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).
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.
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.
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.