The Southeast has some of the fastest-growing and most culturally innovative cities in the country, including Atlanta, Miami, and Nashville.
It also boasts scores of vibrant mid-sized communities like Asheville (NC), Greenville and Charleston (SC), and Chattanooga (TN). With its central location and rapid growth, Atlanta has immense promise as the heart of a regional and national high-speed rail network.
The region will have roughly one-fourth of the nation’s population by 2040. In addition to its thriving tourism industry, it has a strong manufacturing base, excellent universities, and a flourishing biotech sector. Both major political parties are well represented in the leadership and Congressional delegations of Southeastern states—reflecting the broad, bipartisan support for trains in America.
State of Development
The Southeast is home to exciting passenger-rail action.
The Federal Railroad Administration and the Southeast Corridor Commission have created a Southeast Regional Rail Plan, which builds on states’ individual plans and offers a vision for a regional network.
Virginia has created and funded a long-range plan that integrates passenger-train, commuter-rail, and other systems across the state. Projects underway will vastly improve train service between Richmond and Washington, D.C. (to the north) and Raleigh, NC (to the south).
Brightline is connecting southern Florida with fast trains running from Miami through communities along the state’s east coast, then west to Orlando and Tampa.
The Georgia Department of Transportation and FRA have identified a preferred route for a high-speed line connecting Atlanta and Charlotte. The 274-mile trip would take a little over 2 hours—versus nearly four by car.
Southeast Regional Rail Plan
The Southeast Regional Rail Plan proposes a vision for a regional passenger-rail network.
The plan identifies core elements and steadily builds out that core with new segments and upgrades to existing lines. From the pivot point of Atlanta, three high-speed lines would radiate out and link the region, with lines to Tampa Bay (via Jacksonville and Orlando); to Nashville; and to Washington D.C. (via Charlotte and Raleigh). Ultimately, Atlanta would also be a key hub in a national network, with routes to New York, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans.
Impact: A network of high-speed trains in the Southeast would be transformative on three levels. It would connect some of the fastest-growing areas of the country. Growth in the Nashville-Atlanta corridor is roughly three times the national average, for example. By linking the Southeast network to the Northeast corridor in Washington, D.C., it would also create a network of fast trains all the way from New York to Atlanta/Miami. And it would incentivize investments in railroad infrastructure in small and mid-sized communities across the region.
Challenge: Building a regional network requires close cooperation among policymakers in the relevant states. A federal-level plan could break down barriers to cooperation by giving states a path forward and a vision of how they would benefit.
Virginia has one of the most aggressive state passenger rail plans in the country. The overall initiative, called Transforming Rail in Virginia (TRV), will more than double the level of Amtrak service in Virginia.
TRV’s most transformative project is a new bridge solely for passenger trains over the Potomac River. It will relieve one of the worst railroad bottlenecks in North America. Other projects will add or upgrade tracks, and separate freight rail from passenger trains, on significant portions of rail line. Meanwhile, Virginia and North Carolina have received a federal grant to connect Richmond and Raleigh with faster, more frequent trains running on dedicated tracks.
Impact: Productive relationships between states, passenger-rail providers, and the freight railroads can deliver big wins. For example, Virginia bought 80 miles of right-of-way owned by CSX for the portion of the proposed new Amtrak service from Richmond to Raleigh. Cooperation between states is equally important. Virginia and North Carolina are creating a model of interstate cooperation by working together on the Richmond to Raleigh service.
Challenge: Virginia’s plans have focused mainly on improving the speed and frequency of Amtrak service and local transit systems. Now it should initiate planning for high-speed rail. As a vital link between the Southeast and Northeast regions, Virginia could create the foundation for true high-speed trains in both regions.
Brightline brought fast, frequent and affordable trains to southeastern Florida’s coastal cities in 2018, with a line extending from Miami to West Palm.
It will soon begin service to Central Florida, with stops at Orlando’s airport. Long-term, it aims to offer service all the way from Miami to Tampa adding stops near Disney World & Universal Studios.
As a private, for-profit passenger-rail company, Brightline incorporates best practices across its operations. These include modern trains; level boarding at stations; hourly departures from early morning to late evening; phased construction of the line; and attention to first- and last-mile mobility options, so that customers can leave their cars at home.
Impact: Brightline’s method of combining shared-use railroad tracks with new, dedicated tracks is promising. Its trains run at 79 mph and 110 mph on tracks shared with freight trains, and they will run at 125 mph on future, dedicated tracks. Brightline’s model of treating the freight railroads as partners—and partnering with them to leverage existing infrastructure—is key to the future of passenger-train service in the U.S.
Challenge: Brightline’s model presents the challenge of running fast trains on lines normally used by slower freight trains. A key takeaway is that good safety features at crossings—and grade separation, when possible—are critical.