Every few years, federal, state and local planners lay out outlandish plans for high speed rail networks that never seem to go anywhere, or go over budget. Florida’s SunRail loses millions, and does not even go from downtown to the Orlando airport. There should be a caveat to all government regional rail projects; if it does not connect the airport to downtown and other main destinations, DO NOT DO IT.
Perhaps the last great large government plan for rail that was wildly successful was D.C.’s Metro. It connected all major places in D.C., and has been a catalyst to development there. While not high speed, it was and is popular with customers, although it is worn, tired, under-capitalized and sometimes unsafe. Amtrak has had success in a few select areas, including the Northeast Corridor Acela and Auto-Train, from Virginia to Florida.
One of the nation’s rail innovators has been the Commonwealth of Virginia. In the last 20 years, a state not known for government innovation has launched three successful rail projects. During the administration of Gov. Gerald Baliles, the state planned and later instituted a D.C. commuter service called Virginia Railway Express. Rail service returned to Richmond’s downtown Main Street Station after 25 years, fires, floods and bankruptcies. Rail service was re-instituted from Norfolk to Washington D.C and Lynchburg to Washington, and thousands of upgrades were made across the state to make that happen.
In Tidewater, Virginia the city of Norfolk, in conjunction with their regional transit authority Hampton Roads Transit, launched The Tide, a handsome electric train that unfortunately misses obvious locations like the airport, Virginia Beach and the Norfolk Naval Base. Boosters hope it will be a launch pad for future rail efforts, though I still have doubts. It is a traditional “light rail” project that travels on city streets, as well as an old rail right of way. It has many grade crossings. In the case of The Tide, I wonder if it would have been more effective if it were a more grade-separated project within the city of Norfolk, more like a metro, and the Virginia Beach line, which has not been constructed, a simple passenger rail project. Of course, these ideas were well studied in a formal process when the plan was implemented in a formal, federal process, ably led by pioneers like Jayne Whitney. And that being said, The Tide is a tremendous achievement, and will eventually open the door to a connection to Norfolk International Airport and the Oceanfront.
Visionary But Practical Leadership
I can still recall the day sometime in the late 1980s when William Leighty, then Virginia’s lead state railroad implementer, talked to one of my Virginia Commonwealth University Urban Planning classes on how Virginia Railway Express came together. The reality was that it was a carefully done, eminently sensible plan, put together with reasonable goals and full government and corporate support. Today it is at capacity, a major driver of clustered economic development, with double-deck trains . It also happened around the time that the Commonwealth of Virginia, a major stockholder in the vital Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroad, sold out to CSX. When that happened, the state had an even more vital interest in pushing for more rail on that corridor, and CSX, which resisted new rail projects on its lines, was forced to be compliant, thankfully.
What separates Virginia’s success with rail efforts, when so many other states have failed to improve service, is partly location, being next to the growing federal government complex. In addition it is leadership; a bipartisan group of people supported it. Virginia, because of its location, also has a vital rail infrastructure, and was for a time headquarters to Norfolk Southern (in Norfolk) and CSX, in Richmond (now Jacksonville, Florida). Through the years, private transportation has been a key factor in business planning, from the beginning with George Washington and his canals. But what also made them work was that they were modest and achievable projects, done with proper planning, and competent, persistent government civil service employees.
High speed rail is fine, if you can afford it and if you have the population density to keep it full and the clogged airports to keep it viable. But for most of the rest of the U.S., rail can still be viable, with modest public support, if you just think more practically.
Hope in Florida
In Florida, a simpler rail project has a decent chance of working, as well. The Florida Brightline will be a welcome addition to South Florida, and a terribly practical solution. Brightline is being developed by Florida East Coast Industries of Coral Gables, the successor company to the Flagler System.
The issue in Florida is unique, but other areas could work this way if Brightline succeeds. Some key audiences and reasons for Brightline being so sensible:
- The Market: South Florida has a large population in an area where there is absolutely no room for additional expressways.
- The Population: Florida has a population predisposed to rail, including an international immigrant class used to public transport, some without a car.
- Tourism: Florida’s position as the nation’s top tourist destination means that the rail will have a built in audience, both of Americans, who are curious about rail, and foreign travelers, who wish to come and not want to have to have the burden of renting a car.
- Demographics: Retirees are also a factor; many millions who do not like to drive, live in the corridor from Miami to Cocoa Beach, and many of those are very close to the proposed stations.
- Skilled Developers: Development is also an issue; Florida has an innovative real estate development community well versed in building towers, condos and other high-density buildings. In many places across the U.S., there is not this skill set, and unimaginative real estate investors fall back on low-intellect office parks and suburban developments. Real estate investors (and that includes Brightline’s developers) know that walking proximity to rail is like gold for property values; Brightline is capitalizing on this, in a smart way.
- Planning support: Led by Duany Plater-Zyberk, Florida is birthplace and hub of the New Urbanism movement, led by Miami’s Andres Duany. Across the state, municipal and county planning departments deeply understand the advantages of more dense development and the walking city.
- Marketing: Brightline looks fresh, new and exciting.
- History: Railroads built Florida, and they still dominate the patterns of the state, even as Amtrak service does not compare to the scope of previous railroaders like Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, the railroad pioneers.
- Local rail partners: Florida East Coast understands logistics, and is a well established company with ownership of the rail right of way. They are also well connected, both in capital markets, and socially. Part if the issue with the un-imaginative state of passenger rail in the U.S. is that rail management at our freight railroads found it a pain, and took a skunner to it.
Libertarian Robert Poole, a libertarian and longtime proponent of free-market solutions, outlined in a James Madison Institute policy paper the differences between Brightline and other more boon-dogglish rail projects. Poole is director of transportation at the Reason Foundation and a senior fellow of the The James Madison Institute. He advised Florida Gov. Rick Scott on policy; this is good news as Scott is close to President Trump.
One important point he makes is that Brightline, first called All Aboard Florida, will use higher speed trains, but will not go for 200 m.p.h. high speed rail. The lower speeds, about 70 to 100 m.p.h., are fast enough to beat the traffic in an urban area, but do not require the crazy capital costs of an electrified superfast bullet train.
Because of the sensible business plan AAF has adopted, this project has a much greater likelihood of success than any other U.S. passenger rail project in recent history. If the fares are competitive with flying, it will no doubt be a popular mode of choice for many travelers helping it to turn a profit quickly. All Aboard Florida may in fact be a niche market where higher speed rail can make business sense without taxpayer support.
As with many things, you go back to experiences to help understand today. My first trip to Florida was on the private Auto-Train. It was founded in 1971 by attorney and former Johnson administration staffer Eugene Kerik Garfield. Auto-Train made money early on, though it went into the red by trying other services, outside of the Florida/D.C. market.
What made sense was how Garfield looked at demographics, trends, available resources and other factors to make his project work. The timing was right too; he started service the year that Disney opened. He repackaged those assets, all with a purple “plum” and pink theme, and created a sensation and innovation in railroads.
I wish it had succeeded as a private company, but Garfield’s idea lives on, and is an institution. Today, Auto-Train is the largest income generator for Amtrak, with about $83 million in revenue from the service. It is not inexpensive, but for a family paying hundreds of dollars a day to visit Walt Disney World, it is small change.