U.S., When it comes to Amtrak competition, we know for sure we don’t know what we don’t know

Amtrak’s Empire Builder at La Crosse, Wisconsin earlier in 2023. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; July 13, 2023

The idea of Amtrak having competition on long distance/inter-regional routes seems to frighten some people. It shouldn’t.

Amtrak already has stiff competition, and has had it every day of its existence. Amtrak – and, passenger trains, since the middle of the 20th Century – have competed with airplanes, buses, private cars and trucks, and the occasional ship.

It’s a matter of adjusting our thinking about passenger trains and competition in the 21st Century.

The reality is, no one knows in North America how large the potential pool of passengers is for passenger trains. This is a direct fact because of what has been repeating in this space many times: Amtrak is America’s Best Kept Secret.

File illustration.

Thanks to the age of the internet, Amtrak’s marketing has had a much further reach than ever before. Traditionally, Amtrak’s paid media advertising has been focused mostly on the Northeast Corridor or big city hubs. Now, anyone with an internet connection can be touched by an Amtrak promotion.

It’s notable almost all of Amtrak’s marketing for long distance/inter-regional trains is done by an Amtrak contractor instead of the company. At the bottom of the About Us page on the Amtrak Vacations website you will find: “Amtrak Vacations is a proud part of the Railbookers Group family of brands.” Railbookers Group is a private, international company offering passenger train travel all over the world.

When Amtrak worked with travel agencies there was a small national sales force which did double duty, servicing the needs of travel agencies plus working travel industry trade shows and public travel shows. Each salesperson covered multiple states and had hundreds of travel agencies in their territory. After Amtrak, following the example of the airlines, stopped paying sales commissions to travel agencies, the sales force was disbanded.

Brightline at MiamiCentral Station, which is a union station/terminal. Brightline publicity photo.
Tri-Rail consist at Miami International Airport terminal, also a union station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

There is a firm example of what happens when competition between a private passenger railroad and a government-owned commuter railroad takes place.

In South Florida, privately-owned and operated Brightline directly competes with Florida’s public agency Tri-Rail between West Palm Beach and Miami. Amtrak covers the same route for the Silver Meteor and Silver Star as Tri-Rail between West Palm Beach and Miami, but southbound, Amtrak trains are discharge-only, and northbound trains are receive passengers-only, thus negating any competition between Amtrak and Tri-Rail.

Look at the chart below with basic information:

Private Brightline, when competing directly with public Tri-Rail (and, Tri-Rail has an overall dependable reputation and has had good management) has either substantially cut into Tri-Rail’s ridership and revenue, or, which is more likely because of the difference in service levels, has created a large pool of new riders who never before considered using mass transportation.

What are the primary differences? Tri-Rail stations, of which the principal ones are stations originally built by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad as combination passenger and freight stations during and just after the Florida Land Boom a century ago and lovingly and impressively restored, updated and improved by Tri-Rail in the 1990s and again in the 2010s, were state-of-the-art stations when modern renovations were completed. Many other new stations were added, much in the style of typical commuter stations with open platforms and parking lots. Every Tri-Rail station is designed for first mile/last mile train-to-local bus multiple connections. The southern end of the line is a purpose-built passenger train terminal as part of the sprawling Miami International Airport complex.

When Seaboard Air Line Railroad built it’s Miami terminal during the Florida Land Boom in the 1920s two miles outside of downtown Miami, the station building included an A&P Grocery store as well as a drug store. Florida Archives photo.
Seaboard Coast Line’s southbound Silver Meteor at the Fort Lauderdale station in 1969 headed for its home terminal of Miami and then the Hialeah coach yard and crew base for cleaning and restocking to turn for the next day’s northbound Meteor. When this photo was taken, Fort Lauderdale was a medium-sized city known mostly for Spring Break at its beaches. In 1969, SCL was only two years old, having been formed in 1967 by the merger of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Internet photo.
The somewhat sleepy SAL/SCL/Amtrak single track Fort Lauderdale station of the 1960s and 70s became a busy Tri-Rail station when the system began operation in January of 1989. The entire system eventually was double-tracked and each station, new and old, was given a pedestrian overpass, complete with elevators to meet Americans With Disabilities Act passengers’ needs. Track 1 is always southbound trains, and track 2 northbound for Tri-Rail, but Amtrak trains usually use track 1 for both directions. Wikimedia Commons photo.
In 2013 the original Seaboard Air Line Railroad Fort Lauderdale station building was still much like it originally was before Tri-Rail began in 1989, but that year saw the beginning of a major renovation and updating for the facility. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Because Tri-Rail was built on former SAL/CSX tracks in South Florida, the original Tri-Rail Miami terminal was not near downtown Miami. The former SAL Miami multi-platform passenger terminal, built in 1930 and two miles from downtown Miami, was abandoned by Amtrak when a new Amtrak station was built in the old SAL coach yard in Hialeah in 1978. By the time Tri-Rail was developed a decade later, the old SAL Miami station was long gone and the track leading to the station was at best used for occasional local freight service, and the new Amtrak Hialeah station built in the middle of a coach yard was several blocks away from Tri-Rail station facilities.

1978 view of the new Amtrak Miami passenger station (and division offices upstairs) located in the former Seaboard Air Line coach yard in Hialeah. The coach yard’s balloon track surrounds the station As an Amtrak facility, the Hialeah coach yard is Amtrak’s primary maintenance facility for eastern single-level trains, specifically Viewliner equipment. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Thirty-four years after Tri-Rail service began, the regional commuter line will finally reach downtown Miami, thanks to a new connector line built to Brightline’s MiamiCentral station scheduled to open November 2023.

Tri-Rail was created as a solution to a road-building problem. The original Interstate 95 and adjacent Florida Turnpike toll road in South Florida were slated to be widened and improved in the late 1980s/early 1990s and it (as usual) was a multi-year road building effort. Already at over-capacity before new construction began, the idea of buying the old SAL/CSX line from West Palm Beach to Miami and turning it into a regional commuter railroad seemed like a good idea lots of politicians and environmentalists bought into in 1983.

Tri-Rail was originally conceived and designed as a temporary system; once the highways were upgraded, it was expected to go away. Oops! The public liked having an efficient regional commuter rail system and used it on a regular basis, so much so that the system was expanded and made permanent. Original passenger cars were UTDC/now Bombardier bi-level cars (same as used by Metrolink in Southern California and GO Transit in Canada and multiple other locations) painted in Toronto’s GO Transit colors because if Tri-Rail failed or the new commuter railroad was closed as originally planned, the cars could easily be transferred to GO Tranist for use there.

Toronto’s GO Transit trains in 1983 used the now-former UTDC/Bombardier bi-level passenger cars in a green and white livery. Because Tri-Rail was originally planned to be a temporary service while the adjacent interstate highways were widened and improved, the plan was at the end of their use in South Florida the cars, already in GO Transit livery but with Tri-Rail logos, would easily transfer back to Canada and become part of GO Transit’s permanent fleet. Wikimedia Commons photo.

CSX was thrilled. Once original major highways were completed to South Florida in the 1960s beyond the venerable U.S. 1, freight trains into South Florida over its Miami sub-division hauled lots of cargo down there, but just about every car went north empty (A problem the Florida East Coast Railroad still deals with today.). Railroads don’t make any money hauling empty cars on return trips to their origin terminals.

From the earliest Seaboard Air Line days to Seaboard Coast Line to CSX, freight trains have traversed what now is Tri-Rail trackage between West Palm Beach and Miami. Today, CSX freight trains operate only during nighttime hours through trackage rights when Tri-Rail commuter trains do not run. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The State of Florida paid CSX $264 million for the former SAL track. It’s a never-ending good deal for CSX because it no longer pays property taxes for the line, originally got paid to dispatch Tri-Rail trains (no longer) and still operates its freight trains through trackage rights over the line that Tri-Rail maintains.

After decades of very plain blue locomotives with white accents, in the 21st Century Florida East Coast Railroad returned to a stunning heritage locomotive paint scheme first used in the early diesel locomotive days in the middle of the 20th Century. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Florida East Coast Railroad, the original railroad to South Florida in the early 20th Century, has a line which runs directly through the downtowns of West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale to Miami. To compete with FEC passenger trains into the suddenly booming South Florida, the original SAL line was built to the west of the FEC line in what at the time was scrub palm open land.

The State of Florida originally wanted Tri-Rail to run over the FEC, but the FEC refused (they were good at not making the best decisions in those 1980s years) because it wanted to focus on freight operations.

Four decades later under better ownership and management, the FEC’s infrastructure is what hosts Brightline.

Brightline’s Aventura station, opened in December 2022, is one of Brightline’s smaller stations, designed for commuter use and access to the affluent Aventura shopping, business and residential area. Brightline publicity photo.

All of Brightline’s stations are brand new and were designed with 21st Century and beyond needs in mind. The primary purpose of the stations is to serve Brightline’s growing intercity market as Brightline is scheduled to begin service to Orlando in late summer of this year.

Brightline’s magnificent MiamiCentral Station is complete with full passenger services including notable restaurants and other retailers passengers enjoy. Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline also offers children’s play areas at its South Florida stations. Brightline publicity photo.
This photo was taken in 2019 and the sign was originally placed at Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station during station construction, but to this day is still unused. After numerous problems and delays, Tri-Rail will not serve MiamiCentral Station until late fall of 2023. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Most Seaboard stations built a century ago during the Florida Land Boom have survived and many have become joint Amtrak/Tri-Rail stations. Thankfully, most were placed on the National Register of Historic Places and saved. Unfortunately, the writers of this permanent plaque, while correctly spelling Seaboard Air Line as three words, misspelled Seaboard Coast Line as two words and substituted Railway for the proper Railroad name. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Hollywood joint Amtrak/Tri-Rail station has always had a waiting area that promoted function over form, and that remains true today. Even though most of the Seaboard’s Florida passengers during the Florida Land Boom were somewhat upscale, Seaboard chose to furnish its Florida intermediate stations in a somewhat humble motif, a pattern Amtrak has followed. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The stucco exterior of the original Seaboard/Amtrak/Tri-Rail station in Hollywood, now the final Amtrak stop before the Miami terminal. A Tri-Rail locomotive is peeking out from the double-tracked main line. Wikimedia Commons photo.
From the State of Florida photographic archives, the original 1920s Seaboard Hollywood station. When the Seaboard built the stations in the 1920s wood covered in stucco plaster was the common building material. The semi-tropical Florida atmosphere tends to eat away at wood and stucco structures, and some of the original station buildings throughout South Florida have been lost to rot, termites and other pests. State of Florida Archives photo.

While Tri-Rail uses traditional methods of providing first mile/last mile needs of passengers through public transportation choices such as local bus systems, taxi cabs and parking lots (the days of “kiss and ride” at heritage commuter system stations are long gone), Brightline approaches first mile/last mile differently. Brightline includes options for Uber rides for up to five miles from its stations included when purchasing train tickets. Brightline also includes rental bicycles at stations as well as taxi cabs and rental cars. Mass transit bus line options are also available and at MiamiCentral station there are direct connections to people movers and the entire Metrorail system.

Cab car leading a Tri-Rail train. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A northbound Brightline train departing MiamiCentral Station. Brightline publicity photo.

Some would make the argument the difference between Brightline and Tri-Rail is Tri-Rail is for a domestic and blue-collar workforce which would traditionally travel by bus and Brightline is more upscale, and the introduction of Brightline with its aggressive and forward-thinking marketing introduced the joys and wonders of steel-rail transportation to an entire new generation and group of passenger train riders.

Tri-Rail has also been a successful marketer, and has many admirable accomplishments to its credit with impressive growth from what was to be a temporary service to a permanent part of South Florida’s transportation culture. Tri-Rail’s passengers are a rich blend of riders and the system appeals to passengers across all economic strata who wish to move at a pace faster and easier than the moving parking lots which have been masquerading for years as South Florida expressways.

Tri-Rail’s Miami International Airport terminal which it shares with Metrorail and was originally designed to accommodate Amtrak, as well, but Amtrak is still absent from the facility. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Brightline’s new Orlando International Airport terminal, which will host its first passengers in late summer of this year. Brightline publicity photo.
In addition to the main station Tri-Rail shares with Amtrak in Fort Lauderdale, there is also a Fort Lauderdale Airport Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The difference is choice and amenities which once again has proven that one size does not fit all when it comes to transportation. Just as there is a marked difference between traveling on Delta Air Lines and Spirit Airlines (though many of us would claim neither one is a great experience), there is a difference between traveling on Brightline and Tri-Rail.

Brightline stations offer food and drink, passenger lounges, parking garages and level boarding. Onboard is a choice of premium seating and standard seating. Food and drink is also available onboard, and the entire train has been thoughtfully designed to accommodate Americans With Disabilities Act passengers. In some ways, Brightline, a hospitality company which operates a railroad, has created a station and onboard atmosphere where the train is also the destination.

A Tri-Rail passenger car specifically outfitted to accommodate bicycle riders. Both Tri-Rail and Brightline encourage passengers to bring their bicycles when traveling on their systems. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Tri-Rail, which operates a good regional commuter rail system, simply does not have the depth and breadth of station and onboard amenities which Brightline offers passengers. Passengers make a deliberate choice as to whether or not they choose the overall amenities of Brightline or the more traditional, Spartan offerings of Tri-Rail. Both provide dependable transportation overall to identical geographic areas.

Amtrak/Tri-Rail’s West Palm Beach station, looking north. When the station was built and opened in 1925 in time for the first winter season Orange Blossom Special passenger train, the West Palm Beach station was the largest station in South Florida. The Miami terminal would not be completed until 1930. Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railroad in the Gilded Age had already turned adjacent Palm Beach into a major winter season playground for the rich and famous and Palm Beach and West Palm Beach were larger than the still-fledgling Miami. Between Miami/Miami Beach and West Palm Beach were small towns waiting and hoping to grow. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Like most commuter rail systems, Tri-Rail offers automated passenger ticketing at its stations. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Tri-Rail zone fare schedule, 2020. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Tri-Rail system was created on a system of infrastructure which was modified to create a traditional commuter rail system that was supposed to be temporary. Brightline was created also based on an existing system of infrastructure, but had a real estate component driving station and associated Transit Oriented Development (TOD) which transformed areas around the station that from the beginning were intended to last for the next 100 years.

Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station complex is the ultimate TOD/Transit Oriented Development mixture of transportation and transit of all types, retail, residential and offices. Brightline publicity image.

The very issue of amenities-rich, privately run passenger trains, such as when Brightline expands to Orlando in the coming months, versus Amtrak’s more traditional, government-funded and operated passenger trains as a competing service between Miami and Orlando may define a brighter future for passenger trains in the United States allowing passengers to choose the service they desire.

In Southern California, Dreamstar Lines is planning to compete with Amtrak’s famed Coast Starlight with proposed overnight sleeping car service between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. Dreamstar is creating their concept around a premium overnight “hotel train” private room service which mimics the very service the original Pullman Company made famous from the middle of the 19th Century to the late middle of the 20th Century. Dreamstar hopes to begin operations in 2024.

Possible direct competition to Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor may be in the near future. AmeriStarRail LLC, known as AmeriStar has announced it wants to run high-speed trains on Amtrak’s NEC as well as related feeder lines to such destinations as Springfield, Massachusetts and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. News reports earlier this year say AmeriStar has $5.5 billion ready to spend on new equipment to compete with Amtrak’s coming Acela, Junior trainsets now three years late being delivered while safety testing continues.

AmeriStar says adult passengers will be able to bring two children under the age of 18 for free and there will be free WiFi and compartment seating similar to European trains. At seat service for food will also be provided.

Northern Pacific Railroad’s Vista-Dome North Coast Limited rivaled Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight as the world’s most beautiful train for their exterior color schemes. Montana’s Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is working diligently and successfully to restore service through southern Montana on the NCL route. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Two – of several – other passenger train opportunities include:

  • Montana’s Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is working to restore the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.
  • The Chippewa Rail Commission in Wisconsin is submitting a project through the FRA Corridor ID program, Step 1, to restore service between St. Paul and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Chicago & North Western Railroad passenger trains may yet live on thanks to the Chippewa Rail Commission in Wisconsin moving forward an initial proposal by the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition to reestablish passenger train service between St. Paul Union Depot and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Today, the former C&NW tracks are owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. Internet photo.

How does the process for non-Amtrak passenger train developers work?

New passenger train projects must be realistic:

  • Project planning must have real-world planned outcomes, based upon informed projections
  • Serious financial commitments must be obtained early in the process
  • Stakeholders must plan and act in unity
  • Host railroads must be active participants in planning with the ability to review and comment
  • Meet the travel and mobility needs of passengers
  • Be fiscally responsible
  • Be operated in a responsible manner with consequences for non-performance
  • If a passenger train project doesn’t live up to its revenue, cost and ridership projections, it endangers future route start-up projects.
North Station in Boston hosts both Amtrak’s excellent Downeaster service and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) commuter service. MBTA is operated under contract by Keolis Commuter Services, an international company. Wikimedia Commons photo.

What it means to be a non-Amtrak passenger train operator:

  • Same FRA operating rules and regulations
  • Same legal liability
  • May choose to have union workforce
  • Greater flexibility; ability to plan and move projects forward faster
  • Lower costs.

In 2019, non-Amtrak passenger train operators in the United States carried 80 million passengers a year on 250,000 train terminal departures.

Alternative passenger train carriers operating in America include Herzog Transit Services, Keolis Commuter Services, Transdev North America, RATP Dev USA and Bombardier Transportation. These carriers equal or surpass Amtrak in experience and are worldwide, experienced operators annually moving billions of people on everything from streetcars to high-speed rail, and, yes, overnight trains carrying sleeping, dining and lounge cars, too. All of these well-established, high-value operators have the ability to provide any service which Amtrak currently provides.

CTrail’s Hartford Line commuter operation is operated by Herzog/TransitAmerica Services and Alternate Concepts. CTrail pays homage to the late, great New Haven Railroad’s passenger color scheme. Wikimedia Commons photo.

One of these operators may be operating trains near you:

  • Long Island Rail Road – Metropolitan Transportation Authority
  • Metro-North Railroad – Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit
  • New Jersey Transit – New Jersey Transit
  • CTrail, Hartford Line – Herzog/TransitAmerica Services and Alternate Concepts
  • MBTA/Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority – Keolis Commuter Services
  • VRE/Virginia Railway Express – Keolis Commuter Services
  • SEPTA/Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority – SEPTA Rail Division
  • MARC/Maryland Regional Commuter Rail, Camden and Brunswick Lines – Alstom
  • Northstar Commuter Rail – BNSF Railway, locomotives; Metropolitan Council, train staff
  • Metra – Metra, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway
  • TRE/Trinity Railway Express – Herzog Transit Services
  • New Mexico Rail Runner Express – Rio Metro, Herzog Transit Services
  • Music City Star – Tennessee Regional Transportation Authority/RTA
New Jersey Transit bi-level cars were designed for different level height passenger platforms as well as fitting into the low-ceiling Hudson River tunnels leading to New York Pennsylvania Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

How big are some of these operators in the United States? New Jersey Transit, a full, in-house operator, is the country’s second largest commuter agency with:

  • 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 the NEC, and
  • NJT trains annually carrying passengers over 600 million passenger miles.
Central Florida’s SunRail commuter system is operated by Bombardier Transportation and shares tracks with both Amtrak and local freight service through CSX trackage rights. The former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad/CSX tracks are now owned by the State of Florida. Wikimedia Commons photo.

A major barrier to any new routes must be overcome, whether they are operated by a private developer or Amtrak.

  • Many Americans don’t even know passenger trains exist
  • Even if their hometown has an Amtrak station they don’t know about it
  • The news media is wholly ignorant about passenger trains and don’t know how to accurately report on passenger trains.

Most participants in the passenger rail world are unaware of the mostly-silent but highly effective work that goes on in Washington advocating for better passenger trains on all levels. Visit the Association for Innovative Passenger Rail Operations at www.aiprorail.org to learn the full extent of its efforts.

While in the past it has seemed Congress paid as little attention as possible to passenger rail issues once Amtrak was formed and initially funded, for now, Congress appears to be interested in advancing passenger rail far more aggressively than in the last half a century. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Here is why there will be independent private passenger train operators:

Congress, when creating the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) rejected the $75 Billion Amtrak Trust Fund request that would have provided Amtrak control of the process. Instead BIL put the Federal Railroad Administration in charge of design and funding of the intercity corridor network, authorized competition for operators on these corridors, allowed states/authorities to take charge of corridor development under FRA oversight, and provided about $14 billion in competitive grant funding for states/authorities to manage development of the corridors (under 750 miles) they must subsidize.

Still to come later this fall, the FRA’s long distance/inter-regional passenger train restoration study which is completely under the control of the FRA. The study will be delivered directly to Congress for action by Congress, not Amtrak. Of the new/restored routes designated with recommended services for the routes, Amtrak may choose to compete for the operation of any of the routes.

Passenger rail in the United States is in a process of change. Competition is always good and healthy.

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