The Southeast HSR corridor can be divided between the “real” SEHSR corridor, where there is actual, ongoing work on improving the speed and, even more critically, the capacity of the corridor in support of services that will begin operating within the current decade, and the “notional” SEHSR corridor, the land of feasibility studies and preliminary planning, where even if a pedal to the metal intercity rail investment program were to commence in 2017, any new services entering into operation before the latter half of next decade would be subsidized conventional rail service.

And given the importance of state governments in the current bottom-up process of intercity rail development, it should be unsurprising that the boundary between the two part of the SEHSR runs quite close to a state boundary. As discussed two weeks ago, Georgia lies in the middle of “notional” SEHSR country, with Rapid Rail connections to Birmingham; Columbus, GA; Savanna; Charlotte, NC; and Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville at various stages of being studied, but without active ongoing investment. By contrast, there is current active investment and planned roll-out of new service throughout Virginia and North Carolina, all the way through to Charlotte, NC.

One reason that Virginia and North Carolina are engaged in ongoing investment is that they are well positioned for incremental development of Rapid Rail passenger service, with a legacy of through Amtrak corridors providing a platform to build upon, urban development taking place along urban arcs in both states, and close enough to the growing major metropolitan center of Washington, DC to use Washington as an anchor for longer distance intercity transport.

The greatest current focus of investment in the “real SEHSR” is the Piedmont Corridor in North Carolina, which is the focus of this week’s Sunday Train.

North Carolina Intercity Rail Transport in the Amtrak Era

With the establishment of Amtrak, and the compact between the majority of freight railroads and Amtrak to take over the freight railroad’s passenger rail responsibilities in return for priority access to the rail corridors of those railroads, North Carolina retained two long distance passenger trains between New York and Florida, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. The Silver Meteor is the direct train to Miami, traveling on a more Eastern route through North and South Carolina, while the Silver Star runs through a more central route in the Carolinas, including Raleigh, North Carolina, and in Florida runs between Orlando and Tampa, doubling back to connect Tampa and Miami.

Leading into the 1970′s, there were two intercity routes between Atlanta and New Orleans, via Mobile Alabama and Birmingham, Alabama. In 1970, the Southern Railway consolidated service into the Crescent route, which ran via Birmingham. When they entered into the Amtrak compact in 1979, the Crescent was the last privately operated long-distance passenger route east of the Mississippi. The Crescent included service through western North Carolina between Charlotte and Greensboro as a night train with a morning arrival in Atlanta southwest-bound and an evening departure from Atlanta northeast-bound.

In the mid-70′s, Amtrak established the Palmetto, which presently runs between New York City and Savanna, Georgia, paralleling the route of the Silver Meteor but making additional stops. At various times in its history it has been extended south into Florida. While it runs to the east of Raleigh, it includes a station in Selma, North Carolina, listed by Google Maps as a thirty three minute drive from Raleigh.

In the mid-80s, with financial support from the State of North Carolina, Amtrak introduced the Carolinian, which ran on the Crescent route from Charlotte to Greensboro, than ran across to Raleigh, then continued through Richmond, Virginia and Washington DC to New York City. While the service met ridership targets, it did not meet revenue / passenger-mile targets as most passengers traveled in-state, and North Carolina discontinued their support. In 1990, they tried again, and this time met their target, providing the fourth intercity train from North Caorlina to Virginia and the Northeast Corridor through to NYC, and the first connecting the major population centers of North Carolina’s urban arc. In conjunction with the Palmetto, the Carolinian provides a connection for an Amtrak throughway bus service connecting to Greenville, home of ECU, and through to the coast at Morehead City.

After the successful re-introduction of the Carolinian, the state of North Carolina sought to establish a second Charlotte / Raleigh train, and after some additional work to provide turn-around capacity at Charlotte and a service center in Raleigh, the Piedmont entered into operation in 1995. This was upgraded to two Piedmont Services in 2010.

So this was the intercity passenger rail landscape in North Carolina at the start of the current decade:

  • Raleigh/DC/NYC: 8:54A/3:31P/7:18P; 10:25A/4:37P/8:49; {1:51P*}/7:57P/11:47P
  • NYC/DC/Raleigh: 6:15A/9:55A/{2:53P*}, 7:05A/10:55A/4:42P, 11:02A/3:05P/9:10P
    • {* note: station half an hour southeast of Raleigh}
  • Atlanta/Charlotte/DC/NYC: 8:04P/1:46A/9:53A/1:46P, (-)/7:00A/4:37P/8:49P
  • NYC/DC/Charlotte/Atlanta: 7:05A/10:55A/8:12P/(-), 2:15P/6:30P/2:20A/8:13A
  • Charlotte/Greensboro/Raleigh: 7:00A/8:39A/10:17A, 12:00P/1:34P/3:11P, 5:15P/6:49P/8:26P
  • Raleigh/Greensboro/Charlotte: 6:45A/8:18A/9:55A, 11:45A/1:18P/2:55P, 4:50P/6:32P/8:12P

Note that all of these are conventional rail services, and therefore the timetabled “departure to departure” transit speeds of the services are typically in the range of 45mph-55mph. Given the heavy subsidy to competing public/private road transport at what are often higher transit speeds, these are therefore all subsidized intercity transportation services. Under the current funding rules, which have come into force this year, the multi-day long-distance Amtrak routes — the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmetto and Crescent — are federally subsidized, while the medium and short corridors that are under 750 miles long, the Carolinian train and the Piedmont services, are subsidized by the state or states that they serve.

Stimulating Intercity Passenger Rail Frequencies in North Carolina

In 2009, as part of the Stimulus II package, $8b was included to fund a range of intercity passenger rail investment. However, while there had previously been substantial bipartisan support for High Speed Rail and Rapid Rail and, indeed, the Clinton-era HSR legislation was a heavily watered down version of the far more ambitious proposal from George HW Bush, HSR funding was heavily politicized by the radical reactionary fringe that dominated many state Republican primary base electorates in the 2010 midterms, and in 2011, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, three of the states that had won competitive grants for HSR funding, turned their grants down.

These funds did not, however, go away. Instead, in combination with an additional round of funding passed in 2010, they went into an additional round of grant funding, which shifted the focus of “bullet train” HSR funding from Florida to California, essentially emptied the State of Washington’s shelf of shovel ready Cascade Corridor projects, and shifted what was originally Ohio’s Buckeye State Triple C corridor money to accelerating the service speed of the Chicago to Detroit Wolverine.

And then in 2011, under a Republican House majority, new funding explicitly set aside to bullet train and Rapid Rail investment came to a halt. However, that did not mean that already funded projects ground to a halt. Instead, the projects that were already granted and accepted are proceeding, with many of them coming into operation in 2015 through 2017. And that includes North Carolina.

As shown above, right (or in this higher resolution pdf), the federal funding for intercity passenger rail is leading to ongoing investment all across the Piedmont Corridor. There are passing sidings or double tracking taking place between Raleigh and Durham, between Durham and Greensboro, near Lexington, NC, and in two sections between Charlotte and Salisbury, NC. There are 12 highway overpasses over the rail corridor and railway overpasses over highway being built, which substantially simplify upgrades to 110mph service. There are two curves that are being straightened to allow faster rail operations.

The immediate results in terms of transit speed are modest, with the typically 3:10 Charlotte/Raleigh route being reduced by 13 minutes to 2:57.

However, a quick look at the operation of the Piedmont services reveals that it is not speed that is the binding constraint on these services, it is capacity. The State of North Carolina owns two sets of trains (and six locomotives, so two pairs, and two spares), which each make one round trip per day. The train that leaves Raleigh at 6:45am gets to Charlotte at 9:55am, leaving Charlotte at noon to arrive back in Raleigh at 3:11pm. The train that leaves Raleigh at 11:45am gets to Charlotte at 2:55pm, leaving Charlotte at 5:15pm to arrive back in Raleigh at 8:26pm.

Now, consider that a single train on a 3:10 route, with a 0:20 layover between runs, could make the Raleigh/Charlotte/Raleigh round trip at 6:45am/9:55am|10:15am/1:25pm, then 1:45pm/4:55pm|5:15pm/8:25pm. Sliding that by 2hrs for a second train would support 8:45am/11:55am|12:15pm/3:25pm, then 3:45pm/6:55pm|7:15pm/10:25pm. Including the Carolinian service {*} with the four Piedmont services, that would be:

  • Raleigh/Charlotte: 6:45/9:55am, 8:45/11:55am, 1:45/4:55pm, 4:42/8:12pm{*}, 7:15/10:25pm
  • Charlotte/Raleigh: 7:00/10:17am{*}, 10:15am/1:25pm, 12:15/3:25pm, 5:15/8:25pm, 7:15/10:25pm

Note that other than the start of the first Piedmont service and the schedule of the Carolinian, this is my own back-of-the-envelope schedule, to demonstrate that what stands between the current three services each way between Charlotte and Raleigh and five services is the capacity of the corridor. The State of North Carolina already owns the trains required to provide those five services.

The majority of the funding for the Piedmont Improvement Program is on the capacity expanding addition of passing sidings and double track sections of corridor. And, indeed, once the project has been completed, in 2017 the Piedmont services will be increased from two services round trip to four services round trip.

So, Where’s the High Speed Rail?

So, where’s the High Speed Rail in all of this?

The HSR story of the Piedmont Corridor begins back before the Stimulus II HSR funding, back when President George HW Bush’s more ambitious HSR proposals were pared back under the Clinton administration. In the 90′s, ongoing efforts to push the United States into following the lead of Japan and France were successfully quarantined by focusing substantial investments in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), where the high cost of construction in the area combined with the still-dilapidated state of the Northeast Corridor from its takeover by Amtrak in the Penn Central bankruptcy (shockingly, despite promises at the time that Amtrak was establish that the Northeast Corridor was to be restored to a state of good repair well in advance of the 90s).

This was the process that saw the establishment of the Acela service in the NEC. The Acela are tilt trains with a top speed of 150mph however, due to a variety of speed constraints including long stretches of the corridor where track alignment did not permit use of the tilt mechanism, overhead electrical supply between NYC and DC that limited speeds to 135mph, and a number of speed and capacity limited bridges, they have an effective operating speed of 85mph.

Funding for the designated HSR corridors, outside of the NEC, was largely limited to funding planning for some unspecified future time that serious capital support for HSR would become available. And in 2001, part of that process saw planning on Virginia/North Carolina section of the designated South East HSR Corridor proceed from the feasibility study phase to the Tier I National Environment Protection Act environmental impact study. As a result of that process, two alternatives were approved for more detailed “Tier II” study, consisting of the so-called “S-line” rail corridor between Richmond and Raleigh and the current North Carolina Railways Piedmont corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte. The Piedmont corridor does not pass through Winston-Salem, with the High Point station on the corridor 25 minutes drive southeast from central Winston-Salem, so the second alternative is the same as the first except for a diversion into Winston-Salem on a rail corridor connecting with the Piedmont corridor on both sides.

The appendices to the 2001 Tier I EIS include an analysis of operating revenue and costs for a planned eight round trip SEHSR services between Washington DC and Charlotte, NC. Total revenues for alternatives A & B were projected at $103.3m-$105.4m, with total operating expenses of $80.8m-$83.8m, for an operating ratio of 125%-128%.

Note that these projections are not for a bullet train, but rather for a Rapid Rail service, with total transit speed, Washington DC to Charlotte, NC of 70mph for the current Piedmont Corridor route, 67mph for the version with the Winston-Salem overlay. And these are estimates from the conditions of 2000, so that with current gas prices, the services would likely be even more effective.

Now, the sections of this corridor are not in a position to seek funding for final design and construction until they have completed their detailed Teir II NEPA environmental impact study process. And one of the projects funded with Stimulus II funding was the Tier II funding for the Richmond to Raleigh section of the corridor. The Draft EIS was completed in 2010, and it is currently being revised to address issues that were raised as a result of public comment. So if, as I suggested in November of last year, we may see an “HSR policy unlock” in 2017, the Rapid Rail upgrade of the Raleigh to Richmond section ought to be “shovel ready” while conventional rail service between Raleigh and Richmond will have already been upgraded from three services each way per day to five.

The Game of Rapid Rail Leap-Frog

When considering the benefit of a Rapid Rail upgrade to the Raleigh/Richmond segment of the SE HSR corridor, it is important to avoid a tunnel-vision focus on Raleigh/Richmond trips alone. The benefits of the upgrade accrue to:

  • Trips beginning and ending somewhere on the Raleigh/Richmond corridor;
  • Trips extending from somewhere on the corridor to somewhere between Northern Virginia and the NEC;
  • Trips extending from somewhere on the corridor to somewhere between Raleigh and Charlotte
  • Trips entirely north or south of the corridor that have more frequent service due additional to services justified by the above trips
  • Trips entirely north or south of the corridor that have more frequent service due to trains spending less time in the Richmond/Raleigh corridor

Any Amtrak services that already run between Richmond and North Caroline that are switched onto the upgraded Rapid Rail corridor gain both improved speed and, with the passing sidings and sections of double tracking that are part of the upgrade, improved reliability over the corridor. The Silver Meteor and Palmetto would gain the benefit of adding Raleigh station to their route, while the Silver Star would gain both a faster and a shorter alignment through to Raleigh.

Northeast Regional services operating primarily on the Northeast Corridor through to Washington DC extend four services a day through to Richmond, with some services continuing on to Newport News and some to Petersburg/Norfolk, VA. The service center and wye-turnabout at Raleigh offers the option to extend one or more to Raleigh, including the option of a night train that terminates in Raleigh and begin a service through Richmond and DC to NYC or Boston the next day.

The “back of the envelope” Piedmont service upgrades were based on a staggered start from the Raleigh service center to Charlotte. So the second trainset to depart from Raleigh could begin the day from Richmond, while in the evening when the first trainset arrives for the second time in Raleigh from Charlotte, it can continue on to Richmond, which includes trips connecting in Richmond to the NEC.

The capacity upgrades to the Piedmont Corridor presently underway include the opportunity to operate a mix of all-stations and Express services on the corridor, which means an opportunity to operate a new Express service from Charlotte to Washington DC, which would connect with the existing range of Northeast Regional and Rapid Rail Acela services available from Washington to points north.

From there, the existing of the services that run from the Richmond / Raleigh corridor onto the existing Piedmont corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte improve the case — both technical and political — for proceeding to upgrade the Piedmont Corridor to a Rapid Rail 110mph corridor. That upgraded could proceed in stages, with incremental benefits at each stage, but when completed it provides the infrastructure for eight Charlotte/DC services each way and additional regional corridor services provided as justified by transport needs in those regions.

This is one of the long term benefits of winning support for a conventional intercity rail service: having the service in place increases the incremental benefit of ongoing improvements, and ongoing improvements decrease the cost of completing a Rapid Rail upgrade for that corridor. This requires looking ahead to be sure that it is an appropriate corridor for a Rapid Rail upgrade, but provided that the corridor can support an economically viable Rapid Rail service, existing conventional rail services provide a target for an incremental upgrade path.

To my mind, this helps illuminate the difference between the “real” SE HSR corridor through Virginia and North Carolina and the “planning” SE HSR corridor through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana. With a much more substantial range of conventional intercity rail services in place, Virginia and North Carolina offer more fertile ground for serious development of Rapid Rail upgrades to those conventional rail services.

Atlanta is, in many respects, a “planning HSR” Rapid Rail hub, as discussed in the Sunday Train two weeks ago. And when I look at it, a Rapid Rail upgrade between Richmond and Raleigh offers opportunities to extend new conventional rail service to Atlanta.

This is based on the existing Crescent corridor to Charlotte, the existing Piedmont corridor to Raleigh, the proposed Rapid Rail corridor from Raleigh to Richmond, and the existing corridor for Northeastern Regional services from Richmond to DC. I assume upgrades between Washington DC and Raleigh that are equivalent to an effective timetabled transit speed of 70mph, and sufficient investment between Raleigh and Atlanta to ensure effective transit speed of 45mph or better between the major stations. The result is an opportunity for a two-trainset, round trip service between DC and Atlanta:

  • DC / Richmond / Raleigh NC / Charlotte NC / Greenville SC / Atlanta:
    • 7:00A/8:33A/11:22A/3:06P/5:22P/8:42P
  • Atlanta / Greenville SC / Charlotte NC / Raleigh NC / Richmond / DC:
    • 7:30A/10:35A/1:00P/4:40P/7:30P/9:02P

Atlanta presently has a single daily intercity rail service, the Crescent, with substantially stronger demand on the eastern leg of the service toward the Carolinas, Virginia, DC and NYC than on the western leg of the service toward Birmingham and New Orleans, arriving from the east before the beginning of business hours and leaving for the east a little after dinner time. The result of adding this service above would be a second Carolina / Virginia / Washington DC service that comes close to flipping the the clock on the eastern leg Crescent service, arriving from the east a little after dinner time and leaving for the east before the start of the business day.

Indeed, establishing a service along these lines would include Atlanta among the beneficiaries of a Rapid Rail upgrade of the Piedmont Corridor, since with an earlier arrival in Atlanta from the east and a later required departure from Atlanta toward the west, it would become possible to extend the service as an evening service from Atlanta to Birmingham with an early morning return.

Now, the current politics of Georgia might not extend beyond the concessions to supporters of intercity passenger rail of engaging in additional planning activities. However, demographic change is an ongoing process. And as we move into the next decade, its also possible for the current political polarization on intercity passenger rail to fade, with a re-emergence of the “local Chamber of Commerce” type politics that originally made intercity passenger rail less of a polarized policy issue.

If so, a DC/Atlanta service over the Piedmont corridor and the emerging “real” SE HSR could be a useful part of the process of extending the “real” SE HSR corridor from Virginia and North Carolina through to Georgia.

Conclusions

As always, the end of the Sunday Train essay is not the final word, but the invitation to start the conversation. Remember that any aspect of sustainable transport policy is fair game for conversation ~ though having spent some hours writing about this topic, I may tend to force fit some other topic into this one, so please flag that you are raising a different topic when doing so.

Image credits: Image 1 Piedmont Service uploaded by photographer to Wikimedia and released to the public domain; Image 2 courtesy Amtrak, Image 3 courtesy SEHSR.org, Image 4 courtesy NC DOT.