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High-speed train would zip from Nashville to Atlanta in 2 hours

(The following story by Christina E. Sanchez appeared on The Tennessean website on August 12.)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Imagine a trip from Nashville to Atlanta in which your travel time is less than two hours, without a minute spent behind the wheel or in an airport departure lounge.

The transportation mode: a bullet train propelled by magnets and capable of speeds of 310 mph.

High-speed trains are the future, say Tennessee and Georgia transportation officials who have looked at the potential for such service between Nashville and Atlanta via Chattanooga.

A recent $1 million feasibility study says the Nashville-to-Chattanooga project is doable, but it would cost an estimated $5.4 billion in public and private dollars.

Plus, it would hinge on the completion of the Atlanta-to-Chattanooga leg.

The two routes combined would take nearly 10 years to build, if the money were available.

Officials admit the Atlanta-to-Nashville corridor doesn't top the list of all the high-speed rail projects in the country, but proponents contend it's time to give them serious consideration.

High-speed rail are commonplace in Europe and Asia. Transportation experts say gasoline prices, congested roadways and a shaky airline industry make it a natural goal.

"High-speed transportation is something this country has to get into," said Joe Ferguson, special project manager at The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, a nonprofit agency leading the Nashville-Chattanooga rail project.

"We've got to think ahead.

"We've got to ask questions about what we can do to maintain the kind of mobility we are used to."

Nashville-to-Chattanooga and Chattanooga-to-Atlanta are two of seven proposed U.S. corridors that would be built using magnetic levitation technology, in which cars float inches above a guide rail and are sped along by magnets.

It is called maglev for short.

Neither proposal is likely to be the first built.

"The Las Vegas-to-Anaheim project is probably ahead," Ferguson said.

"They have a huge backing and support from the casinos."

The proposed Nashville-to-Chattanooga route, which would run along Interstate 24, includes stations in Nashville's and Chattanooga's downtowns and airports, as well as in Murfreesboro.

The 149-mile trip would take 52 minutes, and a round-trip ticket could cost $75.

Research suggests that by 2030, daily ridership would be about 5,100 total trips a day.

Maglev has become the transportation mode of choice in China, and United States transportation officials have traveled there several times to view the operation.

Shanghai's maglev line, built with public and private money, has run 41⁄2 years without any accidents.

The train takes eight minutes to travel a 19-mile route.
Airport would benefit

Michael Skipper, of the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Middle Tennessee commuters could benefit from the maglev, which would provide the infrastructure for commuters.

"We could position ourselves to take advantage of infrastructure to have a high-capacity train from Murfreesboro to Nashville," Skipper said.

"It's early, but I think it has potential."

Ed Cole, chief of environment and planning for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the train also would relieve congestion at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where about $5 billion has been spent on expansions and runway additions in recent years.

"Atlanta-Hartsfield has reached capacity," Cole said.

"You have the difficulties with aviation right now, and the high cost of air travel.

The next generation of transportation is going to require us to evaluate how highway and rail fit together."

A future expansion of the Atlanta airport may have to be considered, but the maglev line, he said, could allow Georgians to use Chattanooga's airport as a second option.
Vision includes Chicago

Money is needed to make anything happen.

The Bush administration has made nearly $90 million available for maglev planning projects. U.S. Rep. Zack Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican, wants to get some of that money for the Nashville-to-Atlanta route.

"It is still a long shot, and it's hard to do, but it's needed," Wamp said.

"Yes, it is expensive, but we should pursue this with everything we have because high speed rail connecting from Atlanta to the north through our state would do great things for Tennessee."

Already, nearly $2 million in federal grants has been put toward the Nashville segment, while another $8 million has gone toward the Atlanta portion, which is a 30-month environmental and engineering study phase.

The long-term vision is to connect the line all the way to Chicago, a pipe dream for residents like Nashville resident Dave Miller.

"Maglev would be like taking Tennessee into the future, instead of it languishing in the past century when it comes to transportation," Miller said.

"Maybe our great-great-grandkids will enjoy the maglev."

Count Miller, who took a recent trip on Amtrak's high-speed Acela train in the northeastern U.S., is among those who doubt the costly project will ever happen.

"The cost factor is what concerns me," said Miller, 68.

"It will be 15-20 years before it runs, as slow as they get things going here.

"Let's get regular rail running, and if that proves successful, then lets think about maglev."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

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