U.S., Canada: There Is A Bright Future For Passenger Trains In North America

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on this platform on April 16, 2021 and has been updated. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 5, 2022

In the third decade of the 21st Century there is reason to have hope for a full revival of North American passenger trains. While many have resigned themselves that Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak today is the best to hope for revival, in the next decade we will likely see Amtrak was nothing more than a caretaker or placeholder for passenger rail for half a century.

For those who believe Amtrak was never properly funded, the truth is, in Washington those projects which are often worthy and promoters of those projects are sincere and truthful in their beliefs, at some point those projects are properly funded. It takes persistence, not resignation that “this is the best we can hope for.”

Decade after decade, Amtrak merely sought “go along, get along” money without a full demonstration for a different perspective of how it could become successful in better and different ways. There was seldom a serious effort to come up with a new business plan – not just breaking the company into business groups or rearranging managers – to radically change the fortunes of the company with additional routes, additional frequencies, or more ways to generate more revenue.

VIA Rail Canada’s classic modern streamliner The Canadian still traverses a route between Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver, British Columbia using updated Budd-built stainless steel equipment, including dome cars. VIA Rail publicity photo.

Yes, there was the ill-fated mail and express venture of the 1990s. It failed from the start because of the unit’s inept/pie-in-the-sky management and their contempt for the needs of the host railroads. They never attempted to understand and negotiate what would work best for both the railroads and Amtrak. Millions were spent, railroads gleefully took retaliatory measures, changes were made, and then suddenly it all went away, the victim of poor management and even poorer business partnership skills.

There were bright spots along the way the vast majority of people don’t know happened. In the 1980s the Disney company wrote a letter to Amtrak wondering if they could buy the railroad.If you think this was a fantasy, on behalf of those of us who saw a copy of the very serious letter, it was a reality. Nothing came of it.

A group in 1994, with the blessing and urging of the President, had a meeting in the White House about the privatization of Amtrak. Amtrak fought back and nothing came of it.

Through the years there have been other groups who looked at Amtrak and saw promise. Most of them had the good sense to keep things private as rarely are successful negotiations conducted through the news media.

In December 1997 the Amtrak Reform Council was created as part of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act. The Reform Council began work in 1998 and submitted a final report to Congress in February 2002. Former Federal Railroad Administrator Gil Carmichael was chairman and there were eight additional members appointed, including Corridor Rail Development Corporation Executive Chairman James Coston.

Corridor Rail Development Corporation Executive Chairman James Coston.

After four years of work and spending nearly $2 million, the final report to Congress which contained a number of realistic and fundamental opportunities for Congress to improve Amtrak, was overall ignored, much to Amtrak’s relief.

These are just a few instances which bring us to today.

The world of 1970 when the act creating Amtrak was signed into law and today half a century later are greatly different, setting up a new world for passenger trains.

• In 1970, the Greatest Generation – which overcame the Great Depression and won World War II – was still in charge. This generation grew up riding trains as the primary way of intercity travel. It was war-time military service which put many of them on a troop train, probably the least pleasant way to ride a train.

After the war, it was tough for men who rode troop trains to get the experience out of their minds, even if their post-war travel was on the Super Chief.

Then, along came the Korean Conflict, and the railroads were back to heavyweight troop trains and more unpleasant experiences for thousands of military men. The Korean Conflict was the last war where Americans went to war on a train.

The Greatest Generation never got over those troop trains and cheerfully embraced driving on the new Interstate highways and flying new Boeing 707s instead, happily never giving train travel another thought unless it was depicted on the front of a Christmas card.

New Acela 21 in testing on the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak publicity photo.

• Also in 1970 the last generation of railroaders dealing with passenger trains were rising through the managerial and executive ranks. These were the railroaders who thought passenger trains were a nuisance and hindrance to the efficient operation of a good freight railroad.

Corporate pride at the Santa Fe, Seaboard Coast Line and some others may have dictated the maintenance of good passenger train standards until the last day before Amtrak, but many in those companies celebrated the handoff of trains to new Amtrak.

• We are now over 50 years and three generations later, and the few remaining Greatest Generation souls and even fewer railroaders of that era are not now making travel decisions. Baby Boomers, who many are now well past retirement age and others reaching it were/are still shy about train travel. They learned from their Greatest Generation parents to drive long distances on highways or simply hop on an airplane.

• Millennials and other children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers have very few ideas about passenger train travel. To them, it’s a blank slate. Granddad or Great Grandfather talking about troop trains were just disconnected stories.

This is the group which mostly need to learn and understand passenger train travel. They are unspoiled by history or previous experience. To them, when Amtrak is not America’s Best Kept Secret, there is an opportunity to try something new and different. If they like it, they do it again.

• Baby Boomer railroad executives are becoming scarce. The supply of them is dwindling daily, and their replacements do not have an inherent dislike of passenger trains. New railroad executives – many which are imported from other industries as very small fractions of workers maintain a lifetime loyalty to an employer or industry – are more focused on running trains of various descriptions down their tracks versus a singular focus on freight trains.

Brightline in Florida is offering solutions to the “first mile” and “last mile” connections to their multiple train stations.BrightBike offers passengers at-destination mobility, plus is offering Private Rides, Shared Rides and Walkup Shuttles for rides to/from Brightline train stations to/from anywhere within a five mile radius of a Brightline station. Brightline operates over joint roadway with Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Cocoa, Florida, and is building new, exclusive right of way from Cocoa to Orlando and eventually to Tampa.

Steady revenues and negotiated fair levels of income to create a good return on investment are more important than maintaining “purity” as a freight railroad. The new cadre of railroad executives are willing to sit down and explore ways to accommodate both freight and passenger trains on the same set of tracks for the right price.

• More public/private partnerships are being formed throughout the country. The Commonwealth of Virginia in April 2021 received from CSX the first piece of infrastructure right-of-way between Washington, D.C. and Petersburg, Virginia to double trackage from two tracks to four; two for freight trains, two for passenger trains. CSX graciously only charged the commonwealth $525 million for this first phase of dirt to build the new tracks. It’s a great deal for CSX; someone paid them for unused land, they get all of their existing trackage back exclusively for freight trains when the passenger trains operate besides them on new tracks and CSX no longer has to pay property taxes on land the commonwealth now owns.

We are seeing similar deals around the country, such as in California. We have the publicly-funded CREATE program in Chicago which seeks to untangle the spaghetti bowl of tracks there for the benefit of freight, passenger and commuter trains. Everybody wins.

In Michigan we have seen much of the trackage in the state upon which the Wolverine and Blue Water services operate now owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Amtrak Downeaster, Boston, Massachusetts, North Station. The Downeaster is a 145-mile regional passenger train service, managed by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, and operated by Amtrak. Amtrak publicity photo.

There are more examples where the recognition of the commercially viable thing to do is convert lightly used freight trackage to public ownership, still allowing remaining freight service to operate over the tracks, but as a tenant.

Florida’s SunRail in Central Florida and Tri-Rail in South Florida both operate on former CSX tracks which are now primarily commuter rail tracks owned by the state with freight train access during non-commuter train operating hours.

Think of these projects as “demonstration projects,” all of which are successful.

• New England’s Downeaster service is an excellent example of a multi-state operation which works efficiently under an agreement by the participating states. Downeaster is perhaps the leading service in the country to show what independent thinking and planning can accomplish for passenger comfort and convenience.

• On the other side of the country in California the various joint powers authorities which operate the Pacific Surfliners, San Joaquin service, Capitol Corridor and others are doing pioneering work in creating a huge network of successful regional trains.

Western Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer now also operates a new service in Colorado, based out of Denver. The Rocky Mountaineer services are expensive, and meant to be “experience” travel where the journey is actually the destination. Rocky Mountaineer publicity photo.

• All of the state-subsidized services in California, Oregon, Washington State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, New England, Pennsylvania and elsewhere all are intent on expanding their networks. One of the bright spots is most of these services understand Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak is the most expensive operator of trains and lessor of passenger train rolling stock; plans are in the works to change that to the states’ advantage.

All Rocky Mountaineer equipment is designed to have maximum visibility over the remarkable terrain where it operates. Rocky Mountaineer does not offer transportation; it offers service similar to an ocean cruise. Rocky Mountaineer publicity photo.

• Most people interested in passenger trains are not aware – intentionally, by the companies – how many entrepreneurs are all working to create new, private passenger train services, all with innovations not currently found on Amtrak trains. The cohort of entrepreneurs is working diligently to bring their visions to reality, whether it’s for trackage rights over the Northeast Corridor, the enhancement of state-sponsored trains or even the introduction of new long distance services.

• Two major, game-changing projects are becoming reality. Higher-speed Brightline in South Florida has already – without benefit of public funding for right-of-way or rolling stock – created a new railroad between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach which prior to the pandemic carried two million passengers in its first year and few months. The line to Orlando will be complete in 2022, and 16 roundtrips a day are planned. Brightline intends to extend its service from Orlando to Tampa as well as continue north up the Florida East Coast Railway to Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and Jacksonville.

Brightline has also acquired the former DesertXpress electric high-speed service plan between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, expanding the western terminus in California from Victorville to Los Angeles. Land has been purchased for the Las Vegas terminal and construction is expected to begin soon.

Texas Central Railroad envisions itself as the most similar operation in the United States to what is found in Europe and Japan. Texas Central Railroad publicity photo.

• In Texas, Japanese-style high-speed service between Houston and Dallas is going through the process of creating an entire new high-speed railroad while fighting the usual NIMBY complaints and push-back against land acquisition. Texas Central Partners is well into their endeavor to the point a date for commencement of construction could come in the next 24 months.

• Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer luxury tourist train land cruises is pioneering different levels of onboard passenger services and food service innovations as well as operating patterns. This financially successful service which believes deeply in marketing and advertising to fill its trains could easily be poised to one day move beyond tourist trains to regularly scheduled transportation services either on a regional or national basis.

• There are more major companies building passenger cars today than since the last days of the Budd Company and Pullman. German industrial powerhouse Siemens in California is building Brightline trainsets for Florida, locomotives for state regional trains and Amtrak as well as a number of car orders for various states including California and Illinois among others. Siemens in Canada is building an entire new fleet for VIA Rail Canada’s regional train services (but not a replacement fleet for The Canadian).

VIA Rail Train Interior Business Class for new Siemens equipment now being built. VIA Rail Canada publicity photo.

Alstom in New York State is building the new Acela, Jr. order to replace the current NEC Acela fleet.

Stadler in Utah is building new commuter cars.

CAF, ever so slowly built the new Viewliner fleet for Amtrak.

• All of this together is the re-invention of the passenger train business in the United States. The public mindset is mostly a blank slate, ready for new information. New cars and locomotives are being built with new onboard innovations and better amenities. Entire new railroads are being created, along with new station concepts and new ways for passenger service.

States and regional compacts are looking to expand – not stay stagnant or contract – their passenger train services. New public/private partnerships are flourishing, with more planned.

One of the things which will help this process will be for the federal government to move into a position where ALL passenger train operators are treated equally without a singular interest in maintaining the status quo in Amtrak.

There is a will and a need for a new, exciting era of passenger train entrepreneurship and development. The key will be to nourish it and allow it to grow organically, creating successes along the way.

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