The return of private rail passenger service?




Since the disappearance of private-sector passenger rail service decades ago, intrepid entrepreneurs have tried to bring it back. None have succeeded.

However, in some densely populated places, passenger rail has even thrived in the public sector, at least as measured by passenger volume. This mostly means Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor and several major cities’ long-established commuter-rail networks. But new commuter rail is also catching on in some unlikely places, including such Sunbelt cities as Dallas and Phoenix, which now have popular light-rail systems.

Now, with an aging population, the proliferation of digital devices that many people would prefer to stare at rather than at the road and the increasing unpleasantness of traveling on America’s decaying highway infrastructure amidst texting and angry drivers, private passenger rail looks more capitalistically attractive.

Consider All Aboard Florida, a company that plans to offer extensive rail service starting in 2017. It will connect Miami and Orlando in just under three hours, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Its advertising copy eloquently describes commuter rail’s allure in populous areas:

“You can turn your stressful daily car commute into a productive or peaceful time by choosing to take the train instead of driving your car. By becoming a train commuter, you’ll also help the economy and environment while you’re at it.”

Southern New England, like much of Florida, is densely populated, with some unused or underused rail rights of way. So our entrepreneurs occasionally propose private passenger rail for routes not served by Amtrak or such regional mass-transit organizations as Metro North and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Consider the Worcester-Providence route, on which a new company called the Boston Surface Railroad Co. wants to start operating commuter rail service in 2017 on the (now freight-only) Providence and Worcester Railroad’s tracks. Most of the commuters going to work would be traveling from the Worcester area, via Woonsocket, where there would be a stop, to Greater Providence. While Providence itself has fewer people — about 178,000 — than Worcester (about 183,000), the two-state Providence metro area — about 1.6 million — is much bigger than the latter’s metro area’s about 813,000.

The density is there for rail service. That the region has an older population than the national average and frequent bad winter weather also give the idea a lift.

But the old rail line needs to be upgraded if the trips are to be made fast enough to lure many travelers. The company hopes to offer a one-way time of about 70 minutes on a route that you can drive in about 45 minutes in moderate traffic and clement weather. That could be a killer.

What this project and similar ones need is new welded track, rebuilt rail beds (with help of public money?) and some entirely new routes to make service competitive with car-driving times. We need more passenger and duel-purpose passenger-freight rail lines, not more highways. But getting them will be tough in a country that so blithely tolerates crumbling transportation infrastructure and has a deeply entrenched libertarian commuting habit of a single person driving long distances to work. Unless gasoline tops $5 a gallon and stays there for at least a year, it’s hard to see millions of Americans deciding that they’ll quit their cars to take the train.

Still, I applaud the project’s CEO, Vincent Bono, and hope that thousands of commuters will give his railroad a try. While the trip would be long, think of how much uninterrupted Web surfing (free Wi-Fi!), reading and snoozing you could get on these trains, with their reclining seats.

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An Aug. 10 USA Today story was headlined “Smaller cities emerge among top picks for biz meetings.” Depressingly, Providence was not on the list of the top 50 places for “meetings and events” in 2015, say evaluations by Cvent. But many far less interesting and attractive places were.

The reasons probably include Rhode Island’s under-funded and balkanized self-promotion and the long delay (now being addressed) in building a longer runway at T.F. Green Airport.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based editor, writer and overseer of newenglanddiary.com. He’s also a Fellow of the Pell Center and a partner in the healthcare consultancy Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com). He used to be the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and the editorial page editor of The Providence Journal.

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