By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 4, 2024
A remarkable year is over and we are at the beginning of what most likely will be another remarkable year for passenger rail in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
- With public meeting throughout the country, the Federal Railroad Administration began a new, Congressionally mandated study of the restoration and/or creation of new long distance passenger train routes to augment the current Amtrak system. The study will not be completed for another year. Notable is Congress mandated that Amtrak can participate in suggestions for the study, but cannot make any final decisions or have veto power over any particular route(s). Congress, not Amtrak will determine funding for the restored and/or new routes.
- Amtrak continues to advocate for its Amtrak Connects US corridor route expansion program, plus announced the ordering of new all-coach Airo trainsets for replacement of Amfleet equipment on the Northeast Corridor and for use by state-subsidized routes throughout the country. Amtrak also announced it is gathering interest from passenger car builders for a new fleet of long distance train consists; while the company did not specifically ask for bi-level cars, the request can be interpreted Amtrak is seeking ideas for both bi-level and single level train equipment.
- In the United States, we saw Brightline reach its full, originally planned route of Orlando International Airport to downtown Miami’s MiamiCentral Station, with stops along the way at West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Aventura.
- In Canada, we saw Canadian National Railway improve its operating plan, and, as a result, the formerly chronically late Canadian frequently started operating according to its published schedule and often arrived early at its terminals. The very end of 2022 also saw Ontario Northland Railway start making serious moves to restore passenger train service between Toronto and Cochrane by ordering three new trainsets from Siemens Canada.
- In Mexico, just in the last two weeks, new service on the Inter-Oceanic Train, which will carry both passengers and cargo on a three-hour trip from the coastal hub of Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz state to the Pacific port of Salina Cruz was launched.
Many other events have also happened in 2023, but these were enough to rock the North and Central American passenger train world.
Mostly, it’s all about attitude and the will to work around – or, roll over – decades of opposition to passenger rail plus the unfortunate, prevailing myth that only government is “big enough” to take on new passenger rail projects and be successful, for whatever measurement of success may be prevailing at the moment. Brightline is the result of good long-term, realistic planning. They made a plan, worked a plan, lined up their financing, took a short hiatus when market-based financing slowed down, then got up to speed, again, and with their good planning, got to their first goal of a full route.
Ideally, they are using the lessons learned from their first project and pouring their gained wisdom and knowledge into their second project for Brightline West, from Las Vegas to Southern California.
For most of its existence, first as the flagship train of Canadian Pacific Railway and then as the flagship train of VIA Rail Canada, the Canadian has been more than just transportation. VIA Rail offers several levels of service on the Canadian, and each level is successful on its own level.
The Canadian does offer coach seats, but also offers open berths (the last remaining ones in North America), roomettes, bedrooms, and their renowned, outrageously expensive, but often booked full, Prestige Service, with the largest beds available on a regularly-scheduled train and a level of personal service normally only found on a private car charter or a very exclusive all-luxury train.
VIA Rail, on all of its trains, runs the full gamut of reasonable fares with accompanying reliable levels of service for the product offered. Everyone, of every class can find something to fit their travel budget, all with an exemplary level of good service.
It took Brightline in Florida about a decade to start and then finalize the full route from downtown Miami to Orlando. COVID played a role, but not a major one. Brightline wisely took advantage of the COVID break period to tweak their service and overhaul their employee roster.
The real impediment was the NIMBY caucus along the Treasure Coast – Indian River, Martin and Saint Lucie counties – and Gold Coast – Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties – where hate and discontent flourished over mostly rumors and fear of the unknown.
Particularly in the heavily populated Gold Coast counties residents had a terrible fear that (Gasp!) there were going to be multiple trains running up and down Florida East Coast Railway tracks that had been in place since the Gilded Age in the late 19th Century.
In these modern times, the FEC is an efficient railroad and was fully operating a scheduled railroad of freight trains before it became the popular thing to do. At the time, there were about five trains a day in each direction going south from Jacksonville at the north end of Florida to Miami at the south end, plus some South Florida local trains.
The FEC typically operated trains which were two miles long or longer and, despite the FEC’s “Speedway to Sunshine” moniker for its passenger trains which ended in the early 1960s, the rather slow, lumbering and long freight trains would foul grade crossings for an extended period of time by the watches of impatient motorists. Those freight train encounters were seared into the memories of Gold Coast motorists (for this issue, as well for the Treasure Coast motorists) and the thought of 32 Brightline passenger trains a day in addition to the FEC freight trains sent the locals into uncontrolled spasms of despair.
Plus, the noise! The horror of it all. It seems that locals who had invested in residential homesteads near the tracks were aghast at the thought of the violence against their peace and tranquility as intrusive passenger trains zipped by constantly, from early morning to late evening. They were more than positive their real estate values would plummet and their idyllic existence in sunny South Florida would turn into a dreary constant cloud of noise and aural distress.
For all of the things Brightline and the FEC did right from the very beginning, the under-appreciation of the power of NIMBYs was the greatest impediment to beginning service.
It took legions of attorneys, public affairs and public relations professionals to finally get past the NIMBY protests and that included the spending of millions of dollars of legal and lobbying fees.
Here’s the fun part: South Florida solely owes its existence to Henry Flagler, the Gilded Age railroad baron who created the Florida East Coast Railway, helped invent New York to Florida luxury passenger trains, created the Winter Season opulent hotels which brought millions of dollars and tourists into a mostly rural and frontier Florida, and started the boom of Florida’s population and tourism industry which extends into the present day. Before there were highways and interstate highway systems and airplanes, there were passenger trains; lots of them.
So, the opposition was to the same thing which created the community where they live. Many, astonishingly exclaimed that real estate agents who handled the purchase of their homes near or next to the FEC tracks told them the tracks were hardly ever used and perhaps would go away one day.
The biggest mistake the NIMBYs made was they incorrectly thought they could stop a railroad based on state law, not federal law, where all railroad regulation resides. More time and money lost fighting and winning battles against NIMBYs which never should have been waged in the first place.
But, in the end, Brightline won and America’s first private railroad since the advent of government-run Amtrak in May 1971 is fully up and running, with lots of viable plans to extend it further in Florida as well as building Brightline West between Las Vegas and Southern California.
It’s been amusing to watch the Amtrak True Believers attempt to trash Brightline.
Harrumph, they grouse, Brightline is not as fast as Acela on the Northeast Corridor and merely matches Illinois service between Chicago and St. Louis. Yes, Brightline only hits 125 mph on the recently completed section between Orlando International Airport and the junction with the FEC tracks where it slows down to 110 mph. Considering the billions spent upgrading the Chicago-St. Louis line and the length of time it took to complete that project with public monies, who cares if someone makes the comparison?
What counts is Brightline is now operating a full schedule of 32 terminal departures a day, and they are carrying 200,000 passengers a month at the beginning of the full service. We haven’t seen load factor percentages yet, but those figures will come in due time. It’s been a busy holiday travel season for Brightline and it doesn’t look like there will be much of a lull to come.
It’s the attitude of Brightline that makes a difference.
As said in this space before, Brightline is a hospitality company masquerading as a passenger railroad, and, overall, it shows. There have been a few lapses and burps, mostly noted by railfans which have been looking for flaws and reasons to complain. After all, when you break the mold and try something “new,” there are always going to be skeptics who delight in thinking failure instead of success.
It’s a matter of attitude to overcome that and look more at the positives than the negatives.
As a new hospitality company, Brightline first and foremost understands it has a duty to advertise and promote itself. And Brightline has gloriously met that duty. Brightline’s ongoing, constant email marketing program is nothing short of spectacular and consistent. Brightline has partnered with a myriad of professional sports teams and other events for constant promotion to use Brightline to reach arenas, football stadiums and festivals. Beyond email marketing, Brightline more than makes its presence known to locals and Floridians in general that a new neighbor is in town and it wants to get to know you.
The local news media has had something of a negative field day because of the various grade crossing collisions which have occurred between Brightline trains and motorists making poor and catastrophic decisions trying to beat a train across the tracks. Additionally, Brightline has become a victim numerous times of pedestrians making the same poor decisions as motorists when trying to cross the tracks or those bent on an untimely demise courtesy of a speeding locomotive; this is a problem not only for Brightline, but all railroads, big and small. Tragedy, instead of success, is a better story for the news media. But, Brightline is generating enough good will through its own marketing to overcome a negative slant from the news media.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Brightline is its user-friendly website which goes way beyond looking up fares and booking tickets. Visit the site at www.gobrightline.com.
One of the benefits of being a totally new railroad is all of its stations are totally new, too. No adapting 19th and 20th Century structures for modern times. No adapting huge temples to past railroad vanity to a modern and efficient station built to meet demand instead of built to financially fail.
Brightline has successfully reintroduced the concept of Transit Oriented Development as a financial partner to passenger railroad operations. Brightline stations have become a community centerpiece of prosperity, helping the company’s bottom line as well as that of the businesses in the TOD area.
Oh, have we mentioned that even before the Orlando International Airport extension opened earlier this year that one month Brightline reported an operating profit? While overall Brightline reported a loss for the last nine months of 2023, that is not unexpected considering the costs of ramping up the service for the new terminal, adding and training additional train and engine crews as well as onboard services and station personnel, plus the additional costs of equipment maintenance. Most businesses expect to have a loss in their first year of full operations, and Brightline is no different.
In Canada, in addition to the 32 trainset consists VIA Rail Canada ordered for its corridor trains, Ontario Northland Railway ordered three shorter consists to resume service from Toronto to Cochrane, reviving the Northlander route after an absence since 2012. The daily service will operate over Canadian National Railway tracks out of Toronto Union Station and then northward on Ontario Northland tracks through North Bay and up to Cochrane. The passenger train service was replaced by bus service in 2012, but a constant drumbeat by Ontario residents and advocates finally convinced the provincially-owned and operated Ontario Northland to revive the service once political financial muscle blessed the project and provided funding.
Ontario Northland is another organization that has to be recognized for good service on its freight trains as well as the remaining passenger train it has continuously operated, the Polar Bear Express, providing critical transportation as an essential service in parts of Northern Ontario where no – or very few – roads exist.
It’s delightful to understand that a bus service which replaced a train service is now being replaced by a new train service. Buses have their places and often make great feeder services to trains, but the reversal of a train-to-bus route with a new train daily train route is something to celebrate.
In Mexico, the Mexican federal government is leading the effort to restore passenger trains in many locations throughout the country. It’s a mix of efforts to attract tourism as well as provide an economic boost to parts of the country with strained economic circumstances. There is a recognition in Mexico, as in much of the world, that passenger trains belong as part of a permanent mix of transportation choices for public convenience as well as an economic stability and growth.
Back in North America, after World War II, the siren song of dependable highways and roads, the convenience of personal transportation with a huge variety of cars and personal use trucks, plus the glamour and speed of jet airplanes left both passenger trains and ultimately buses – both local transit and intercity – perceived as relics of the past.
Promoting all of this was an intoxicating brew of suburbia, shiny new roadside hotels and restaurants, and a new-found freedom of choice for travel. Something else new popped up: Vacations. Broad unionization contracts brought greater personal income, benefits and new-found leisure time (with pay) to most employees. Weekends, consisting of two full days off in a row – a fairly new concept in the 1950s – meant time for quick trips. Some social scientists also partly attribute this modern phenomena to the beginning of declining weekly church attendance on Sundays. People wanted to break their lifetime routines and do something different.
Railroads, exhausted by World War II, but still in the passenger business, made the leap from worn-out heavyweight trains and steam locomotives to lightweight, streamlined trains and diesel locomotives. Air conditioning was a huge improvement, dome cars brought an extra dimension to passenger train travel, and dining cars continued a tradition of full, nourishing meals, with ashtrays on the tables for passengers to enjoy an after-dinner cigarette (Some traditions, like ashtrays and smoking onboard trains are traditions best left in the dustbin of history.)
Streamliners were a product of the atomic and space age. Bright and shiny, designed for comfort, and safe for speeds up to 110 mph, streamliners mostly retained current passengers rather than lure a new generation of passengers. But, they importantly did retain pride in their product for the railroads. The name on the side of the passenger cars and locomotives was that of the railroad, not a government agency. Carriers such as Santa Fe Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and others kept their corporate pride intact, and ran their passenger trains suitable for travel, including dining cars, lounge cars, sleeping cars and coaches, as well as maintained station facilities fit for human habitation.
The vast majority of North Americans and railroaders occupying executive suites were sure the days of the passenger train were numbered. President Lyndon Johnson made sure of that in the late 1960s when he moved the U.S. Mail contracts from the railroads to trucks and airlines.
Then, came Amtrak. After that, VIA Rail Canada, and, now Mexico.
Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada did their job, and maintained a skeletal passenger rail system, vastly smaller systems in a single day and what was required the day before.
As one wag put it, somehow the federal government’s Interstate Commerce Commission on April 30, 1971 deemed every passenger train operating in the United States “essential” and necessary to be operated for the public good. Then, suddenly, on May 1, 1971, the day Amtrak began operations, most of those trains were suddenly no longer necessary and completely expendable.
What the ICC said, was when a private company/railroad was paying for the trains, they must be operated as a public necessity. When the federal government took over the obligation, there was no public necessity requirement. The new orange and purple interiors of Amtrak replacing the more staid and tasteful interiors of the private railroads signaled a new era in passenger trains for America.
After Amtrak in 1971 and VIA Rail in 1977 came a period of “government only” is capable is operating passenger train systems.
But, the Rocky Mountaineer came along, spun off by VIA Rail into a private company founded by a savvy operator of Gray Line tour buses.
Here is what Wikipedia says about the change from VIA Rail to a private operator: “…After the end of the bidding process, in March 1990, the route’s equipment, book of business, 12 coaches, two baggage cars, plus assorted equipment and some branding was sold to Vancouver businessman Peter R.B. Armstrong’s Armstrong Hospitality Group Ltd. It ran its first train on May 27, 1990.
“Under private ownership Rocky Mountaineer has become a Canadian Icon, hosting millions of guests from around the world, over the past three decades. these guests spend time in BC and Alberta creating a lot of economic benefits.
“Rocky Mountaineer has been awarded the ‘World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train’ at the World Travel Awards seven times for its GoldLeaf service as well as the ‘World’s Leading Luxury Train’ award 3 times and was recognized by National Geographic Magazine as one of the ‘World’s Best Journeys’ in 2007. The Society of American Travel Writers, the world’s largest organization of professional travel journalists and photographers, rated the Rocky Mountaineer as the world’s top train ride in 2009.
“First Passage to the West: This route travels between Vancouver and Banff, with an overnight stop in Kamloops and an intermediate stop in Lake Louise. It operates primarily on Canadian Pacific Railway trackage, although directional running through the Fraser Canyon means that westbound trains use Canadian National Railway tracks in that area.
“Journey Through the Clouds: This route travels between Vancouver and Jasper with an overnight stop in Kamloops. It operates primarily on Canadian National Railway trackage, although directional running through the Fraser Canyon means that eastbound trains use Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in that area.
“Rainforest to Gold Rush: This route travels between North Vancouver and Jasper, with overnight stops in Whistler and Quesnel. It operates on Canadian National Railway trackage, including ex-BC Rail tracks between North Vancouver and Prince George.
“Rockies to the Red Rocks: This route travels between Denver and Moab with an overnight stop in Glenwood Springs. It operates on Union Pacific Railroad trackage. Announced in November 2020, this route was initially set to begin service in fall 2021, but this was pushed up, and the first train ran on August 15, 2021.”
Rocky Mountaineer conquered the scenic rail business in Canada, and has moved into the United States, courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad. Rocky Mountaineer has reproved the advantage of ongoing, serious advertising and marketing of their product and the resulting profit generated for the company’s bottom line. There are no government subsidies for Rocky Mountaineer; they are fully dependent on their own financial discernment and recruitment of new passengers and returning passengers.
Rocky Mountaineer does not offer basic transportation or daily schedules. What it does offer is a high-end, luxury product that proves passengers are willing to pay for a ride on a passenger train when good service, good food, and good scenery are combined. Although on different routes, Rocky Mountaineer and VIA Rail’s Canadian are direct competitors, but the Canadian also offers full transportation options and scheduled, public service.
Through recent years, VIA Rail has attempted to rightfully expand its frequency levels from two and three departures a week to four or more. At every attempt, Rocky Mountaineer has complained to the Canadian federal government that expanding Canadian frequencies is an act of government working against private enterprise. At each time, VIA Rail lost the argument and the Canadian remains with too few frequencies and departures.
Rocky Mountaineer is strong enough that a daily Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto would not be a serious threat to the company’s long term well being. More Canadian frequencies would be a boost to the Rocky Mountaineer, introducing more passengers to the wonders of Canada when seen through the windows of a well-maintained, well-operated passenger train.
And, then, along came Brightline in Florida, beginning service between MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach in 2018, with a hiatus for COVID starting in March 2020, but resuming full service in May 2021. Service along the full originally-planned route to Orlando International Airport began in September 2023.
Here is what we have learned from Brightline in Florida:
- Frequency is highly desired by the traveling public. Brightline operates 32 terminal departures a day, consisting of 16 round trips between terminals. While the trains are not operating full, they are operating with impressive ridership while the public becomes accustomed to them. A single month ridership of 200,000 puts a lot of faces in windows. When Brightline, as a private company, chooses to release load factor figures and perhaps city-pair demand then we will know a fuller picture. But, even before the full route was opened in September, Brightline had already announced a monthly operating profit earlier in 2023. That’s a true, GAAP-defined profit, not a number patched together from gathered information.
- Brightline has redefined train stations from old buildings in unfortunate parts of town to new, purpose-built buildings part of Transit Oriented Development where real estate again plays a major role for railroads, all contributing to the railroad’s bottom line.
- Brightline has demonstrated it is possible to hire a cadre of passenger service employees who are well-trained with positive, helpful attitudes, reflecting the pride of their company.
- There is no secret Brightline is alive and well in their local markets and throughout the travel industry. Brightline’s ongoing, aggressive advertising and marketing is filling its trains and keeping its employees constantly busy.
- Food and beverages are an important part of the mix for passenger train passengers, including tantalizing station food service (both restaurant and Brightline-provided for its premium passengers) as well as hard and soft drinks served in an inviting manner.
- Brightline has vividly demonstrated that intermodal inter-connectivity works. On the north end, Brightline is part of the Orlando International Airport main terminal complex. Passengers can deplane and go directly to a Brightline train. On the southern end, MiamiCentral Station is directly connected to every available transit option in Miami-Dade County, as well as positioned to service cruise line passengers at Miami’s nearby Dodge Island cruise terminals. The Brightline station in Fort Lauderdale also provides a convenient gateway for Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) cruise ship terminals.
Why all of this is important for 2024?
- Effective long term planning, coupled with identified financial backing provides a good end result and new passenger trains.
- Good passenger trains are more than just basic transportation. Good passenger trains provide a desirable service in addition to basic transportation.
- Affordability in fares and onboard services, as demonstrated by the lower range of fares on VIA Rail’s Canadian and Brightline attracts passengers. While the upper-end fares of Rocky Mountaineer and the premium service on the Canadian prove there is a viable market segment for that level of travel, those fares generate a complaint-free product, seldom producing “never again” passengers after an untoward experience.
- Pride in product, by both the passenger train operator and railroad employees make a difference. This is provided by managers and employees who look forward to a day’s work, not punching a time clock and counting the hours until the end of shift. Pride in product is a critical element of good passenger train service.
For those who incorrectly believe Amtrak is the only passenger train operator in the United States, here is a review, courtesy of the Association for Innovative Passenger Rail Operations:
- In 2019, non-Amtrak passenger train operators in the United States carried 80 million passengers on 250,000 terminal departures.
- Non-Amtrak passenger train operators must follow the same federal regulations as Amtrak, including the same FRA operating rules and regulations, some legal liability, may choose to have a union workforce, have greater flexibility and the ability to plan and move projects forward faster, plus lower costs.
New Jersey Transit, a non-Amtrak, interstate commuter operator, has some interesting, everyday stats:
- Over 1,000 passenger cars
- 175 locomotives
- 681 trains on an average weekday
- 165 stations
- 920 rail-directional route miles, of which 544 track miles are maintained that are not on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor
- New Jersey Transit trains annually carry passengers over 600 million passenger miles.