DOT officials impressed with mag-lev train tour

ATLANTA - Several state transportation officials are back from a trip to Germany with new enthusiasm for the potential of high-speed rail technology in Georgia.

Traveling with some of their counterparts from Tennessee last week, they rode a "magnetic-levitation'' train that is being tested at a facility near Bremen.

The two states are using $7 million in federal funds to study the feasibility of building and operating a mag-lev train connecting Atlanta with Chattanooga.

"It's incredible how smooth that ride is,'' State Transportation Board member David Doss told his board colleagues Wednesday. "It's a Cadillac. There's no doubt about it.''

Doss' impression of mag-lev technology is particularly telling because he has not been enthusiastic about plans to build two commuter rail lines connecting Atlanta with its southern and northeastern suburbs, including Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

The so-called Lovejoy and Athens lines would use current "wheels-on-steel'' rail technology, while mag-lev trains travel much faster - at speeds reaching 300 mph - on a cushion of air.

"You're really looking at a stagecoach versus the space shuttle,'' Doss said.

David Studstill, chief engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said Germany's rail system in general is far more advanced than anything in the United States. He said an extensive network of inter-city express trains there average speeds of 150 mph to 200 mph.

"They have a train system over there that's about like our interstate (highway) system,'' he said. "With the price of gasoline at $6 a gallon, a lot of folks do ride the train system.''

Studstill said the only operating mag-lev system in place today is in the Chinese city of Shanghai. He said a mag-lev line is about to come online in Munich, Germany, and Congress has provided funds for a system linking Las Vegas with the California coast.

The most recent six-year federal transportation bill provided $90 million for mag-lev projects, a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated price tag of several billion dollars to build the Atlanta-to-Chattanooga line.

Half of the federal money is earmarked for the Las Vegas work, and half is set aside for projects east of the Mississippi River.

The Atlanta-Chattanooga route faces competition from several other proposals, including a high-speed line between Baltimore and Washington.

Doss said he's not even sure the Atlanta-to-Chattanooga route would be the best possibility for Georgia. He said a line connecting Atlanta to Savannah via Macon would be able to move cargo from the Port of Savannah in addition to human passengers.

"I think it has tremendous potential value for our state,'' he said.