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Officials eye faster rail link from NC to Atlanta

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Transportation officials are considering the development of a rapid passenger rail service that would link Charlotte and Atlanta with a train that would travel at about 100 mph.

A federal study released this month found that officials could realistically develop service that travels between 90 and 110 mph without needing major changes to the existing rail corridor.

The Charlotte Observer reported that Amtrak service on the route currently has a top speed of 79 mph but still takes more than five hours to make a trip that takes less than four hours in a car.

The preliminary study assumed there would be as many as nine stops between Charlotte and Atlanta, serving passengers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Gastonia, Spartanburg, S.C., Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, Greenville, S.C., Clemson, S.C., Toccoa, Ga., Gainesville, Ga., and Atlanta. The study also looked at continuing rail service to Macon, Ga.

Officials in the three states are now preparing to conduct a more detailed study to assess ridership potential and costs.

The railway would not meet the definition of a "high-speed" line, which is generally reserved for those tracks that move faster than 125 mph. But trains traveling at that speed need costly track upgrades.

At 90 to 110 mph, the trains could share the same track as freight lines and would only need small changes such as sidings to allow the trains to pass. And David Foster, project manager for the corridor at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said a train averaging 80 mph on curves and 110 mph on straightaways would offer good service.

"We are enamored with top speed," Foster told the Observer. "But we get more bang for our buck bringing curves up to 80 mph than running a short straightaway for 125 mph. If you could get an average speed of 90 mph with a couple of trains a day you'd be tickled to death."

Of course, such a project is both costly and a long way from development. Foster estimated the cost to be about $10-$12 million per mile, making the Charlotte-Atlanta corridor a $2.5 billion project.

North Carolina transportation officials expect the federal government to pay for 80 percent of construction costs, and the states are also relying on federal help for things such as environmental studies.