High speed rail Birmingham to Atlanta

Jennifer L. Greer
Jennifer L. Greer

Today’s guest columnist is Jennifer L. Greer.

Editor’s note: Last year ComebackTown published a column titled Birmingham bullet train to Atlanta. It was the most read piece in our history. I asked Jennifer Greer, a profession journalist, to determine its likelihood.

On a recent flight from North Dakota, Jane and Charles Falany, of Vestavia Hills, AL, thought they were almost home when their plane touched down in Atlanta, GA, around 4 p.m.

A connecting flight would put them in Birmingham, AL, in an hour or two.

But the Atlanta airport quickly shut down due to a thunderstorm. And with flights cancelled and rescheduled several times, the couple did not get home until nearly 11 p.m. “We could have driven home faster,” says Mrs. Falany.

What if they had the option of taking High-Speed-Rail (HSR) from the Atlanta airport to Birmingham in a little over an hour?

“Absolutely, we would take the train,” she says, and Mrs. Falany is among a majority of Americans who support passenger rail development.

“When will we be able to do that?” That’s a question folks in Birmingham and Atlanta have been asking for, well, at least 25 years.

From the Olympics to The World Games

Passenger rail already exists between Birmingham and Atlanta via the Amtrak Crescent ,taking about 4 1/2 hours, or two hours longer than driving a car. But there have been calls for faster service since well before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

In 1997, the federal government designated the Birmingham-Atlanta line as one of 11 routes in the country warranting high-speed trains, citing the need for economic development as well as improved public transportation.

But politics changed in Washington, D.C., and time passed.

In 2004, the idea emerged again as part of a multi-state effort to create an 800-mile I-20 Rail Corridor and connect “the mega-regions” of Dallas-Fort Worth, TX, and Atlanta, GA., according to the Southern Rail Commission.

Then came the Great Recession of 2007-2008.

In 2012, with a stronger economy and new federal impetus, a fast train from Birmingham to Atlanta along Interstate 20 (with its existing right of way and amenable geography) looked promising, says Charles Ball, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPCGB). Ball’s organization partnered with the Georgia Department of Transportation to generate an extensive report on the feasibility of high speed rail along several corridors.

“This proposed corridor extended from the Atlanta airport to a multi-modal facility in downtown Atlanta and on to downtown Birmingham, where we now have a new Intermodal Facility,” he explains. “They analyzed routes for 90-110 mph Shared Use and 180-220 mph Dedicated Use, along with a hybrid model. It was the shortest of the corridors studied, had the least expensive capital costs, and was greenlighted for the next level of planning.”

As with the development of America’s interstate highway system, government funding would be needed to supplement private investment and fully implement HSR, the report said.

But again, politics changed in Washington, D.C., and more time passed.

“Now The World Games have come and gone,” says Ball. “I don’t understand why we can send Americans to the moon, but folks can’t travel from Atlanta to Birmingham on a fast train.”

The Dream Train: An Elevated I-20X

Most recently, Birmingham’s HSR hopes were raised in 2020 by a pitch to the city about a privately-led proposal, I-20X High Speed Rail, which describes intercity passenger rail service connecting Atlanta, GA, Birmingham, AL, Jackson, MS, Shreveport LA, and Dallas, TX.

Prepared by a local consulting firm, Finley Group, Inc., I-20X’s ambitious vision includes high-tech trains that would run on elevated tracks at speeds of 200 mph with an estimated start-up cost of $4.5 billion to $6 billion for the Birmingham to Atlanta segment.

Such a service would cut car travel times between Atlanta and Dallas from 12 hours to about 5 hours, and between Birmingham and Atlanta from 2.5 hours to a little over 1 hour, in addition to creating a boom in economic development from the transportation industry and rail station sites as new commercial hubs, says Richard H. Finley, company president.

Finley, a Black Republican leader and entrepreneur who dismisses public funding for such projects, had hoped to market his concept at a 2020 HSR conference in Birmingham that was cancelled due to the pandemic. Since then, he has lobbied the staff of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to try to obtain memoranda of cooperation, without success.

Meanwhile, politics had changed again in Washington, D.C.

2020s: Decade of Fast Passenger Rail?

In 2021, the $1 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dedicated $41 billion in grants to Amtrak and $43.5 billion for Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grants, including high speed rail. Consider the flurry of rail projects in Southern states.

A new high-speed rail line between the two state capitals of Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, VA., is in the works. A proposed high speed passenger rail line will link Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, Ga., via the 274-mile Greenfield Corridor. In Tennessee, when Amtrak announced that it wanted to link Nashville with Chattanooga, Atlanta and other cities, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers fast-tracked a new law to identify intercity rail networks.

This activity, coupled with the fact that neither U.S. senator from Alabama voted for the infrastructure law, prompts locals to wonder if Birmingham will get left at the station when the HSR train pulls away.

“I think you will see something happen here,” says Birmingham City Councilman Clinton Woods (D1), a rail enthusiast, adding that the city plans to reschedule a major HSR conference for officials, investors, rail operators, and developers.

“Fast passenger rail is safer, reduces the number of cars on the road, extends the lifetime of the interstate, reduces pollution, and attracts a younger workforce that may want to live here , where housing is affordable, and work in Atlanta,” he adds.

Brightline passenger service in Florida
Brightline passenger service in Florida

Woods recently visited a new passenger rail service, Brightline, which runs at between 80 mph and 110 mph, in Florida. A privately held company launched in 2018, Brightline has already carried 1.5 million passengers from Miami to West Palm Beach and is expanding its service to the Orlando airport and Tampa with the help of federal funding.

“It’s a great experience, like flying,” says Woods, of Brightline. “And the development, especially in the footprint around hubs, where apartment complexes, retail shops and restaurants have popped up, is impressive.

“It takes a lot of coordination and buy-in, but we have demonstrated we can do that,” he says, pointing to Birmingham’s new Intermodal Facility as transformational and the city’s momentum after hosting The World Games and becoming home to the USFL.

Ever the optimist, I made a note to call Ball, Finley, and Woods back in 2032.

 Jennifer L. Greer is a freelance journalist and a retired university instructor who lives in the Birmingham, AL. area.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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19 thoughts on “High speed rail Birmingham to Atlanta”

  1. I hate to throw cold water on the well-intentioned idea, but you will see the Second Coming before hi-speed rail in the still largely rural South, where it takes years to add a lane to an interstate, let alone hundreds of miles of completely new infrastructure on new or existing right if way.

  2. The airlines have served us well for several decades, but now the skies are crowded and airlines are having a terrible time being reliable and on time. High speed, or at least nearly high speed rail, is needed to take some of the pressure off the air infrastructure.

    1. Pat, I agree. It does seem like the airlines have peaked with their ability to provide safe, reliable service at an affordable price. And few people I know actually enjoy flying anymore. The pandemic may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I can’t imagine that climate change — bringing more frequent extreme weather and consumer pushback against fossil fuels — will improve the airlines’ outlook long-term. Wouldn’t they be smart to partner with backers of HSR efforts like the Birmingham-to Atlanta line?

    1. Nope…people have been crying over Hwy 280 since the Shelby County Sewer Moratorium was lifted in the early 1980s. Ain’t gonna happen.

      Mt. Brook and Homewood have fought (and will fight) against any expansion of infrastructure updates (as a monorail or multi-deck) that may depreciate their property values. And the business owners on 280 won’t accept anything that moves car traffic away from their front door.

      1. Actually there was one instance in which Governor Bentley removed a traffic light on 280 in Mountain Brook even after a woman who owned adjacent property with businesses begged her not to.

  3. High speed rail is needed and I believe wanted by most people … two routes best …

    1) Birmingham to Mobile &

    2) Atlanta, Birmingham then all the to Dallas

    All this could / should happen if enough people get there heads together and push it … make it happen. It would be an economic and tourist boom to Alabama and the South!

    People are not opposed to these routes … they just don’t believe it will happen so they (the people) are quiet … typical behavior!

    More expertise, more funds and more voices will produce the results that are needed beyond periodic article writing(s). Hopefully, this will get done … so the time to move to newer levels are now and continue forward!

    Forward thinking people are going ahead elsewhere … so I believe the will to do this now is the right move. Being left behind should not be an option … so onward we should go!

    1. David, I am with you. I would love to see folks in Alabama and Georgia organize to make this happen. We Southerners are quick to protest what we don’t like about government, but we seem less eager to demand our share of the infrastructure future (while it goes to other states). Also, why is it a top priority for Alabama politicians to make Huntsville a Space Force hub and ignore the job/economic/tourism potential for growth in high-speed rail between Atlanta, Birmingham, Mobile, Dallas? Can’t we do both at the same time? I will be watching to see if the city of Birmingham reschedules a HSR conference in 2023 or 2024, ideally in collaboration with Atlanta. That could be a springboard.

  4. I would be interested in hearing what a representative of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport Authority has to say about the prospect of a Birmingham-Atlanta high speed rail system, particularly on the impact it would have on air passenger traffic here.

    I don’t think that opinion would be optimistic.

    1. Dick, It will take someone with vision, for sure. But once they realize that they are in the transportation/economic development businesses, and not just the airlines business, they will see that HSR is not competition, but a strategic advantage.

      1. Jennifer,
        For better or worse (separate discussion), I see nothing but a significant negative impact on the volume of air passenger traffic at Birmingham—Shuttlesworth. I wasn’t aware that the Airport Authority’s mission was to coordinate with other transportation modes — even if such coordination possibly could benefit the entire metropolitan area (again, another discussion) — at the airport’s own expense, unless directed from above to do so.

  5. While I do love this idea, the line from Birmingham to Atlanta is a very low priority to Atlanta. And Dallas to Birmingham is also low priority as Texas is moving forward with their high speed rail between Dallas, Austin, and Houston. Atlanta would prioritize a rail to Charlotte/DC or Orlando/Miami long before a rail to Birmingham.

    You have to remember, this sounds great to Birmingham folks, but ATL or Dallas really don’t care to have better access to Birmingham as their top rail priorities.

      1. I’ve driven between Atlanta and Chattanooga on I24, Atlanta and Greenville on I85, Atlanta and Macon on I75. All heavily traveled. And of course between Atlanta and Birmingham on I20. If the purpose of high speed rail is to ease travel on highly traveled automobile routes, the last is the least problematic from Atlanta’s perspective. On the other hand, folks in fast growing Huntsville may have wonderful job opportunities, but they look to Birmingham and Nashville for shopping, entertainment and visits with family. A north-south line makes more sense from the perspective of Birmingham and North Alabama.

  6. Rather than try to solely go in on the interstate HSR interests, Birmingham should try to get some more touristy commuter regional train line routes intra state that can be later also be used for HSR (preferably passenger rail only, but unlikely). That way, the hardest property right issues can be accommodated without being so dependent on the whims of other states (the majority of places on a HSR route won’t get stops. A commuter rail along side HSR will allow for more stops so that more of the places giving up land will be able to benefit.).

    A Talladega to Tuscaloosa would be first to set up cheap football and NASCAR weekend trips as potential selling points (minimizing drunk driving after the events), as well as shorter trips like Lake Logan Martin, Barber Motorsports or the Honda Plant. Crossing the mountains at Anniston to Atlanta can wait for interstate plans to come to fruition. After that, do the same for Huntsville to Montgomery. Then, optionally, the Shoals to Auburn, and a northeast to Fort Payne.

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