By Noel T. Braymer
Just getting and expanding rail passenger service can be a real hassle, at least in the United States. On many levels there always seems to be opposition. Much of the opposition to rail passenger service is over its costs to build and if enough people will ride it to be profitable. How can we get over most of this opposition? We need to make rail passenger service an intergral and essential part of the transportation system and not just a supplement to it.
If we look at many places such as in Europe or Asia; these places can’t function without passenger rail service. This is in large part because there is no room in cities to build more roads or parking to carry people to where they need to go. Much of the development of these cities in Europe and Asia and to the surrounding towns by them are centered around rail passenger service including intercity, commuter and transit. The nice thing about rail passenger service it allows many more people to travel to major activity centers than is possible by car. There simply isn’t the room in these busy places to build the roads and parking to make these activity centers function the way they do now. European Cities after World War II unlike in America kept rail transit and intercity rail service because they couldn’t afford to waste land on roads and parking for cars.
We are seeing in Florida passenger rail service being built to make money. Called the Brightline, it will run between Miami to Orlando serving the heart of travel in Florida. This new rail service is being built by an existing railroad: the Florida East Coast (FEC) which is owned by Florida East Coast Industries. Florida East Coast Industries is a major land owner and land developer in Florida. Like most railroads from the 19th Century the FEC was built not to make money carrying passengers, but to carry passengers to make money developing land. The Brightline is expected to operate at a profit. But the real money will come from land development on property owned by Florida East Coast Industries at and near the new and rebuilt stations for the Brightline. The Brightine is planned to start service next year.
This is at the heart of successful rail passenger services by being an integral part of of the way land is developed. Doing so allows land to be used by more people with fewer cars and wastes less land for parking. We can see this at work in San Francisco by looking at pictures of Market St before and after BART was built. Major high rise construction built since the 1970’s along Market St depends on BART to carry passengers to work and on business every day. This was done without expanding freeways in downtown San Francisco. As for finding parking in San Francisco, good luck. Today BART’s transbay tunnel carries about as many or more people than the Bay Bridge and is near capacity.
If we look at the plans for the stations for the California High Speed Rail project, major new developments are planned around the stations. Much of the political support for High Speed Rail comes from the cities which will be getting stations and are expecting a major economic boost with improved transportation for their town. This has already happened in many countries which have built and run High Speed Rail.
Let’s look at some of the economics of transportation. The true cost of transportation is mostly in the infrastructure. We have a major system of roads and parking mostly built between 1946 and 1976 which in large part are now in need of major rebuilding. This was and will be a major cost for government. The large amount of land just used for parking represents a large tax subsidy for driving. Using land for parking instead for housing and development would increase the value of the property and the property tax revenues from land now used for parking. Costs just to maintain existing highways for trucks and cars in the future will be daunting, not to mention the cost to expand them. By comparison, the cost of building and expanding rail passenger service based on the number of people carried by rail is lower than by highway. A double tracked rail service carrying up to 24 trains an hour in each direction can carry more people or freight than a typical 5 lanes in each direction freeway. And rail service can do it with fewer delays due to congestion or caused by accidents. Today it is almost impossible to build more roads in urban areas. Plans to build freeway tunnels and parking structures is also very expensive and a poor use of land. When more roads are built in suburban areas, this leads to more vehicle traffic increasing congestion in urban areas.
With land increasingly becoming a scarce resource, using rail service means more development at lower costs due to reduce need for parking. Fewer cars mean less noise and pollution in dense urban areas. The demand for greater building density is growing. There is great demand for more housing and jobs closer to each other and for greater availability for both. For many people the cost of housing and travel leaves little extra money for spending on much else. With rail service serving population and job centers, more affordable housing and lower transportation costs are both possible.