Last fall, I took a trip to Germany and England and six weeks later made a swing through the American Southeast.  That's a difficult transition to make for a ferroequinologist to make, going from the punctuality and sheer speed of Deutsche Bahn in Bavaria to the faltering efforts of Norfolk Southern to move the Capitol Limited from Chicago just to South Bend, let alone Pittsburgh.  But my firsthand observations of Passenger Rail German style permitted a more informed comparison and analysis of the potential for improving the rail service in the old Confederacy.

So, for an almost-on-Friday Throwback Thursday, let us consider the travails involved in getting from Washington, D.C., where the rail narrative broke off last November, to Birmingham, Alabama, an instructive destination for the Civil Rights history and for the iron and steel business of the Southeast.

Major rail stations worldwide tend to have retail space where once there were great open spaces.  Here's Nürnberg.

Washington's Union Station went from a National Park Service dump to a shopping center where the Eastern Establishment can buy stuff before boarding an Acela to a destination elsewhere in the Official Region.  Left-luggage facilities in the Metropolitan Lounge are rudimentary compared to those in Chicago.

The former concourse, 20 October 2014.

I have Viewliner space on Nineteen headed for Birmingham.  I jotted the numbers down on a separate slip of paper that I misplaced.  My main notebook reports Nineteen, the Crescent, called at 6.35, depart Washington 6.58.  Have space in the diner upon departure.  Alexandria 7.16 - 7.18, two stops north of Manassas, Manassas 8.12 - 8.14, Culpepper 8.46 - 8.47, Charlottesville 9.40 - 9.47.

Bless me, this is pleasant, riding on the Rail!

I've taken to purchasing a half-bottle of wine with dinner (provides an opportunity to add a tip appropriate to a full dinner, something I've noticed that most sleeping car passengers understand.)  Time to turn in.  Rest reasonably well, awaken to the absence of movement, raise the window shade.

Just another day in Atlanta.  Check watch, it's about 8 am, versus the scheduled arrival time of 8.13.  Not because of any German-style fast running through the Piedmont, no, it's the generous recovery margins.

The Atlanta station is pathetic.  Even Atlantans recognize that.  Shower up, jump down, turn around, take a picture, head for the diner.

Silver Bit is a former Burlington car, originally a coach, that Amtrak converted to a diner.  Inside, it looks like a diner, and the food was good.  Cut in ahead of the Amfleet II coaches are a couple of original Amfleet coaches, why those are on the train I didn't find out.  (It's ferroequinologist's luck that the notes of the odd movements sometimes get lost.)

From Atlanta toward Birmingham the train uses a single-track line that comes to grips with the foothills of the Appalachians.  There's enough freight traffic that a second track might come in handy, and the Atlanta to New Orleans route might have the traffic base to warrant a dedicated passenger line in the German style, if the will were there.  Anniston has a rudimentary station, 10.26 - 10.27.  Into Birmingham, where the platforms and passenger facilities are carved out of the remnants of the old Louisville and Nashville station.

I kept on thinking ... how does the Washington to Atlanta distance compare with, say, Hamburg to München.  So when I went home, I did some research.  Hamburg - München via Nürnberg and the Neubaustrecke, 779 km (484 mi.)  Washington - Atlanta via Charlotte (the old Southern Railway) 1020 km (634 mi).  What about major population centers?

Compare and contrast.

I laid out both charts with the same scale for rail distances (using timetable information, but all sections expressed as straight lines.)  Metropolitan area populations come from City Population: the large circles are 4.5 million to 5.5 million people (there might be differences in the way the U.S. and German censuses define metropolitan areas).  But the map does not make a prima facie case against something more than a rudimentary service in the Southeast (there are three regional trains linking Raleigh and Charlotte, and three long distance trains Washington and Savannah.)

By contrast, here's the proposed German base service (via Destination: Freedom).

Destination: Freedom laments the lack of expanded international service in the German plan.  But compared to the United States, it's ambitious. "Within Germany perhaps one of the longest ICE train routes is Hamburg – Munich at approx. 780 km or 485 miles. That is only about 30 miles longer than the Amtrak NEC from Boston to Washington DC."  Well, yes.  But the Southeast might be a land mass comparable to south Germany, Austria, and Hungary.  And the Germans, Trains reports, are providing the additional train service as a way of enticing passengers off the Autobahnen.  Atlanta-style congestion probably happens there, too.

Meanwhile, here's what the Southeast High Speed Rail folks are considering.

Maybe.  For the present, adding frequency and giving the passenger trains free rein to 110 might start building the traffic.  Here's Phillip Longman, using a traditional German main line (I rode the Köln - Bonn - Remagen section last fall) to make that case.
I decided to take the longer, more scenic route back to Frankfurt, which costs just $72, riding the old West Rhine Railway. Begun in 1844, it’s a conventional railway that twists and turns mostly along the banks of the Rhine, passing beneath many high-perched castles and vineyards. It also provides access to such midsize cities as Koblenz and Mainz, and to such bucolic spots as the famous Rock of Lorelei, all of which the new high-speed rail line misses in order to save time.

Because of its more circuitous route and local stops, and because passenger trains on the Rhine Valley line also have to share tracks with many freight trains, these trains are slower than those on the new high-speed line. Yet they still max out at about 100 mph, which means that they only take a bit more than an hour longer to go from Cologne to Frankfurt even as they serve more population centers in between. The line is vibrant, with local and express passenger trains passing through any given station every fifteen to twenty minutes. By European or Asian standards, this service doesn’t qualify as high-speed rail, but it is faster on average than most American railways, and frequent enough to provide vital connectivity throughout the Rhine Valley.

My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon.
It's actually what America has the most to rediscover.  But with the Northeast Corridor slowly creeping toward Newport News and Lynchburg, and onward to Roanoke, why not generalize Mr Longman's argument.
Conventional trains running between Washington and such nearby cities to the south as Richmond, Charlottesville, Durham, and Charlotte already attract a growing ridership, and would attract a larger one if they were more frequent and reliable, as well as better integrated with trains running north of D.C. along the Northeast Corridor. The minimal investment needed in new track capacity would also improve freight service, thereby getting more trucks off the road and improving the driving experience for those who don’t want to take the train. It also would likely spur a good amount of economic development. Midsize cities such as Lynchburg or Petersburg, Virginia, which once thrived because of their strategic position on the nation’s rail map, might experience a real estate boom if it were possible to live there and still have easy access to the business opportunities and cultural amenities of Washington, Philadelphia, or New York. Projects currently under way will do the same for cities like Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Springfield, Illinois, by providing improved connections with Chicago.
Just as I have been arguing for years. And there are a lot of intermodal and autorack trains on the Crescent's line. Double-track it and path some 110 mph trains.

And the Interstate Highway system as we know it might be unsustainable.  More here.  As Evan Jenkins notes,
First, we need to get more trucks off highways, since they do far more damage to the road than cars. Properly calibrated tolls should help to discourage long-haul shipping by truck, but in order for there to be an alternative, we need to beef up our rail infrastructure. The current state of rail freight in the United States is atrocious: it can take more than 30 hours for a train to pass through Chicago. A relatively small amount of investment will go a long way towards shifting more freight from the roads to the rails, thereby vastly decreasing maintenance costs for the roads we have.

Second, we need to provide a path forward for auto-dependent cities and suburbs. While the Obama administration already proposed an ambitious high-speed rail plan in 2009, the exorbitant costs involved leave it unlikely to be realized anytime soon. Instead, we should focus on making better use of existing passenger rail infrastructure, which is far too often surrounded by parking lots instead of residences and workplaces.
And the freight railroads seem willing to work with the Passenger Rail authorities to provide improved trackage for faster passenger and freight trains. Even if the result is more like the West Rhine than the Neubaustrecke.

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