There has recently been a decent amount of discussion regarding the possibility of high speed rail in Louisiana.  And while any rail is good in my book, I think both the supporters and detractors of rail expansion are missing the point when it comes to what rail options will work and would actually provide a net positive benefit for our state and region.  As I mentioned in a comment to a previous post, one thing we have to do is to get past this idea that rail is something for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, or only the I-10 corridor.  Rail systems are referred to as networks because they must be treated as a holistic transportation asset that benefit not just one lone area or demographic, but the population as a whole.  Our rail planning for Louisiana must be holistic as well and envisage a plan that benefits the entire state and not just one or two population centers.  So let’s look at a couple of options that unlike those proposed thus far, would actually make money for the state while giving us the chance to move away from car dependence and to a more sustainable, less personally costly model:

High Speed Passenger Rail

High Speed Passenger Rail service works well in certain areas due to the nature of the cities it services.  In Germany, France, and the UK cities are developed in such a way that most business is better accomplished by public transportation than by car.  Subways, trams, metro rail, and buses, bike paths, and very walkable centers make navigating by foot easier and often cheaper and quicker than by car.  There is also an established regional and intercity rail system in these areas which allows the high speed trains to be just one more option in a very diversified system.

Likewise, in the US, the Acela high speed trains of the Amtrak system have succeeded for similar reasons.  Acela trains only serve Boston, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC.  The trains go directly to the cities’ business centers and tie in with efficient, established, local service (mostly subways).  The ridership of these trains is also primarily business oriented with people riding between these 5 business centers.  It was less of a gamble to delve into the Acela line because the majority of its ridership was virtually guaranteed and already in place.

Developing Passenger Rail in Louisiana presents obstacles these systems did not have.

The biggest obstacle to success for train service in Louisiana is the layout of our cities.  Louisiana bit hard into the magical cookie of 1960’s urban sprawl.  Life in the suburbs away from…well…everything, was the mantra of generations of residents, developers and city planners.  It has unfortunately left us with metropolitan areas sometimes with no defined urban center, and nearly always with no truly effective form of local public transit.  At one time New Orleans had 22 streetcar lines.  Today it has two and a half.  At one time Alexandria had about 5 lines.  Today even the idea of a streetcar draws cries of absurdity.  In our cities today car is king, gas is gold, and the working commuters of our state fear the day gas once again crosses that $4 per gallon mark.

The fact is, passenger rail cannot succeed in Louisiana until we reinstitute effective mass transit systems at the local level.  Without such an investment we have the option of building trains to nowhere which people will likely not ride.  Years ago I was on an Amtrak train from NYC to Darienne, CT.  For some reason the train had to stop its run short and I was let out in downtown Stanford at around 1130pm.  There is NOTHING in downtown Stanford, Connecticut at night.  The connecting trains were not running until 430am and I spent a nice boring night walking some very empty streets in a downtown with no people and no connections to the parts of town where people may have been.  Aside from New Orleans, that’s what riding a train in Louisiana would be like if we instituted inter-city rail.  No one wants to go nowhere.

Option 1 – Motorail

People need a way to get around when they get to their destination.

With the absence of dependable effective local transit in our cities, the people of our state depend on their cars.  Those without cars are generally poor and thus don’t matter (oops, we’re not supposed to really talk about that are we).  But yes, you need a car to get around our cities and as many Rail detractors have argued, people are not going to ride a train to somewhere just to be stranded without a car.

Well, they don’t have to be.  Motorail — high speed rail cars that transport automobiles is the answer.  These are in successful operation in many countries around the world and run 24 hours a day through the very profitable Eurotunnel (Chunnel).

Motorail cars trailing passenger cars
Motorail cars trailing passenger cars

The Motorail model is very simple.  Passengers who want to ride the train to their destination and then connect to local rail or whatever ride the train as normal.  But those who wish to drive their car at their destination simply purchase a motorail ticket, drive their car onto the car carrier and then go to their seat on the train.  At the end of the journey they simply drive right off just like you would on a river ferry.

The loading and unloading process takes about 10-15 minutes on each end.  Considering there is no hassling with luggage or finding transport at the station, that delay is easily nullified.

This could actually work in Louisiana.

The benefits to the motorail option are obvious.  Train systems would have increased ridership and be able to maintain profitable operation.  The cost of the motorail ticket for travelers would be a fraction of the cost of gas to drive between the same locations.  Rail travel is considerably safer than highway travel.  And travel would be considerably faster.

Consider the numbers:  New Orleans to Baton Rouge is 80 miles or 1.5 hours driving.  Baton Rouge to Alexandria is 110 miles or 2-2.5 hours.  Alexandria to Shreveport is roughly 130 miles or 2.5 hours driving.  This figures a near perfect driving condition that allows for 60-80 mph average speed.  The Acela runs at 200 mph (operating new trains on existing track, what we would likely have here).

So at even a conservative estimate of only 150 mph, you would get: NOLA – BR  (32 min); BR – ALEX (44 minutes); ALEX – SHRV (48 minutes).  Compare that to current rates and travel from Alexandria to New Orleans decreases from 4-5 hours to 1.5 hours (and that includes a 20 minute layover in Baton Rouge).  The difference from Shreveport to NOLA is 2hrs 45 min versus 6.5 hours.

A modern Bar Car
A modern Bar Car

There are a few things about this that are neat.  For one thing it makes dinner in the French Quarter as easy as getting off work at 5, driving downtown, having a few cocktails in the bar car while you watch the LSU game, getting back in your car, driving about 15 blocks, parking, partying, getting back on the train, and watching a rerun of Law & Order, and being asleep in your CenLa bed by 2am.

For another, Motorail cars are much cheaper to build and maintain than passenger cars.  So the added cost to offer this service would be very low.

Motorail — that’s how you get people to ride trains in Louisiana.

Option 2 – High Speed Freight

High Speed Freight service is one option that Louisiana should not ignore.  On a long distance approach, high speed freight still doesn’t work out too economically beneficial.  The reason really comes in the efficiency of our existing nationwide cargo rail system, and the massive cost involved in upgrading the millions of miles of track and of buying new vehicles that a long-distance system would require.  But on a local standpoint high speed rail makes sense, especially in instances where point-to-point transport of goods is required and the ranges are less than 100 miles.

CenLa is one of these places.  As much as I hope to eventually see high speed passenger service (with motorail cars) coming through CenLa I am not holding my breath.  Most people in South Louisiana are still convinced we don’t have electricity or plumbing north of I-10 (oops, time to wind up the ‘puter again), so the reality of hoping that we would get a fair shake in the divvying up of the passenger rail pie is not too great.  But point-to-point high speed freight could absolutely transform the economic landscape of the Central Louisiana region.

Alexandria is home to an international airport which happens to be a first port of entry for international cargo shipments (although this possibility hasn’t been used much).  It is actually the furthest inland air point of entry on the Gulf Coast between Dallas and Atlanta.  Almost adjacent to Alexandria International is the Port of Alexandria — connecting rail and interstate shipments to the Red River.  Additionally local industries are working on a series of proposals that will either add an additional intermodal facility (possibly in Pollock) and/or upgrade the capabilities of AEX and the Port to operate in a more complementary capacity.

That’s all great, but it’s not best of it.  There are currently two approved yet non-operational ports within a 45 – 1.5 hour drive of Alexandria.  The Avoyelles Parish Port in Simmesport (already connected to Alexandria via rail) is situated just 43 miles south of Alexandria on the Atchafalaya River and the Port of Vidalia is 78 miles due east of Alexandia on the Mississippi River (and a good 200 miles upriver from the Port of Baton Rouge).  Between Alexandria and Vidalia is also Jonesville, strategically situated on the Black River which is also navigable, connected to Alexandria and Vidalia by rail (and soon to be interstate) and provides additional access to ports on the Tensas and Ouachita Rivers.

Dedicated high speed freight rail connections between these facilities could result in the combination of a Gulf Coast Inland Strategic Megaport.  Imagine a port that served three of the nation’s major waterways, provided two direct routes to the Gulf, and access to international air, interstate, and rail service a full 200 miles north of New Orleans and (for the most part) beyond the hurricane danger zone.  Add to that the fact that we have access to Free Trade Zone area, and GO Zone programs, and you have an application of high speed rail with so much economic potential that even the most staunchly opposed, Ford Excursion driving, anti-rail Republican could not argue with.

Where do pretty much every River in the midsection of the US intersect?  CenLa
Where do pretty much every River in the midsection of the US intersect? CenLa

Port information on the three ports here:

This is the kind of thinking we need in talking about Rail for Louisiana.  Then later on, after we’ve rebuilt our public transportation infrastructure in our cities, we can look at expanding to things like NOLA-Covington, or NOLA to Slidell, or Lafayette to Baton Rouge Commuter lines or regional rail connecting rural areas to their urban centers.

11 thoughts

  1. I do not disagree with your presentation…
    For the sprawling metro areas it would work,if you could
    get the population to understand the advantages of it.
    But only one bug-a-boo exists other than the general population and big business objecting to it and that is:


    For almost everyone, at this point in time, it would be at the bottom of their list, if on it at all.

    1. Well everything costs money and the return on these two rail options is certainly considerably greater than that for the money we spend on Interstate highways or the money we spend redoing and redoing various exit ramps to shopping malls in Baton Rouge year after year.

      We need to move into the 20th Century. That’s likely to cost some money to undo all the damage of previous generations (and yes I did say 20th).

  2. This was very informative! I’ve always been interested in rail but I never thought it feasible in American cities (other than the big ones) because of the suburban sprawl.

    The Motorail option excites me. I would love to be able to make it down to New Orleans from Alexandria in good time and in relaxing style — with my car in tow.

    Unfortunately, I agree with alexcenla: the money of investment is perhaps a threshold the citizens simply can’t swallow. I mean, we’re talking about a public that never saw a tax cut it didn’t like and an administration that cuts costs at every opportunity. Rail seems like a discretionary project that will only gain support with a perfect storm of factors: very high fuel costs, skilled pitchmenship, and a budget surplus.

  3. Just did a bit of math regarding the motorail option:

    If you traveled on Amtrak from NYC to L.A. it would run you about $200. Let’s say for the heck of it we add another $100 in for a spot for the car. That puts your travel cost for that trip at about $300.

    To drive from NYC to L.A. it is roughly 3,000 miles. Figuring an average of 20mpg and an average cost of $3/gal for gas (padded slightly to cover food and such) that same trip would cost you $450.

    Now, if you figure some other issues in, it takes most people three days to drive fully cross-country so that means two hotel rooms along the way ($100-150 more) and since the trip is 3,000 miles, you’d need an oil change as soon as you got there (another $50).

    So assuming nothing goes wrong you’re looking at a cost of driving that trip of $600-700 versus the motorail option of (even after buying food and all on the train and paying for a sleeper car if you wanted) around $400 max.

    Now, if train ridership were to increase, and high speed trains slowly replace the older less efficient ones, the cost of that train journey would likely be halved within 5 years so you’d be looking at it costing about 3 times as much to drive and with high speed rail, the train journey would take about a day versus 3 days by car.

    Something to think about…

  4. Drew, I don’t think you are considering the possibility that the powers to be in Louisiana like Louisiana as it is, just fine. Change and progress are a threat to these people. I’m from New Orleans, lived there my whole life until Katrina (plan on moving back asap). The rivalries between New Orleans and the suburban parishes has kept that area from growing. The conservative leadership in the suburbs have done everything they could to halt growth and economic progress. While there has been some good news about the entrepreneurial growth in New Orleans since Katrina (garnering national attention), the New Orleans area has been deemed the worst area of the country for development of multi-family housing because of zoning laws of the suburbs.

    Multi-family housing is the key to sophisticated economic growth. Multi-family housing (we are talking apartments and condos here) is exactly the kind of housing young entrepreneurial professionals seek out. They don’t yet have families so they don’t need large suburban homes. They are just starting out in their careers so they can’t really afford large suburban homes anyway. There are political problems for the conservative lawmakers in the suburban parishes with yuppies moving in.

    Yuppies tend to vote for and demand more progressive leadership. Even when they vote Republican it is much more likely to be a Bloomberg Republican rather than a Sarah Palin Republican. Louisiana likes their Republicans very Sarah Palin-esque (and their Democrats aren’t much better). Yuppies bring with them, a more vibrant economy and more educated class. But they also bring more liberal voting patterns. The latter is the threat to the current leadership of the suburban parishes. Thus, a ban on multifamily housing keeps the yuppies away. This causes economic stagnation for the whole region, but I dare say, that powers that be are fine with that. After all they got theirs.

    This is why there is so much sprawl in Louisiana. Limited multi-family housing means more sprawl, more cars, and less usage of public transportation.

    Here’s something that is shocking: I am forty years old and never owned a car. I never even attempted to get a drivers license.

    How did that happen? I grew up in New Orleans. New Orleans is a nice compact city. It (pre-Katrina) had a very good public transportation system where you could catch a bus every ten or fifteen minutes, there were so many places within walking distance, and if all of that failed, I usually could get a cab in as little as five minutes. Try any of that here in CenLa. You most certainly couldn’t do that in the suburbs in Jefferson Parish. You know how much of an oddball you look walking down Veterans HWY in Metairie? In fact, I’ve been stopped by JPSO only because I looked suspicious because I was walking down Veterans HWY. Oh, and try finding a sidewalk!

  5. Thank you for another great post. Where else may just anybody get that kind of info in such a perfect manner of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I am at the search for such info.

  6. I am trying to find out some information on the timeline of the opening of the Historic Hotel Bentley in Alexandria. Anyone who could pass some information along
    I would greatly appreciate it…..(318)-355-8467….Thanks, Terry Ford, Monroe , Louisiana

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