DECATUR, Alabama – The allure of riding the rails on a passenger train has been around probably as long as trains have existed. And the flirtation with bringing passenger trains through the Huntsville area has continued over the years.
The late Ed Mitchell for decades pushed a high-speed, magnetic levitation train that would follow the Memphis-to-Atlanta superhighway route that passed through Huntsville.
Just a few years ago, Madison businessman Doug Gooch proposed a light-rail system transporting commuters between Cummings Research Park/Bridge Street Town Centre and Redstone Arsenal.
But the high-concept rail systems proposed by Mitchell and Gooch have never come to fruition, primarily because of the high costs.
Now, a Virginia group has the idea of a railway demonstration project to haul freight and passengers between Memphis and Harrisburg, Pa., on a route that includes Huntsville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.
But the cost of the 965-mile-long rail system is a healthy $12.6 billion.
Pete Lotts, director of RAIL Solution, outlined the demonstration project called “the Steel Interstate” to about 30 elected and economic development officials Wednesday afternoon at Calhoun Community College.
RAIL Solution is a nonprofit group based in Salem, Va., that was formed to reduce heavy tractor-trailer truck traffic on Interstate 81 between Knoxville and Harrisburg.
The proposed demonstration project originally ended on the south end at Knoxville, but the group last year extended the plans to reach Memphis, Lotts said.
Improving the existing railroad tracks and building new tracks represents about $6.5 billion of the cost. Building an electrical system to power the trains would cost about $2.7 billion. Other major costs, Lotts said, include $750 million for separated crossing grades for two tracks and $660 million to buy right of way.
“We’ve got to create the atmosphere for this to happen in a public/private partnership,” Lotts said.
Lotts said guaranteed loans from the federal government would pay about half of the project’s cost, and private capital by issuing bonds would pay another 30 percent of the cost.
Norfolk Southern, which does not support the project, is counted on by the group to pay 8 percent, or about $1 billion, with state and local governments and direct private investment paying the remainder of the cost.
The recently adopted federal transportation bill could provide the $5 million to $10 million needed for a feasibility study, Lotts said.
Lotts said local officials can adopt resolutions supporting the project and talk to other officials and the public about it.
RAIL Solution envisions eight passenger trains running the route daily, Lotts said.
“We’re not talking about high-speed rail,” he said.
The passenger trains would travel between 90 mph and 120 mph, he said. They would be geared to short or medium distance trips such as from Huntsville to either Memphis or Atlanta.
Lotts said the system would be better for the environment by reducing fuel consumption, more economical, and safer for passengers and freight movers.
If the demonstration project is successful, it could lead to a new rail freight system across the entire country, Lotts said.