 750 miles, then it's up to Amtrak to find the funding for it. And Amtrak is not allowed to add new passenger rail services that will add more operating loss to its balance sheets. So that means getting Congress to approve supplemental funding for it or, like with the Louisville route, coordinate all six states to pay for it.

 

How much money might we be talking about? It means a substantial up-front capital investment and an ongoing operating subsidy.

 

First the capital costs.... Since these are very busy freight routes and much of them are single-tracked, recent history is shown they not only want their existing freight traffic to not be delayed by the introduction of passenger service. They also want future traffic growth to not be constrained by a new passenger service. So that means adding federally required Positive Train Control signals (which means re-equipping every locomotive that MIGHT operate over this line to interact with the new system), plus laying extra tracks, wider bridges and wider tunnels for more tracks, stations plus locomotives and rail cars. Each tunnel widening and each new bridge (including numerous high bridges over deep valleys) will cost tens of millions per site. Follow these rail lines on GoogleEarth to see how many bridges we're talking about. Adding a new track itself is in the $3 million to $5 million per mile range. Signalization costs are usually in the $1 million to $2 million per mile range. Stations cost $1,000,000 for each standard Amtrak ADA-compliant shelter, platform and parking for a small town. A larger city's station is more in the $5 million to $20 million range. And then we get to the trains. To run a single, daily round trip between Chicago and Atlanta will require three sets plus a spare. What might the consist be of a Chicago-Atlanta train? Probably two locomotives, a baggage car, three coaches, a food service car and at least one sleeper. Locomotives cost about $3-4 million. Each railcar will cost about $2 million. So each set is probably going to cost about $25 million. To offer daily train service means $75 million just for the trains. Double that if you twice-daily service.

 

In short, if you want to run a daily passenger train between Chicago and Atlanta at about 50-60 mph average speed, be prepared to invest about $3 billion to $5 billion in capital improvements before the first train runs.

 

And then for the operating costs..... We're talking about a route of 700-750 miles. And operating subsidies can run anywhere from $25-$50 per train-mile, depending on ridership and fare elasticity. One round trip is two daily trains (one in each direction). One daily round trip could require anywhere from $13 million to $28 million per year in operating subsidies. Two daily round trips will probably be a little less than double that amount.

 

Just getting a daily train between Cincinnati-Chicago will be difficult enough.

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EDIT: upon further review...... The Cincinnati-owned railroad from Cincinnati to Chattanooga has much more double-track and fewer tunnels and high bridges than I remember. It looks like Norfolk Southern, which leases the rail line from the city, has made a lot of improvements to the rail corridor. So I would slash the capital cost estimates. I'll post something soon about all of this. But it's not as bad as I first feared.

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Do you think they blew out some of the tunnels and upgraded the bridges because of double-stacking?

 

Certainly some tunnels were "daylighted" as they say. But other tunnels apparently have had their floors lowered and a second track added. I saw that at Oakdale, TN, just north of Harriman. I saw many newly built roadway underpasses below single-track sections where the new bridge was built wide enough to add a second track across it. Also, some of the valleys were crossed by a second, newly built, single-track bridge while others had second decks added to them, like this one over Pitman Creek just south of Somerset, KY (sorry the image is contoured to match the terrain so the bridge descends down into the valley!):

 

14804165179_3185578c5e_b.jpg

 

 

So how much single track is left on the city-owned, Cincinnati-Chattanooga rail line? There are 19 sections of single track totaling 135.4 miles (out of 338 miles from CIN-CHT), shown on the map below:

 

14804231529_22e42334d3_b.jpg

 

 

That's potentially $500 million to $700 million to build a second main track along those sections. That doesn't include significant earth moving such as tunneling or widening the track shelf along a hillside. In some places, it might be cheaper to build a 10,000-foot siding to hold trains outside of the single-track portion where a tunnel, bridge or significant earth moving would be needed to continue the double track through those difficult areas.

 

I have not yet looked at the two rail corridors south of Chattanooga.

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One thing that is safe to say is that if Cincinnati wants to beat Louisville in a competition for a rail line between Chicago and Atlanta, Cincinnati has the upper-hand.

 

Not necessarily. The Cincinnati route is longer and misses Nashville. The Cincinnati route does go through Lexington which is often under-appreciated city in terms of population.

 

I'm going to move this to a new thread.

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It would be worth knowing if the single-track sections were always single-track.  A lot of lines that are single-track today, which may have been built in the late 19th century as such, were significantly double-tracked in the first half of the 20th century, so there's usually right-of-way available that's just growing weeds.  Declining traffic after WWII forced many lines to revert to single-track operations, but even with the growth in freight since the 1980s, modern train control systems allow railroads to get a lot more capacity out of their rails than they did in the days of timetables and telegraphs.  Today, double-track with crossovers to allow passing and Centralized Traffic Control provides more capacity than just about any freight line would ever need, though weaving in faster passenger trains is still difficult. 

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At least for me an ideal train ride is under 6 hours. That couldn't realistically be done to Atlanta with stops in large cities along the way. It's a flying kind of trip.

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I think if Cincinnati went all-in leveraging ownership of track (a big assumption, perhaps), that would tip the scales. I don't know how the details would play out, and maybe legislative/bureaucratic procedure would preclude rationality, but Cincinnati is in the position to provide a huge "local match" for capital costs.

 

I suppose if the route were under 750mi, that would likely mean more. But if it's over 750, it may help sway the minds of legislators and/or bureaucrats. So as an intercity rail guy, what do you think -- would Cincinnati's position (as owner of the Southern Railway) be more beneficial if the route length is <750 or >750?

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The 50-year lease with Norfolk-Southern won't be renegotiated until the 2030's in anticipation of a 2037 signing.  Until then I'm not sure what we can do without forcing N-S to sign a new lease that has them share the track with Amtrak or another rail service.   

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^ At the rate rail projects in the US move, 2030 is probably about when vying for a spot between Chicago and Atlanta will be relevant. Remember, we're halfway between 2000 and 2030.

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It would be worth knowing if the single-track sections were always single-track.  A lot of lines that are single-track today, which may have been built in the late 19th century as such, were significantly double-tracked in the first half of the 20th century, so there's usually right-of-way available that's just growing weeds.  Declining traffic after WWII forced many lines to revert to single-track operations, but even with the growth in freight since the 1980s, modern train control systems allow railroads to get a lot more capacity out of their rails than they did in the days of timetables and telegraphs.  Today, double-track with crossovers to allow passing and Centralized Traffic Control provides more capacity than just about any freight line would ever need, though weaving in faster passenger trains is still difficult. 

 

It was mostly single track. Places where NS is adding second track is requiring the construction of new bridges, earthmoving for a wider right of way and so on. Many of the sections that have not been double-tracked involve tunnels or other obstructions that would be more expensive to rectify.

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If it were to go in to/through Louisville, what would the approach look like? The old train station (now home to Tarc, but still proximate to rail lines) had a configuration that required the train to back in to (or out of, can't recall) the station.

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The 50-year lease with Norfolk-Southern won't be renegotiated until the 2030's in anticipation of a 2037 signing.  Until then I'm not sure what we can do without forcing N-S to sign a new lease that has them share the track with Amtrak or another rail service.   

 

One thing Cincinnati **could** do would be to take the present revenue stream from the lease and use it to leverage a RRIF loan and FTA grants as a part of a package of transit and intercity rail improvements. I'm also thinking we should tie Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati corridor improvements with the Cincy-Atlanta route as KJP suggests to get over the 750 mile PRIIA requirement. More streetcars and a rebuilt CUT would almost certainly be a part of such an initiative. However, we have an obstacle in the form of Mayor Cranley to overcome.

 

As far as scheduling goes, you won't be able to do Cincinnati-Atlanta in six hours. A 1965 schedule shows the train taking 11-1/2 hours, so the real possibility might be eleven hours. This is mountainous territory, remember and the railroad never was the beneficiary of the limitless federal spending that built I-75. A detailed study would give us a clearer picture, though. It's my belief that the best schedule would be an afternoon departure from Chicago, arriving Cincinnati late evening and into Atlanta the next morning, with the reverse schedule leaving Atlanta late evening, into Cincy in the morning and arriving Chicago in the early afternoon.

 

It might be worth it to consider an Auto-Train instead of a conventional long distance train on this route and have it run from Northern Kentucky (avoids CSX's Queensgate yard) to Sanford Fl (present Auto-Train terminal). Really, though, it would be easier to tackle this in stages, with Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati being the first

 

Does anyone know how much revenue comes in yearly from the lease?

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It's about $20 million annually right now.  The lease payment rises or shrinks by a formula tied to the annual U.S. GDP over a base payment of $8 million.  You would have to give them a significant break on those terms to compensate them for interruptions to their service, assuming they're planning to run a half dozen trains per day.  But even one train per day that is given priority over freight is a pretty significant disruption for them to work around. 

 

Also I don't think there would be many people riding all the way from Chicago to Atlanta.  And in fact there might be a bureaucratic advantage to running Chicago > Cincinnati, then Cincinnati > Atlanta with a cross-platform transfer at CUT. 

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It's about $20 million annually right now.  The lease payment rises or shrinks by a formula tied to the annual U.S. GDP over a base payment of $8 million.  You would have to give them a significant break on those terms to compensate them for interruptions to their service, assuming they're planning to run a half dozen trains per day.  But even one train per day that is given priority over freight is a pretty significant disruption for them to work around. 

 

If NS doesn't want to pay the price that the city asks for, what are their other options? Is there excess capacity on other routes? I would predict that as freight rail traffic continues to increase, the city will have the upper hand in the 2030s.

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It's about $20 million annually right now.  The lease payment rises or shrinks by a formula tied to the annual U.S. GDP over a base payment of $8 million.  You would have to give them a significant break on those terms to compensate them for interruptions to their service, assuming they're planning to run a half dozen trains per day.  But even one train per day that is given priority over freight is a pretty significant disruption for them to work around. 

 

Also I don't think there would be many people riding all the way from Chicago to Atlanta.  And in fact there might be a bureaucratic advantage to running Chicago > Cincinnati, then Cincinnati > Atlanta with a cross-platform transfer at CUT. 

 

Transfers costs thru riders...up to 50%. A one seat ride is nearly always preferable. Also, most riders won't be going all the way from Chicago to Atlanta. Most long distance trains only have a small percentage going all the way. What you WILL see are riders going from, say, Indianapolis to Chattanooga or some such.

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It's about $20 million annually right now.  The lease payment rises or shrinks by a formula tied to the annual U.S. GDP over a base payment of $8 million.  You would have to give them a significant break on those terms to compensate them for interruptions to their service, assuming they're planning to run a half dozen trains per day.  But even one train per day that is given priority over freight is a pretty significant disruption for them to work around. 

 

If NS doesn't want to pay the price that the city asks for, what are their other options? Is there excess capacity on other routes? I would predict that as freight rail traffic continues to increase, the city will have the upper hand in the 2030s.

 

I suppose that the city can negotiate with other railroads in anticipation of the new lease.  I read the lease a few years ago and it's pretty much set in stone until that point.  The city basically can't sell the railroad until then even if it wanted to because the lessee has the first option to buy it, which of course would be a lowball offer.  That's why when Winburn and others propose selling the railroad it's total B.S. 

 

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