Ask Atlanta: Will the city ever get high-speed rail?

Plans for a Southeast high-speed rail network are progressing slowly

Ask Atlanta: Will we ever get high-speed rail?
A high-speed train in Italy

Photograph by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Ask Atlanta is a regular column where we answer your questions about life in ATL—our infrastructure, our politics, our history and culture, and much more. Have a question? Ask us here!

Question: I want to know when we’ll get high-speed rail. There has been a proposal for a long time for high-speed rail to connect Atlanta to Charlotte. Whatever happened to that? —Leu Croll

Answer: A long time indeed: It was in 1992 that the Federal Railroad Administration first pitched the idea of five high-speed rail corridors around the country, including an initial Southeast route from Washington, D.C., to North Carolina; later in the decade, the FRA added Atlanta and Savannah to its plans. So: On its 30th anniversary, how are plans progressing?

Slowly—though they are progressing. In June, speaking to the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Senator Jon Ossoff promoted the idea of a bullet train between Atlanta and Savannah, noting that he’d steered some federal money into funding an initial environmental survey. The broader vision of a Southeast corridor here could include routes not just to Savannah but to Nashville, Augusta, Charleston—and, yes, Charlotte. “This has the potential to be a really significant part of our state’s infrastructure future,” Ossoff said.

The hurdles are several. First, engineering. High-speed rail can be powered by electricity on its own dedicated line or fueled by diesel on existing tracks. Around our neck of the woods, the latter option is a no-go: In the mountainous areas north of Atlanta, the existing freight track moves through a topography with lots of sharp curves and heavy grades, said Gary Wolf, president of Atlanta-based Wolf Railway Consulting, whereas high-speed rail is “better suited to lighter gradients and easy curves.” New tracks—and the right of way on which to install them—are required.

That’s a lot of work, but it’s not impossible: Just look at the rest of the world. Japan created its first high-speed rail line in 1964 and now boasts trains that can exceed 300 kilometers per hour, or about 186 mph. China and Europe also have well-developed networks. “We know how to build the track, the equipment, the control systems,” Wolf said. The problem? Money—any such ambitious rail project would require generous federal investment—and politics.

The example of a high-speed rail project in California, which would carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in under three hours (as opposed to about six by car), isn’t a hopeful one. In 2008, voters in that state approved a $9 billion investment in what was expected to be a $33 billion project, projected to finish by 2020. To make a long saga short: In order to get buy-in from local governments and politicians, the state was forced to adjust the route and add stops, contributing to ballooning costs while slowing the eventual travel time.

Meanwhile, planners had counted on somewhere between $12 and $16 billion in federal funding—not a wildly misguided notion, given the tens of billions the government spends each year on highway infrastructure. By 2010, the Democrat-controlled Congress had chipped in $3 billion. But when Republicans—no fans of public spending generally and especially antagonistic toward trains—returned to power a couple years later, the money dried up. Under construction in parts, the California project isn’t dead, but estimated costs have climbed to more than $100 billion.

Bullet trains in the U.S. “now will likely require both public-sector participation and private-sector participation, in my view,” says Jackson McQuigg, a railroad historian and a vice president of the Atlanta History Center. McQuigg points to Brightline, a privately owned rail system in Florida that opened its first phase, from Miami to West Palm Beach, in 2018; extensions of the system are in the works, with the final phase expected to accommodate speeds up to 125 mph. “Florida was a notoriously reluctant partner in high-speed rail development until this Brightline model came along,” McQuigg says.

Still, efforts by Ossoff and by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have somewhat revived the idea of federally funded rail in the U.S.; Buttigieg’s boss, of course, is a bit of a train guy himself. And there’s been movement in Georgia. Last year, the FRA and the Georgia Department of Transportation selected a preferred Atlanta-Charlotte route—cost projections range up to $8.4 billion—and are in the process of determining where stations would be placed along the estimated two-hour trip. Along the preferred corridor, trains powered by electricity could travel up to 220 mph.

From the passenger perspective, there’s definite allure to a brisk, scenic trip through the Piedmont that doesn’t involve hellacious I-85 traffic. But there are also climate benefits to rail, one of the most energy-efficient modes of transportation. On a more modest scale, meanwhile, Amtrak is planning to beef up its regular passenger service by 2035, including a new route from Atlanta to Birmingham that would take four hours and 10 minutes. By modest, unfortunately, we mean modest—in 1940, that same trip by train would have taken you two hours and 50 minutes. Consider it another argument for throwing some cash at a speedier alternative.

Research and reporting by Xavier Stevens and Lucinda Warnke.

This article appears in our October 2022 issue.