Is Florida’s New Private Train Plan Really So “Triumphant”?

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As I was scanning my Facebook feed this evening, one headline jumped out at me: “The Triumphant Return of Private U.S. Passenger Rail.” Without checking the source, I was sure must be from the folks at The Onion, or perhaps their recent Upworthy-inspired parody site, ClickHole.

But in fact, the headline was sincere. It turns out it’s an article by Henry Grabar, a veteran writer at City Lab, describing a new plan to reinstate private rail service from Miami to Orlando. It describes the details of the plan, known as All Aboard Florida: starting in 2016, private trains will connect Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and eventually Orlando, running at speeds up to 125 mph (205km/h), and making the trip in just three hours.

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The plan would also coincide with a new residential complex built around the new Miami station. When discussing the merits of private ownership, Grabar has some sour words for Amtrak, America’s lackluster public passenger train service:

Conceived as a political escape valve to relieve freight companies of the burden of passenger service, Amtrak was never expected to succeed, says Albert Churella, a historian of the Pennsylvania Railroad. ‘It was made very clear to everybody — wink winknudge nudge — that in a few years we’re going to shut all this stuff down,’ he says. Amtrak has survived thanks to its political appeal and popularity, but not because it’s good business; it receives more than a billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies each year.

Sure, nobody likes subsidizing stuff. But can we really accept at face value the notion that the end goal of all transportation is to turn a profit? Shouldn’t there be other standards by which we judge our transportation options?

Having said that, I sense that many of you may be thinking you have me pegged, and some more libertarian minded may already be skipping to the comments to roast me as a Stalinist-Marxist. But actually, I feel that there are pros and cons to be taken into consideration when considering private passenger rail.

It may in fact be necessary to expect a passenger rail line to turn a profit. Good intentions (and maybe a dash of fairy dust) may be sufficient enough to drive my writing career, but the creation of a 200-mile railroad takes cold hard cash. And not just cash in the form of salary, but as a significant return on investment.

Or so the argument goes. In the US, the case of Amtrak is often held up as a boogeyman, as proof positive that public train ownership is forever doomed to failure. And after plenty of negative experiences on US trains, I can see why many would accept this argument. As a west coast native, I’ve found out time and time again why Amtrak’s LA-to-Seattle Coast Starlight train is nicknamed the “Coast Star-late”.

But stepping out of the US, a number of examples illustrate that private rail service is not without its dangers. A perfect case in point is the British rail system. A 2012 Guardian article points out that train travel in Britain is the most expensive in the world, among other issues. Also, many countries in Latin America used to have robust, publicly owned passenger train networks, which were wiped out (such as in Mexico) or significantly cut (such as in Argentina – shameless plug: I wrote about this last year in TBC) as a result of privatization.

And is Amtrak really that bad? Sure, the service is often targeted by Republican critics, such as John McCain, for its subsidies. But others in congress, even some Republicans, stand up for the service. Last year, Streetsblog reported that Republican John Robert Smith stood up for Amtrak subsidies in congress, making the case that “maximizing the system’s value requires increased, stable, and dedicated federal funding.” At the end of a hearing, Smith gave a touching portrayal of how Amtrak was essential to people in his state, even if it didn’t turn a profit:

“On the subject of the long-distance trains, that when my senator, Trent Lott, got to see the Mississippians, and saw that system was vitally important to them — the retired couples who use that system to visit their dispersed families across the country, the single mothers with children [for whom] the only the way they could visit their grand[parents] affordably was through the use of that train, the disabled vets that were on board that train — when he saw the Mississippians impacted and affected, he saw the importance of that facility.”

Needless to say, Florida has a lot more tourist appeal than Mississippi, which raises an important point. If the new Florida train is marketed as a luxury, it may make sense to run it privately and orient its management toward profit. If it is considered a good that should be accessible to all, the way Smith describes trains in Mississippi, it would be best left in the hands of Amtrak.

Perhaps one model for how new train service in Florida might look can be derived from another City Lab article, which describes the rise of “luxury” public buses in some US cities. These buses are privately owned, offer amenities unavailable on public buses, and in some cases duplicate busy public bus routes. I feel that, as long as these buses don’t interfere with public bus service (i.e. if they start blocking public bus stops like Google Buses in San Francisco), their existence should be tolerated and even welcomed by city dwellers.

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If Floridians can implement their new private train service as a similar luxury line without hurting other service, more power to them. But let’s not forget that in order for transportation not to become a rarified privilege of the elite, we would do better to offer basic transportation options – whether for city buses or long distance trains – operated by public entities, which have been shown to do a better job of making them widely accessible.

The current Amtrak train service in Florida would probably never be described as “triumphant”. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value – even if that value comes in the form of allowing citizens of Florida to affordably get around their state instead of a few more black digits on an accountant’s spreadsheet.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Images via All Aboard Florida

  • Flakker

    You’d probably be interested in this: http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2012/10/09/revisiting-privatization-in-intercity-rail/ if you’ve not seen it already:

    “Here is the confusing truth about Amtrak, however: The rail agency, fully government-owned, is in many ways already a privatized operation that receives federal subsidies. The organization does not seem to have the larger public’s interests in mind in setting policies: It has some of the highest fares in the world for services in the Northeast Corridor, it provides no discounts for people of lesser means, and it actively promotes the use of intercity buses for people who want to pay less, in effect strategically reducing its market share. These are not the actions of a government enterprise acting in the public interest; these are the actions of a private corporation attempting to maximize profit.”

  • http://www.whitemiceconsulting.com whitemice

    First – You are making the mistake of letting anyone, anyone at all, get away with the “Amtrak is subsidized” argument. This should never be permitted and everyone should always be called to the carpet on that arguement every single time it is made. Because… so what? Airlines and airports are massively subsidized. American roads – a transportation system – is 100% subsidized. As are nearly all passenger ferries. Yet somehow Amtrak is always different, it is bad that it is subsidized? This is a totally bogus argument. And Amtrak’s subsidy is pocket change compared to what is spent on subsidizing air and road transportation.
    Second – All Aboard Florida is allowed to do smart things. Their trains will not return a profit. The stations will! This is standard well-understood Transit Oriented Development kind of stuff. This is why their stations are massive, impressive, and multi-use; they can lease space in stations to paying tenants. And they will make their train schedules optimal for driving up the value of that space by maximizing utilization of the trains. The trains make the stations valuable and the stations make the trains possible – it is a value feed-back loop. Amtrak is disallowed from doing any of these things. Amtrak has almost entirely sad little platform stations. Amtrak has to have all its routes and schedule changes approved by legislative oversight – rather than sound-business planning. Amtrak cannot provide commuter service except under contract. Amtrak is hobbled and then asked why it can’t improve service – asked by the same people who hobble it; it is a designed to-be-at-best-mediocre system. Where I live the once-a-day
    train is frequently sold out…so would you add another train, add more capacity… nope, because you are Amtrak and that consideration will take a least a decade. Would you say – gee, there are six trains a day to the city immediately to the south, and those north and south cities are linked by rail so maybe it would be smart to provide that link so the people in the northern city could use those trains rather than or inaddition to the one-a-day we provide on a different route? Then with those frequent trains between those two cities only 50 miles apart lets lease some space in the station to Starbucks, and have a management company build apartments in the big abandoned building across the street from our station [BTW, this little station is location in the #1 hottest rental market in the United States]. Amtrak might say that – but you’re Amtrak – so you can’t DO anything; not until Congress decides to let you – good luck with that.

    In short Amtrak is not permitted to capture any of the value it creates, and it is not allowed to create the maximum potential value. If there is a real future for reasonably pervasive passenger rail – andI very much hope there is – we need the private sector and/or we need to unshackle Amtrak and let it succeed. Given the pedantic rhetoric
    spouting type of people elected to congress the Private Sector, as much as it pains me to say, seems like the brighter hope. Argh! How frustrating, when for less than the price of ONE naval battleship we could complete Michigan’s entire rail master plan; providing citizens with a useful service. Argh!

  • Jan A

    I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. The US DOT funds highways, so there isn’t much of an argument NOT to fund railways. At least in part, for instance, the infrastructure, and then have private operators pay rights to use that infrastructure. Just as airports are often built with government money, and airlines pay to be able to use them. That said, being from Europe, Belgium to be precise, the entire privatisation of our national railway networks has been a bit of a farce. Private operators try to make the most cash possible, introducing airline-style pricing systems making it mandatory to book months ahead for a seat. Only 10 years ago, one could wake up in the morning, decide to hop to Paris, and for 25 EUR and 1,5 hrs later one would be in Paris Nord. That said, one of the problems is that infrastructure owners charge ridiculous prices for using their tracks, blowing up international rail travel since EU rules limit state funding to national railway lines only.

    As for the UK-system, it might not be the best comparison, as it is not really a “freely” operated system: operators compete for a monopoly on one or more lines for a specific number of years. It gives them full power to raise fares as much as they like, without any potential competition. Not an ideal system.

    THere definitely is a case to be made for public railway ownership and operation, but it needs to be transparent. I absolutely agree that since it is funded by tax money, it needs to provide benefits to vulnerable groups of people. That does not make you a marxist (all of Europe would be marxist then). But privately owned railway companies can push the limits of service. In Germany, for instance, abandoned rail lines have been bought by private operators, successfully running local services, for instance between German and Dutch border cities. Their operations however, need to be regulated, and frankly, ‘reserve-ahead’- principle does not make private rail any more accessible.