By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 21, 2021
In North America, passenger trains come in all shapes, sizes and colors and have many different purposes. Most are good; some are a bit less than good, and others are not so good.
Just to get it out of the way, the “not so good” category is easily defined: Passenger trains which were often created as “demonstration projects” with a limited scope and limited funding. Many of these trains came about because someone with influence had an agenda.
Amtrak history has been littered with these trains which for whatever good or bad reason had low ridership, dismal fare recovery, and provided little legitimate transportation output.
Bad ideas from the start, their legacy usually serve as a stain on the reputation of legitimate passenger trains, and give opponents of passenger train travel negative talking points to argue against all passenger trains. Those who argued for these trains “because it’s a train!” fail to see that not every train running down every two streaks of rust has merit and value. Just “because it’s a train!” is not a good business plan or argument for success, nor is “build it and they will come” without the proper due diligence behind any new train proposal.
For some reason, groups hoping to start new passenger trains often either intentionally/unintentionally leave out perhaps the most important part of their business plans, which is potential customer surveys and ridership demand studies. Without knowing potential demand for any product, the product is likely to fail – unless of course you are the inventor of the Pet Rock. But, Pet Rocks were a flash in the pan, not a sustained, decades-long business proposition.
Good intercity passenger trains such as long distance/inter-regional trains have high transportation output, good cost recovery/actually operate at an above-the-rail profit, and are useful to large segments of the population they serve.
There are two basic types of daily long distance/inter-regional trains: The first is the workhorse train, such as VIA Rail Canada’s Ocean as well as Amtrak’s Silver Meteor, Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited. These trains have multiple intermediate station stops and provide basic transportation along with comfortable sleeping cars, diners and lounges. The second type of long distance/inter-regional trains offer transportation, but also have the ability for the train to serve as a destination itself. The Cardinal, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, Coast Starlight and VIA’s Canadian all fall into this category. The ever-changing, unique scenery provided along the routes of these trains makes the trip a vacation on the train. These trains are the reason why dome cars were built in great quantities after World War II for the new streamliners.
Many corridor trains also fit the description of high transportation output and provide a useful service for the areas they serve. Commuter trains, too, have a purpose and are a fast growing segment of the passenger train industry.
The category known as “tourist trains” and “museum trains” also serve a purpose. Mostly operating in favorable weather, on weekends and during peak tourism seasons these trains, always using some type of historic equipment, provides the public with a recreational activity in which everyone can enjoy. This category also includes dinner trains which are rolling restaurants offering a long luncheon or full evening dinner experience for those desiring changing scenery viewed from their meal table.
Ironically, some of the “museum” equipment on these trains until recently was the same age as equipment was operating in daily Amtrak service. And, it’s not hard to understand some of the “museum” equipment has less mileage on it than the more than four decades old Amfleet equipment Amtrak runs up and down the Northeast Corridor daily. Whether it’s a short ride on a rumbling first generation Budd-built Rail Diesel Car or a longer ride on 12 wheels on a heavyweight coach (which readily demonstrates why 12 wheels have always provided a smoother ride than today’s eight wheels on modern equipment), tourist train riders usually receive their money’s worth of entertainment. Also ironically, fares on tourist trains at times are higher than if the passengers simply booked a short Amtrak trip in coach.
One other category of notable passenger trains was perfected by VIA Rail Canada over 35 years ago. VIA took a fleet of surplus former Canadian National long distance coaches and created the original version of the Rocky Mountaineer, a train not designed to provide transportation but designed as a rolling provider of good food, comfortable seating and stunning scenery.
It worked, and in the early 1990s the Rocky Mountaineer was purchased from VIA by a wise and aggressive entrepreneur who made it better. The Rocky Mountaineer was designed – and, still today sticks to the formula – of running during warm weather months when the passing scenery is the most mesmerizing.
While the original VIA coaches have long been retired and replaced with purpose-built equipment and several levels of onboard service have been added, thanks to a strong marketing campaign and support from travel agencies, the Rocky Mountaineer has been making money hand-over-fist.
Riding the Rocky Mountaineer is not cheap, and it was never intended to be so. The company recognizes it has an unique niche market of which it never seems to run out of new and returning passengers. In reality, Rocky Mountaineer pricing makes the current outrageous sleeping car pricing on Amtrak long distance/inter-regional trains and VIA’s Canadian seem cheap.
That’s okay, because that is how their private company business plan was developed and has flourished. They receive no government subsidies; they stand on their own.
Some misguided members of the railfan community theatrically sniff and turn up their noses at the Rocky Mountaineer, including the new service in Colorado inaugurated this week. These train snobs believe because it doesn’t provide basic transportation and has a high cost that it does nothing to add to the growing world of passenger train travel.
It’s intellectually painful how narrow-minded and wrong these people are. Trains such as the Rocky Mountaineer – whether operating in British Columbia, Alberta or Colorado – serve a purpose to provide recreation and tourism to a certain class of passenger who are eager and willing to pay for such a service.
On a dollar-for-dollar spent basis, Rocky Mountaineer offers a much higher level of amenities, passenger service and food and beverage service than any low-amenities Amtrak train, be it the California Zephyr or Coast Starlight.
When consumers are presented with choices and differences in various types of passenger train travel and they choose the more expensive option, who is anyone to criticize freedom to make a choice or the ability of a private company to offer such as choice?
For over half a century North Americans have been sadly indoctrinated that the only choice for passenger trains is something offered through a government-subsidized enterprise which frequently has self-identity problems and seeks to plod along on feeding at a government trough instead of creating a self-sustaining product.
The Rocky Mountaineer has done good pioneering work. In Florida, Brightline, about to resume service later this fall, is doing important work in building and operating a completely private system with only government money used by choice for cities seeking their own intermediate-stop stations.
Brightline has slowed its building efforts to link Los Vegas with Los Angeles with a true high-speed train, but is still making progress, recently closing on the purchase of land for its Las Vegas terminal.
Texas Central Partners continued to push forward, too, with its plans for high-speed rail from Houston to Dallas.
Most passenger trains are good. Some are not because of poor financial and ridership performance. The bottom line is to first accept there are all types of passenger trains whether or not they may fit what may be your own narrow view.