Getting It Right
I was in Palm Beach in February escaping the vagaries of winter n Cleveland – – for us, February is a surplus month – – and I read a story in the February 26 Palm Beach Post that is good news for friends of passenger train. All Aboard Florida, a project of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), plans to run a privately-funded, unsubsidized higher speed rail passenger service from Miami to Orlando. That includes building a new line from the FEC main to Orlando and buying new equipment for 32 passenger trains a day.
The return of privately-operated passenger trains is something devoutly to be wished. I’ve taken Amtrak coast-to-coast this winter, as Cleveland to Florida. The trains were good, mostly on time, and a far nicer way to travel than what the airlines now hand us. But Amtrak’s network is so sparse much of the country has no service, and when Amtrak does serve a city or town, it is usually with only one train a day. Had I wanted to go from Florida to New Orleans, I would have been required to do so via Chicago! We need the private sector to get back into passenger trains if we are to get enough trains, running to enough places, to make rail travel convenient again.
So All Aboard Florida is good news. Unfortunately, it has generated a lot of opposition along much of the proposed route corridor. Part of this is uninformed Nimbyism, much of it reflecting fear of 32 trains in 24 hours. In the old days, many railroads ran a lot more trains than that, without any consequences.
But part of the opposition has come from a blunder made by All Aboard Florida. From the beginning, they have insisted that they would have stops only in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. That has meant much of the Florida coast would just have to watch the trains go whizzing through, unable to ride the. Not surprisingly, when people receive no benefit from something, they are inclined to oppose it.
The good news in the Palm Beach Post is that All Aboard Florida is now re-thinking that position. The paper wrote in its lead story,
All Aboard Florida is signaling its willingness to build additional stations between West Palm Beach and Orland, offering to initiate ridership and environmental studies for communities that identify possible locations.
This is smart for two reasons. First, by offering the possibility of service to more communities, it will undercut the NIMBYs. Second, if the new trains are to make money, they will need to serve as many communities as possible. Most train riders are not end-point to end-point. Non-stop trains have usually failed financially. Amtrak tried running non-stop Washington to New York and soon gave it up because those trains carried too few people. All Aboard Florida’s plan does include Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, but even so most of the route would have no service. This is not likely to work.
What drove All Aboard Florida to plan only two intermediate stops was a requirement to schedule Miami-Orlando in less than three hours. But there is an old, tried-and-proven way to do that and still serve more intermediate points: run both express and locals. With 32 trains a day, that should not be difficult.
Florida East Coast Railway has been a pioneer and an innovator since the days of Henry Flagler and his railroad to the sea. By bring back the privately-operated passenger train, FEC is again innovating, in a way that would make Mr. Flagler proud.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation