I like train travel as well as anyone.  I have written about several of the world’s most famous train trips in this web site (Train Treks).  There are some good ideas for high speed rail service but it is not automatically the most economical solution to moving millions of people, thousands of miles.

Certainly New York City would not be able to function if not for the Long Island Railway that literally carries millions of passengers in and out of the city each day.  CalTrain brings thousands of workers to San Francisco each day.  There is no question that commuter railways are a valuable, if not vital, service that carry millions of people each day at reasonable cost. 

However, the picture changes dramatically when you look at a trip that runs more than 100 miles.  Look at Amtrak’s most heavily traveled long distance route, Washington DC to New York City.  The regular train costs $76-109 for one way and takes 3 hrs 20 min.  The high speed express takes only 2 hrs 46 min but costs $139-209 one way.   The bus takes 4 hrs but only costs $17.50-25.   It would appear that the most cost effective way to move people from DC to NYC would be to have dedicated bus lanes on Interstate 95.

Take another popular trip, San Francisco to Los Angeles.  One can take the train via a circuitous route that takes 10 to 13 hours, but only costs $53-68 one way.  In contrast the air trip takes only 1 hr 20 min and costs $170.  The time factor makes the train trip uncompetitive. 

Much has been made of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of Federal funds for building a high speed railway to link Miami to Orlando and one between Orlando and Tampa.  God knows a high speed line between Orlando and Tampa is needed.  Interstate 4 that connects the two is a congested nigthmare.  But a line from Miami to Orlando makes no sense. 

The rationale for the Miami to Orlando line is to make it easier for tourists to get between the two popular tourist sites.  But a one way fare for a family of four would probably cost $200-400 and take three hours (assuming the line is a high speed limited service).   You can rent a car for $25-60 a day and do the route in about the same time via the Florida Turnpike.  The train is not a very competitive solution.

But Scott’s reason for rejecting billions in Federal funds was based on the probable cost to the Florida tax payer.  Believe it or not Florida does have a modern railway that connects the airports of West Palm Beach, Ft Lauderdale and Miami with several stops in between.  TRI Rail offers a convenient, comfortable, timely service between the major airports in the area and several communities in Florida’s “megalopolis” that stretches from Miami to Palm Beach with some 5-8 million people depending on what communities you include in your count.  

You would think TRI Rail would be a winner but in fact it is a loser.  It cost $58 million to run the line in 2010 (and that does not count service on the debt incurred to build it).  Only 18% of that cost was covered by passenger revenue.  Another 25% was covered by Federal subsidies, 31% by Florida state subsidies and 22% by subsidies from the counties served.  Clearly Governor Scott is correct in assuming that a high speed line from Miami to Orlando would wind up costing Florida tax payers a whopping amount.

Yes, rail service is a valuable way to move people with less impact on the environment.  But one has to focus on the relatively few, specific services where it makes economic sense.