Brightline, "conservative" policy, and the future of rail

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Tlcooper93

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I recently had a discussion with my best friend, and roommate of 4 years at Oberlin, who happens to be on the conservative side of the coin. We had an amazing discussion about rail, and the history/present/future of Amtrak and other intercity rail companies.

One point he really took to heart was the loss of rail infrastructure in the 1960's-80's. He agrees we really were short-sighted, and later called it "tragic."
What he was most interested in, however, was the fact that the two places in the country where private rail companies really are a reality (or close to it) are Texas and Florida. He personally believed that lack of draconian regulations, and lack of governments which "overspend and overreach," (his words) contribute to a rail friendly place and then cited the California HSR project which we had discussed at length earlier in the conversation. I did pose the point that private rail companies are not providing a public good (per say), and at any point can yank their service for any reason (like Brightline during covid).

While he admits that the current administration is more rail friendly than any in recent history, his primary concern with the current bill is that a lot of money will be lost in various fees and porky items (unions, DEI jobs, lawsuits) long before any shovels hit the ground.

I'm now curious on all of your thoughts.
While there does seem to be a trend that left leaning governments tend to favor rail a little more than right leaning governments (this, I think, is by no means a rule), do you think it is a coincidence that private rail companies have appeared in states like Texas and Florida?
Furthermore, do you think the current bill will actually help (rail) infrastructure, or do you think money may get lost in the shuffle of things and eventually very little will be spent improving our system for the better.

And finally, what, if any, ways are there for someone like myself to get involved in my local rail scene (Boston) to have a say in how things get done? However small a say it may be. Are organizations like TransitMatters the way to go? What about hsrail.org, which seems to really be more of a helpful advertising tool than anything else.
 

jis

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In New England there are at least two major advocacy groups active. One of course is RPA, which has a pretty active group in New England. The other is Rail Users Network or RUN as they call themselves.

RPA is better at manipulating the big picture, like getting desirable language into bills and thence into CFR. Of late they have been good at running specific local campaigns like the SW Chief campaign, and the current Gulf Coast campaign, and of course rallying the troops to send letters and messages focused on a specific issue to the relevant legislators. RUN OTOH is more into strategizing, somewhat like hsrail.org.

There are several other smaller groups focused on specific areas. You can see a complete list of such at:

 

Exvalley

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I did pose the point that private rail companies are not providing a public good (per say), and at any point can yank their service for any reason (like Brightline during covid).
Once a right of way is fully developed, isn't it fairly easy for a governmental agency to take it over?
 

jis

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The thing is, by no stretch of any imagination was the Brightline service between Miami and West Palm Beach an essential service. No government in its right mind would have bothered to take it over given that there was an alive and kicking government run TriRail service available less than a mile or two from it for every possible station.

If anyone thought that Brightline should be essential service they'd have placed it under STB jurisdiction, which even the full service to Orlando won't be at least for now. So for now at least it is just a vanity service by agreement among all involved apparently. Maybe when its full utility is realized by the powers that be it will be brought under the STB, or the Florida Legislators will put it under similar restrictions regarding arbitrary service cancellation. I am sure my state senator Debbie Mayfield would be very happy to twist Brightline's tail if she gets a chance :)

Just being a private owned service does not make it immune from the jurisdiction of the government regarding control over service discontinuance or suspension. Ask any of the erstwhile private passenger service operators before A-Day. It was there and it could very easily come back if operators misbehave too often.
 

Tlcooper93

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The thing is, by no stretch of any imagination was the Brightline service between Miami and West Palm Beach an essential service. No government in its right mind would have bothered to take it over given that there was an alive and kicking government run TriRail service available less than a mile or two from it for every possible station.

If anyone thought that Brightline should be essential service they'd have placed it under STB jurisdiction, which even the full service to Orlando won't be at least for now. So for now at least it is just a vanity service by agreement among all involved apparently. Maybe when its full utility is realized by the powers that be it will be brought under the STB, or the Florida Legislators will put it under similar restrictions regarding arbitrary service cancellation. I am sure my state senator Debbie Mayfield would be very happy to twist Brightline's tail if she gets a chance :)

Just being a private owned service does not make it immune from the jurisdiction of the government regarding control over service discontinuance or suspension. Ask any of the erstwhile private passenger service operators before A-Day. It was there and it could very easily come back if operators misbehave too often.
Good points.
I suppose evaluating Brightline’s possibilities and level of possible government manipulation is tough until the service and ROW it utilizes is fully developed and upgraded.

Texas Central and Brightline, until we see what they (hopefully) become, will be nothing more than vanity projects.
 

Tlcooper93

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In New England there are at least two major advocacy groups active. One of course is RPA, which has a pretty active group in New England. The other is Rail Users Network or RUN as they call themselves.

RPA is better at manipulating the big picture, like getting desirable language into bills and thence into CFR. Of late they have been good at running specific local campaigns like the SW Chief campaign, and the current Gulf Coast campaign, and of course rallying the troops to send letters and messages focused on a specific issue to the relevant legislators. RUN OTOH is more into strategizing, somewhat like hsrail.org.

There are several other smaller groups focused on specific areas. You can see a complete list of such at:

Thanks for the resource.
My current “dream” for getting involved is to write content for like organizations, but my knowledge is not quite there.
 

jis

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Good points.
I suppose evaluating Brightline’s possibilities and level of possible government manipulation is tough until the service and ROW it utilizes is fully developed and upgraded.

Texas Central and Brightline, until we see what they (hopefully) become, will be nothing more than vanity projects.
Texas Central BTW, unlike Brightline, is under STB jurisdiction, even though they are intra state. But they plan to provide through ticketed interstate service in collaboration with Amtrak, unlike Brightline.
 

cirdan

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Rail projects typically take multiple decades to become reality. The Texas project is not the first attempt at high speed rail between those cities. In Florida Brightline would probably never have come to be if the Florida HSR had not been cancelled. So quite often one project has ancestry in another, and the entire chain of processes outlasts several governors and legislatures and that often also means changes of political focus, priority and dogma (even if it is nominally still the same party).

Thus I claim that rail policy is not partisan policy, or should not be. Rail should be supported by as broad an alliance as possible.

It is very difficult to operate rail profitably in the present climate in which freeways and airports are not held up to the same standards. I am all in favor of the private sector myself, but there needs to be a level playing field.
 

jpakala

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Brightline is essential according to our relatives in West Palm Beach because, for example, I-95 is crazy. Nobody elderly, or a new driver or not a highly attentive, experienced driver with excellent fast & correct decision-making skills should drive to Miami. With fast population growth, countless visitors and all sorts of drivers it's becoming even worse.
 

Nick Farr

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What he was most interested in, however, was the fact that the two places in the country where private rail companies really are a reality (or close to it) are Texas and Florida. He personally believed that lack of draconian regulations, and lack of governments which "overspend and overreach," (his words) contribute to a rail friendly place
I don't think the lack of progress in HSR has much to do with left or right leaning governments. Texas Central and Brightline Florida are taking advantage of the same mix of conditions in their respective service areas:

1) Dense population centers that are just far away enough to be considered separate metroplexes, but close enough to have relatively strong ties. (Generally no more than 300 miles, a bit more than the distance between NYC and DC)
2) Readily available Right of Way
3) Horrible, horrible, horrible traffic
4) Real Estate development opportunities
5) Friendly local governments who haven't built a service similar to what you're offering

Absent this set of conditions (especially #4), there's not enough to convince a sufficient base of investors to invest in your plan. Brightline, if it does manage to build to Orlando, will probably have enough experience to replicate their plan in the other areas they've already identified--each of which are just slightly bigger than what they're doing in Florida (i.e Los Angeles and Las Vegas).

Your friend is generally right about one thing: Advocacy or development of Intercity passenger rail is hampered by the "bailout organization that was built to fail" nature of Amtrak.

Becoming a part of any local/county government that has some jurisdiction over mass transit is probably the best way to become involved, if you want to have a say in how things are done. Grassroots advocacy is the best way to bring about really big systemic change, but that's more like playing the lottery than grinding towards a goal. You never know which person you influence will be the one that sets off the huge change.
 

Tlcooper93

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I don't think the lack of progress in HSR has much to do with left or right leaning governments. Texas Central and Brightline Florida are taking advantage of the same mix of conditions in their respective service areas:
Thanks for the lengthy reply, especially regarding getting involved.
I really wasn't thinking about HSR specifically, but any basic decent HrSR system done privately. Brightline is not HSR but still has the potential to become a decent and useful rail system.

Your 5 points are basic and make sense, but there are plenty of other places in the country that have roughly the same perfect storm, and don't have anything close to Brightline. The 300 miles surrounding Indianapolis is actually quite a highly populated area, with the corridor from Columbus to Indianapolis to Chicago having nearly every point you mentioned (along with several other corridors that could provide the necessary population). The Ohio governor however, returned the funds from the Obama-era HSR package, funds which could have easily been repurposed for any decent rail project (as far as I know. Please correct if I'm wrong on that one).

Obviously, California has everything you mentioned, hence the CHSRA.

Brightline is essential according to our relatives in West Palm Beach because, for example, I-95 is crazy. Nobody elderly, or a new driver or not a highly attentive, experienced driver with excellent fast & correct decision-making skills should drive to Miami. With fast population growth, countless visitors and all sorts of drivers it's becoming even worse.
As other pointed out, I really don't think by any stretch of the imagination is Brightline (with the service it offered pre-pandemic) an essential service.
 

cirdan

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That is not very convincing since they could always use TriRail in the absence of Brightline. That is why Brightline could cancel service for a year with impunity and no one complained. 🤷🏻
maybe no one complained because the service was still new and nobody had yet got accustomed on it sufficiently to rely on it as a sole means to travel, or structured their life around it.

If the NEC were to go down for a year the consequences would be quite different.
 

Tlcooper93

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maybe no one complained because the service was still new and nobody had yet got accustomed on it sufficiently to rely on it as a sole means to travel, or structured their life around it.

If the NEC were to go down for a year the consequences would be quite different.
To compare the NEC, one of the busiest train corridors in the world, handling in some portions close to 1400 trains per day, and 500,000 passengers a day, to a corridor which even in its most utilized form will handle an order of magnitude less than that, is nonsensical.
 
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Nick Farr

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Thanks for the lengthy reply, especially regarding getting involved.
You're most welcome.

Your 5 points are basic and make sense, but there are plenty of other places in the country that have roughly the same perfect storm, and don't have anything close to Brightline.
Outside of Los Angeles/Las Vegas (i.e. Brightline West), I'm not sure there really is a good city pair for a Brightline that has a relatively clear ROW. Even Texas Central is being held up by one rancher who refused to allow survey crews onto his land.

Given that we can't even rehabilitate a ROW to expedite Michigan Trains into Chicago Union Station, I'm not sure how a Brightline plan would work anywhere in the Midwest--even if it would be an amazing way to rehabilitate the rust belt.

The other thing about Brightline and Texas Central is that they're connecting just the large population centers with really almost nothing but agriculture in between. There isn't a distinct population center like Lafayette, IN between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They are making no intermediate stops which of course increases speed. Florida and Texas communities are mostly OK with that, given that there isn't a whole lot between their planned routes and those residents are fine with driving to one or the other cities.

The problem with CHSRA is California Politics, namely California Water politics. The Central Valley Farmers don't want any infrastructure investment going through their Almond groves unless there's some kind of water diversion project to give them maybe another 5 years before droughts do them in entirely.
 

MARC Rider

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The problem with CHSRA is California Politics, namely California Water politics. The Central Valley Farmers don't want any infrastructure investment going through their Almond groves unless there's some kind of water diversion project to give them maybe another 5 years before droughts do them in entirely.
Well that's easy to solve. Five years isn't too long a time. Just wait them out, after they go belly-up, the state can buy out the land for pennies on the dollar. :)
 

cirdan

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You're most welcome.



Outside of Los Angeles/Las Vegas (i.e. Brightline West), I'm not sure there really is a good city pair for a Brightline that has a relatively clear ROW. Even Texas Central is being held up by one rancher who refused to allow survey crews onto his land.

Given that we can't even rehabilitate a ROW to expedite Michigan Trains into Chicago Union Station, I'm not sure how a Brightline plan would work anywhere in the Midwest--even if it would be an amazing way to rehabilitate the rust belt.

The other thing about Brightline and Texas Central is that they're connecting just the large population centers with really almost nothing but agriculture in between. There isn't a distinct population center like Lafayette, IN between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They are making no intermediate stops which of course increases speed. Florida and Texas communities are mostly OK with that, given that there isn't a whole lot between their planned routes and those residents are fine with driving to one or the other cities.

The problem with CHSRA is California Politics, namely California Water politics. The Central Valley Farmers don't want any infrastructure investment going through their Almond groves unless there's some kind of water diversion project to give them maybe another 5 years before droughts do them in entirely.
Texas Central is still far from being a fact and there are still plenty of things that could scuttle the project. Ditto for Brightline West.

At its Houston end, Texas Central will not be coming anywhere near the downtown area but stopping just before things get difficult. This will save costs and headaches and thousands of legal objections, but will mean the line will not be a genuine downtown to downtown connector but passengers who don't want to catch a bus will need a taxi or rental car to continue their journey. Maybe in car-centric Houston this would happen anyway, so maybe its not such a big handicap. But in California public transit is much more built out and also used, at least in the bigger cities, and any new system cannot afford to ignore that. CA HSR planners decided not to build a new line from city center to city center but to upgrade existing commuter tracks for the end segments, which may save some costs but also grandfathers in old problems and compromises, as well as imposing slow speeds and having to compete for slots with slower commuter trains which could threaten punctuality. CA HSR will also be crossing mountain ranges and need longer tunnels and other structures that will need to be built in difficult terrain. Brightline West and Texas Central are far easier to build in comparison.

I think the California project would be beyond the reach of any private enterprise.
 

neroden

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While there does seem to be a trend that left leaning governments tend to favor rail a little more than right leaning governments (this, I think, is by no means a rule), do you think it is a coincidence that private rail companies have appeared in states like Texas and Florida?
Yes, it's definitely a coincidence. Texas Central has had constant, outright hostility from the state government. It is pure coincidence that they're trying to build their project in a right-wing state, and they'd have a far easier time of it if they weren't. But it does have some big cities with cheap farmland in between them, which have no existing rail service, so it's a logical place to try running a new passenger rail line.

There is one way in which it's not a coincidence: when starting a for-profit company, you never want competition, so a state which trashed its existing passenger rail service (like the right-wing states mostly did) is a better chance to become a monopoly than a state which already has some potentially-competing service. Las Vegas-LA, however, is essentially the same situation: no existing rail service in Nevada, empty desert between there and LA, which is why that's being tried too -- and Nevada and California are both "blue" states now. So it's not directly related to the politics, it's related to the lack of competition.

In Florida I can even explain exactly how the coincidence happened. Brightline exists because a particular billionaire passenger rail supporter ended up controlling the company which owned the Florida East Coast Railway, one of the few Class II railroads in the country which was viable for passenger service. If he had ended up owning the Iowa Interstate instead (which is equally viable for passenger service), that's where we'd see the Brightline project. If he'd ended up owning Montana Rail Link, that's where we'd see the project. If he'd owned Ferromex, the project would be in Mexico.

Furthermore, do you think the current bill will actually help (rail) infrastructure, or do you think money may get lost in the shuffle of things and eventually very little will be spent improving our system for the better.
It'll help. How much, and where, I dunno, but the 2008 bill helped significantly *despite* anti-rail governors rejecting money (it helped the states which cooperated instead), and this one will too. Massachusetts actually got a lot out of the 2008 bill.

And finally, what, if any, ways are there for someone like myself to get involved in my local rail scene (Boston) to have a say in how things get done? However small a say it may be. Are organizations like TransitMatters the way to go? What about hsrail.org, which seems to really be more of a helpful advertising tool than anything else.
TransitMatters is absolutely the way to go in Boston -- they are *spectacularly* effective, easily one of the most effective advocacy organizations I've ever seen. They are actually listened to by the state government. In fact, if you plan to advocate for passenger rail somewhere other than Boston, I would learn what they're doing and copy them!

Hsrail.org is from what used to be called the Midwest High Speed Rail Alliance, and is one of the better organizations in terms of advocating successfully for service radiating out of Chicago, but none of them have been nearly as effective as TransitMatters.

The Rail Passengers Association is national and... frankly, tries to keep all the different local groups talking to one another.
 

cirdan

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That is not very convincing since they could always use TriRail in the absence of Brightline. That is why Brightline could cancel service for a year with impunity and no one complained. 🤷🏻
As a private enterprise with no contractual obligation to provide a passenger service, Brightline is free to cancel its service whenever it wants.

But I think in terms of the message of confidence this is sending out, for example to people considering buying a property based on the assumption that there will be a rail service, this is counter-productive.

That said, this is still early days and Brightline does not yet have that dependent customer base. So better to shut down for a year now than later.
 

Nick Farr

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In Florida I can even explain exactly how the coincidence happened. Brightline exists because a particular billionaire passenger rail supporter ended up controlling the company which owned the Florida East Coast Railway, one of the few Class II railroads in the country which was viable for passenger service. If he had ended up owning the Iowa Interstate instead (which is equally viable for passenger service), that's where we'd see the Brightline project.
While I agree that Brightline exists because of billionare largess, it could not be replicated in Iowa for three reasons:

1) There's no way you can get ridership numbers like Brightline had in Iowa. In their peak months, Brightline carried the equivalent of Davenport, IA's population.

2) There's no way you can charge Brightline fares to ferry people around Iowa. That market isn't going to be attracted to a luxury product like people who live Miami-Dade or Los Angeles/Las Vegas.

3) There aren't even remotely as many lucrative rail-tied redevelopment opportunities in Iowa as there are in Miami-Dade.

Iowa Interstate could absolutely be the base for a government-sponsored passenger rail service, but I can't see how it could form the base of a profitable private passenger railway.
 

Tlcooper93

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As a private enterprise with no contractual obligation to provide a passenger service, Brightline is free to cancel its service whenever it wants.

But I think in terms of the message of confidence this is sending out, for example to people considering buying a property based on the assumption that there will be a rail service, this is counter-productive.
From what I understand, Brightline is primarily a real estate company that happens to run a railroad. I know that’s not how it’s branded, and that’s not how they intend to be known as, but on paper, this is the case. Please correct me if you think I’m wrong.
By structuring this way, it allows them to cancel service, and still more or less not lose THAT much.
 

cirdan

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... absolutely.

But that's still a lot of money they spent on getting Brightline up and running as well as the money still being spent or going to be spent for the Orlando extension plus further extensions.

Even if they have very deep pockets and overall all that is small change to them, they are hardly going to build all that and then not use it optimally.
 
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jis

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The capital for constructing Brightline came mostly from bonds. There would have been no Brightline if the tax free bonds did not happen. They did consider the possibility of a RIFF loan for a while too, and that probably was their fall back if the bonds did not come through. The operating losses that they have been eating have all been in house. That is why they shut down operations ASAP and furloughed/laid off everyone except for skeletal equipment maintenance staff and a dozen managers needed to continue supervising the construction.
 

cirdan

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That is why they shut down operations ASAP and furloughed/laid off everyone except for skeletal equipment maintenance staff and a dozen managers needed to continue supervising the construction.
I thought the shutdown was needed so they could get PTC installed?

And even if the actual design and installation work was done by external contractors, such things would presumably still require active supervision by management as well as a subsequent knowledge and skills acquisition, which might require more that just skeletal staff.
 

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