Two Kinds of Passenger Trains.
We’re constantly subjected to news stories, opinion columns and letters-to-editors from people who believe that passenger trains should either operate at a profit or cease to exist. “Subsidy” is anathema to those folks. Setting aside the inconsistency of that position given that all other forms of public transportation are subsidized, operating rail passenger service without a modicum of government support in some form is a very dicey proposition.
In order to have a fighting chance at profitability, passenger trains need passengers. Lots of them. Enough ridership to generate enough revenue to make the enterprise work. As a practical matter, that means any new for-profit passenger service has to operate along high-density corridors or, at the very least, provide a connection between two major markets.
It’s encouraging to note that there are a surprising number of corridors that might be able to support profitable passenger trains: Los Angeles-San Francisco; Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati; Dallas-Houston; Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-Minneapolis; Denver-Salt Lake City; Tampa-Orlando; Miami-Orlando; and a few more.
Despite all that potential, there are currently plans for only two for-profit trains: the Brightline trains, which will operate between Miami and Orlando and a true high-speed train linking Houston and Dallas proposed by Texas Central Railway. It’s the consensus among transportation people that both will succeed.
Brightline has run into passionate opposition from some of the residents along the route which already exists for the parent company’s freight operation. The residents claim that Brightline passenger trains running at speeds of 100 miles per hour on existing track will mean the end of there world as they know it.
Meanwhile, it’s a different ballgame in Texas because they’re starting from scratch. Among other things, that means Texas Central will have to acquire the right-of-way and lay their own track for their 200 mph trains. In many cases, the narrow strip of land needed will have to be acquired by eminent domain … that is, private land being taken for a public purpose with fair compensation being paid to the owner. I gather that more than a few of those Texas property owners feel that this is over-reaching by gummint and oppose the project as a matter of principle. (I’m sorry, but if you’ve ever traveled across that part of Texas, it’s hard to imagine that giving up a narrow strip of land would even be noticed, let alone missed.)
Of course I’m in favor of these two projects. Assuming hurdles are cleared and both become reality, perhaps other private investors will be encouraged enough to try in one of the other corridors. But in the meantime, let us not forget that there are two kinds of passenger trains: those that fill a need and can actually make money and those that just fill a need.
We need both.