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Rail Passengers Welcomes Summer Intern Sophia Cohen

June 2, 2021

Third-year Georgia Tech student comes to the Association after publishing a paper on passenger rail expansion in rural Georgia. Proposed creating a passenger rail line utilizing existing freight tracks along the Atlanta, Macon, Savannah route.

My name is Sophia Cohen; I am a third-year Public Policy student at The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta with a minor in Law, Science, and Technology. In my first-year public policy class, I was assigned to “solve any policy related problem.” From this broad prompt, I decided to focus on the lack of transportation opportunities for rural Georgians and the resulting barriers to jobs, education, and healthcare.

After researching the current practices to mitigate the lacking transportation options in rural Georgia, I began to look at alternatives such as rideshare, bus lines, and light rail before ultimately seeing passenger rail as my proposed solution. Without a prior foundational understanding of the industry, history, and implications of passenger rail, I began researching the background of American passenger rail’s historical and social impacts to highlight a dependable and consistent means of transportation for rural Georgians. Currently, rural residents are supplemented by van services that ineffectively address the core issue of an nonexistent reliable transportation system. At the end of that semester-long project, I proposed creating a passenger rail line utilizing existing freight tracks along the Atlanta, Macon, Savannah route that would encompass and serve the surrounding rural communities.

While many students submitted their projects and went about the next few years of college, I was too passionate and inspired to do anything unrelated to passenger rail. I began reaching out to freight companies such as Norfolk Southern to discuss the reality of track-sharing and the possibility of the corridor being used for both freight and passenger rail operations. I also roped in my fantastic professor, who assigned that initial project, to sponsor my research for the following two years. I was awarded the President’s Undergraduate Research Award in 2020, which led me to look beyond Georgia to understand what is happening nationally with passenger rail in other states before applying those best methods to Georgia. The research goal was to answer “What factors determine the success of a passenger rail line utilizing existing freight tracks?” I examined the feasibility and impacts of passenger rail on communities while successfully identifying the characteristics needed to share tracks between freight and passenger rail. I created a data set to understand the effect factors such as rail organizations, transportation spending, policymakers, existing Amtrak lines, and existing non-Amtrak passenger rail has on future passenger rail projects.

This research project created an interest in the influence of rail-specific organizational bodies such as a commission. I spent a large portion of my time understanding what benefits come with this dedicated body seen in Colorado- Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, Delaware- Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, Minnesota- Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission, and Ohio- Ohio Rail Development Commission. The Ohio Rail Development Commission is something I became very familiar with after reading the extensive Ohio State Rail Plan that discussed the inner workings and successes of the commission. I reached out to Stu Nicholson, the previous public information officer of the commission and current public affairs director of All Aboard Ohio, to better understand the tasks and power dynamic between the commission and the state DOT. I gained more information on the commission after talking with Megan McClory– the Ohio Rail Development Commission’s current Treasurer. The commission’s role is to represent the state’s non-regulatory interactions within the rail industry, with a majority of the work involving the funding of safety improvements and rail-related economic development efforts while strengthening the relationship between the state and freight companies. Specifically, the commission’s autonomy to provide grants, loans, and assistance for track rehabilitation and acquisitions has emphasized the success of an independent body focussed on rail to work alongside freight companies and work for mutual benefit.

In many areas of my research looking at advocacy group involvement and influence on passenger rail, the Rail Passengers Association kept coming up. The actions and advocacy work done to further passenger rail in America were inspiring to me and ultimately led me to apply to be a policy intern this summer. I am incredibly excited to be consumed by rail this summer to further my understanding of the inner workings of policy and advocacy on passenger rail. Like my work last year, while I will be researching and learning about practices in states across the nation, I plan to keep rural Georgians in the back of my mind to collect best practices that can be applied to rural communities. A central focus of mine is inclusivity and transportation accessibility. Understanding which plans and objectives best serve rural Americans is something that I hope to identify to serve Georgia better.