By Noel T. Braymer
A quick check of news stories finds many about local efforts to expand rail passenger service across America. These efforts are not just in the major urban areas on the West or East Coasts either. These include local groups calling for returning service on the Sunset east of New Orleans back to Florida. There are efforts to create a section of the Crescent from Meridian, Mississippi through Shreveport, Louisiana out to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. There are proposals to extend the Heartland Flyer past Oklahoma City to Kansas City. There are also efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer to Tulsa, Oklahoma.There are efforts to save and improve service on the Southwest Chief between New Mexico and Kansas. There are also High Speed Rail proposals in places such as Texas, Colorado, throughout the Midwest and Oregon.
So where is all the money and expertise going to come from to build all of these projects? Many of these projects will likely go nowhere at least for some time or will be modified in order to succeed. There is a need and demand across this country to expand Rail Passenger Service. Successful projects are needed for others to copy and to stimulate support for more projects.
So who are these people who are proposing new rail passenger services or new station stops to existing rail lines around the Country? Are they a bunch of tree hugging, socialist environmentalist hippies? Maybe some are. But often local politicians and local chambers of commerce are behind efforts to get or get more rail passenger service in their communities. Why? It is because rail passenger service stimulates local economies and economic growth in their communities.
So who thinks rail passenger service is good for the economy and business? Well how about Florida East Coast Industries or FECI. So what is FECI? This is how their website describes it ” (FECI) is one of Florida’s oldest and largest full-service commercial real estate, transportation and infrastructure companies”. In other words it is in the real estate business and also owns a railroad. The railroad is a Florida short line between Jacksonville and Miami along the Atlantic Coast. The railroad was built originally to develop Florida real estate back in 1892.
So what is FECI up to now? They are building a new 235 mile passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando. They are using 195 miles of their existing railroad and building an additional 40 miles to connect to Orlando. This will carry people in the busiest travel corridor of Florida, end to end in 3 hours. That’s faster than you can drive without getting a ticket.So why are they doing this? They will likely make some money operating the trains. But here are some of the benefits FECI see in what they call All Abroad Florida:
“All Aboard Florida can also help increase the value of properties along the route, potentially delivering as much as a 25-percent increase in funding that can be used to improve local schools, parks and other public programs supported by real estate tax revenues.
A transportation offering of this kind is also a selling point to visiting tourists. In fact, studies suggest tourists may consider longer stays and spend more dollars in Florida if they have convenient travel options.”
If the State of Florida can see increased property values, no doubt FECI also expects increased value for their property as well.
Construction is planned to start this year on this billion dollar plus project which is scheduled to begin service late in 2015. It will have a top speed of 125 miles per hour with service running hourly at 79 to 110 miles per hours in many places. All Abroad Florida will connect with commuter rail services in Miami and Orlando as well as the major airports in both cities. Ridership is expected to be 26 percent business travel and 74 percent leisure travel from both tourists and Florida residents.
So where is Congress on all of this? Most news stories on Passenger Rail Service are based on negative attacks that they are hopelessly expensive and “boondoggles”. Yet FECI doesn’t think so and plans to make money with rail passenger service. Most States unlike Florida don’t have a property development company owning a railroad. But operating a passenger railroad doesn’t have to lose money. But more importantly good passenger rail service boosts the the economy.
The issue of future Rail Passenger Service is about the future of Amtrak. Amtrak is a major property owner. It owns most of the railroad and stations between Washington and Boston as well as Chicago Union Station and its Beech Grove maintenance facility near Indianapolis. After over 40 years and much talk, Amtrak hasn’t done much to develop their property to earn income. Yet areas at and around stations are excellent places for shopping, housing and office buildings. In many places in the world, train stations have commercial development to help cover the high costs of owning and operating them. The same is increasingly true of airports with shops and services being expanded at terminals. The cost of owning this property is a major expense for Amtrak and a major factor for it losing money. These overhead costs get charged as overhead to the entire Amtrak system.
Many of the projects being proposed for new rail passenger service are fairly short distance with few stations. These often don’t produce much money even with large populations in the cities they serve. The trains that do the best to attract ridership and revenues are longer distance trains which serve the most markets with the most stations and connections to other services. For example the Surflners with the best ridership are the ones from San Diego that are extended past the rail hub at Los Angeles to Santa Barbara with some to San Luis Obispo. On a rail corridor service you need distance, population, frequency and good connections for a successful service that comes close to breaking even or makes a small profit.
For many smaller towns around this Country, short haul service is not practical, nor are frequencies of more than 1 or 2 trains a day. But Long Distance Trains do very well in many smaller towns which connect to large cities across America. Running long distance trains that connect to other long distance trains as well as to connecting buses, means that small towns around America could have connections to travel almost anywhere in the country or even most of the world.
But Long Distance Rail service under Amtrak is falling apart. Long Distance Trains have been the scapegoat for Amtrak’s problems and used as a pawn to get funding from Congress. The facts are the Long Distance trains are the most economically productive trains Amtrak has as well as the most crowded. These trains are often sold out through out the year despite some very high fares . Expanding Long Distance service would greatly improve Amtrak’s bottom line. When Amtrak has cut back Long Distance Trains it didn’t save money. Costs staid the same but Amtrak’s deficient increased because of reduced income. The most productive passenger trains around the world are the long distance ones.
For Amtrak to change, it is up to Congress to force it. Amtrak is a political creation and only responds to political pressure. This pressure will have to come from local communities to Congress. It is critical that we have an independent audit of Amtrak’s expenses. Amtrak now assigns costs which often hides real costs centers as well as the revenue producers. A major reorganization is needed in how Intercity Rail Passenger service is done in this Country for it to grow and be self supporting.
Some money is needed to pay the railroads to get some rail lines fixed for decent speeds for passenger service. Also additional double tracking and sidings at some places will be needed to prevent conflicts between freight and passenger trains. Most importantly we need more passenger cars and locomotives to expand service an carry enough passengers and revenues for the trains to break even or make a small profit. Most important we need greater local control of rail passenger service as well as cooperation between regions to see rail passenger service thrive.