The Brightline Model

Brightline is coming! With two trainsets on the property and limited service starting in July, the most interesting passenger rail initiative currently going in the country is set to launch. Although I admit to lingering skepticism of the long-term viability of the high-end, private model of intercity passenger rail, Brightline appears to be on track to get service up and running, and it is at the very least an interesting experiment, a return to the days when railroads made a significant percentage of their revenues from land development (a grand tradition on Brightline’s home railroad).

It’s interesting, then, that Brightline is projecting an image of confidence not just about its initial Miami-West Palm Beach service and the eventual expansion to Orlando, but about prospects for future expansion elsewhere as well. In an interview with Trains Magazine, Brightline execs stressed expansion within Florida–Tampa and Jacksonville being natural targets–but, in the words of interviewer Bob Johnston (no relation), “didn’t rule out” the possibility of taking their model elsewhere in the country as well. What Mike Reininger–formerly president of Brightline, and now moving over to sister company FEC Industries–did tell the magazine, though, is potentially interesting:

“We don’t have any specific targets or notions about markets that Amtrak is serving,” he explains. “Our thesis is that there are major population centers 250 to 350 miles apart that are underserved or don’t have the capacity within their infrastructure systems to respond to (mobility) needs that could benefit from the type of service we are talking about, on a profitable basis as opposed to necessarily a subsidized basis.”

In a separate interview with Railway Gazette, Reininger touched on much the same topic:

‘Florida is not the only area where there are overcrowded roads and interstates’, he pointed out. ‘We are fulfilling our vision here in Florida, but we are not exclusively bound by the state borders. We have a belief that major cities that are 500 to 600 km apart set themselves up as prime candidates for express passenger rail, and can be made to work. We want to apply that throughout the USA.’

While we still don’t know whether Brightline can be successful in its near-perfect situation in Florida–sharing track with a supportive parent freight company that is well-known for its fast, scheduled freights and high-quality infrastructure, a rarity in American railroading–it’s clear that the company is thinking big. Inasmuch as one can speak of a “Brightline model” that could theoretically give American intercity passenger rail a jolt, it would seem to consist of two overarching elements, one of customer service and one infrastructural. On the customer service end, Brightline clearly sees itself as a high-class service; it intends to make money and has invested in high-quality equipment to that end, offering assigned seating and two classes. The more interesting question, to me at least, is infrastructural. Given how near-perfect the FEC situation is for Brightline, are there, indeed, other corridors around the country which their model might fit? From the two interviews above, we can begin to glean a sense of the criteria that Brightline or a similarly minded company might apply in developing a new corridor.

Market:  A service like Brightline can’t just be plopped down anywhere. It has to reach “major population centers” that are currently “underserved” by intercity options, and that are wealthy enough to afford a premium service. Obviously there is some fungibility here, but there are also clearly minimum requirements that need to be met.

Distance: Reininger gave different numbers in the two interviews, but Brightline is clearly looking at mid-length corridors somewhere between 250 and 400 miles in length.

Minimal capex: I could be totally misreading Brightline’s intentions on this one–after all, they do intend to pursue a remarkable investment in a greenfield line to Orlando–but it seems fairly reasonable to say that they could not launch such a risky endeavor without the comfort of having FEC’s minimal-investment-needed to fall back on for the first stage (to be fair, they have sunk significant money into double-tracking and stations). For future expansions, though, it’s probably good to assume that someone operating on the Brightline Model would want to roll out service on a right-of-way that is already well maintained or that can be rehabbed without too much effort, and that allows rollout capital expenditure to be kept to a minimum.

Willing freight partner: This might well be the hardest criterion to meet. Brightline will save money by splitting track maintenance costs with FEC’s freight business, but American Class 1 railroads (the largest of the freight railroads) are notoriously unfriendly to passenger service. Surely, the Class 1s would be willing to negotiate in some circumstance (and might even find themselves relieved to be working with an organization that’s not as dysfunctional as Amtrak), but I suspect that Brightline expansion would come easier in partnership with a regional freight carrier like FEC or a government-owned line. Consider this one a flexible criterion.

Amtrak noncompete: Reininger’s wording in the Trains interview isn’t totally clear, but it doesn’t sound to me like Brightline is interested in immediately kicking off expansion with in-corridor competition with Amtrak. I’d bet that if Brightline expands outside Florida it will be on a corridor not already served by one of Amtrak’s corridor services, or where a state benefactor can kick Amtrak off relatively easily.

Ability to compete with driving: Reininger referred to metro areas that don’t have “capacity within their infrastructure systems to respond to (mobility) needs” in one interview and “overcrowded roads and interstates” in the other, so it’s fair to say that Brightline sees an opportunity to use America’s congestion problem to compete. And competing with driving is certainly easier than competing with flying, especially given Brightline’s choice of diesel-powered equipment on conventional right-of-way.

Given these criteria, then, where can we imagine, in this thought experiment, that Brightline might attempt to expand in the future? I don’t intend this to be in any way a comprehensive list of possible corridors, but it’s a start. The operative assumptions, in addition to the criteria above, are that a) Brightline would continue to operate similar diesel-powered equipment on conventional track and b) the company might eventually be open to partnering with government on some corridors.

The Front Range 

There have been various plans to introduce high-speed rail along Colorado’s Front Range, where much of the state’s population is clustered in a reasonably linear corridor encompassing Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.

The total length of the corridor is a little below what Brightline seems to be targeting, and much of the necessary existing trackage is controlled by Class 1s that may or may not be amenable to sharing. North of Denver, RTD is already obligated (and coming under fire for delaying) to improve the BNSF line through Boulder and Longmont to Fort Collins and might be open to private investment. South of Denver, the Joint Line offers extra capacity in places, especially with coal traffic on the downturn, but it still has a single-track bottleneck and is controlled by Class 1s. And of course there’s the matter of the foolish decision to turn the through-running Denver Union Station into a stub-end terminal. Still, the region remains wealthy, is growing, has a congestion problem, has shown a willingness to invest in rail, and is positively obsessed with PPP solutions. There’s also significant TOD opportunity–one major way for Brightline to make money–around the downtowns of each city along the Front Range.

Piedmont

Though currently operated by Amtrak, the state of North Carolina plays a significant role in the Piedmont corridor service linking many of the state’s major cities. Indeed, through a quirk of history the state actually owns the tracks. It’s a busy freight corridor, but a growing passenger market that’s also becoming wealthier, and it’s not impossible to envision the state wanting to upgrade passenger service in the future. North Carolina has been sinking money into double-tracking and other infrastructure improvements in recent years, so it’s possible capacity to expand passenger service will exist in the near future.

Hoosier State

This is perhaps the most obvious candidate; despite the collapse of Iowa Pacific’s attempt at running the train five days per week, returns were good during their tenure, and Indiana remains obsessed with privatization. The biggest challenge is certainly infrastructural; the trip from Chicago to Indy is just so sloooowww and CSX, which owns much of the track used, is rarely a cooperative partner. That being said many of the rights-of-way used are very straight and suitable for high-speed running if a private investor thinks they’re worth sinking money into.

Chicago, Fort Wayne, and Eastern

The arrow-straight former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline from Chicago into Indiana and Ohio is often mentioned as a strong candidate for passenger conversion; it is only tenuously necessary for freight service and is in fact leased from CSX to regional railroad CF&E at the moment. That being said CF&E’s rights end in the relative middle of nowhere in Ohio and Fort Wayne itself is a borderline candidate to be the sole terminus of a service operating under Brightline’s model. Access to larger cities in Ohio, such as Columbus or Cleveland, would almost certainly require working with a Class 1. And the line itself needs significant work. There are a lot of ifs here, but the line is in many ways the perfect 125 mph diesel corridor if they can be worked out.

Twin Cities-Duluth

As with the Front Range, there’s an active effort in place to bring passenger trains to this corridor. As with the Front Range, though, the needed ROW is controlled by a Class 1. And the Duluth-Superior area may not be wealthy enough to justify a for-profit premium service. A strong local belief that demand exists persists, though, and if enough money can be scraped together there’s also a parallel, mostly abandoned ROW that could be reactivated.

Memphis-Jackson-New Orleans

This corridor sprang to mind primarily because a large chunk of the northern section is outside of Class 1 control, albeit in horribly decrepit shape. South of Jackson, service in this corridor would need agreement from CN, and the whole region is relatively poor and might not be suited for a high-cost premium service.

Dark Horse: the Moffat Line (Denver-Salt Lake City)

I label this a dark horse mostly because the operating paradigm would be a little different from the other proposed here; the corridor is almost 600 miles long, as opposed to Brightline’s stated ideal of 250-400 miles. But I previously wrote about the Moffat Route’s potential as a passenger-primary corridor, and the decline of coal traffic that prompted that train of thought has only continued apace. This was, after all, the route of the last full-scale privately operated passenger train in the country; the two endpoints enjoy strong demand and cultural ties; and the restored Snow Train has been doing well. At 12-13 hours vs. 8 to drive, the current California Zephyr is not time-competitive, but with some work an improved version dedicated to just this segment might be able to close the gap some, especially in winter. Perhaps a couple of trains per day over the Rockies would complement a Front Range service well. But who knows! The daydreaming is the fun part of this.

Conclusions

The major conclusion I’ve come to in this brief attempt at analysis is that finding a good situation for expansion along the lines of what Brightline envisions in Florida is really, really hard. Many of the “good” corridors are already occupied by Amtrak; while it’s not really that hard to envision a good private-sector operator doing better with some corridor services than Amtrak has, there is significant political inertia behind the national operator. And Amtrak’s fares are, and will be, cheaper, which is a significant concern in areas where trains represent the more downmarket option.

The bigger concern for passenger service expansion, though, is domination of the needed infrastructure by freight railroads. In terms of national policy, it should be noted, this is not necessarily a bad thing; it should be a goal to keep freight on trains and off highways. But it does make rolling out new passenger services exceptionally difficult in many different phases. Brightline has a near-perfect situation going in Florida with the ability to share FEC infrastructure on a friendly basis; ultimately, I suspect, it will remain a Florida-only operation. But who knows! Five years ago, would anyone have expected a privately-funded passenger train operation to make it off the ground at all? If Brightline succeeds, and Texas Central gets off the ground, there might be two running in the US within the next several years. Now that would be something.

 

 

Upstate Must Earn “Parity”

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio have finally come to agreement on the scope (though not every detail of funding for) the 2015-2019 MTA capital program. So, naturally, Upstate politicians are again beating the drum of “parity,” demanding an equal amount of capital spending on transportation infrastructure (mainly, of course, roads) Upstate. There’s only one problem.

Upstate doesn’t deserve the funding. Yet.

“Parity” is a problematic concept when it comes to New York State infrastructure spending in any case, implying as it does that the needs of the New York City region and Upstate are somehow equivalent. They’re not. The MTA estimates that its service area contains 15.2 million people; even if we subtract 1.8 million people to account for the inclusion of Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, that’s still approximately 69% of the entire state’s population. New York City alone accounts for between 8 and 9 million of those people. Logically given that population density, NYC’s rapid growth, and the region’s economic success, Downstate taxes heavily underpin state activities Upstate. A world of real parity would reduce that spending, something that few Upstate politicians (or voters) seem to understand. As such, as Cap’n Transit pointed out a few years ago, requests for “parity” are really a demand for various politicians to be able to steer state funds to pet areas, modes, projects, and (this being New York, after all) people.

But the reality of the financial landscape of New York State isn’t the only reason leadership should resist Upstate demands for help with infrastructure funding. Upstate’s been hit hard by economic restructuring in the last couple of decades, and I’m certainly OK with some level of subsidy being extracted from Downstate to pay for ongoing revitalization efforts here. But as an Upstate resident (albeit a recent arrival), I’ve come to appreciate another reason Upstate doesn’t deserve transportation infrastructure spending parity: its inability to control sprawl and create an efficient framework for provision of public services, even as the region’s population shrinks.

It’s not news that by and large Upstate continues to shrink even as NYC and its region grows. That shrinkage is, of course, in and of itself a reason that Upstate shouldn’t receive large amounts of capital funding; it should be focusing on maintaining existing infrastructure, not building new things. What people from Downstate and elsewhere don’t appreciate as much sometimes, I think, is the extent to which Upstate continues to sprawl even as its population declines.

That’s the subject of one of Aaron Renn’s most striking posts (from 2011, well before I knew I was moving Upstate), as well as a 2003 Brookings report titled “Sprawl Without Growth: the Upstate Paradox.”  Though a few Upstate areas, including the Capital District, are growing (even if typically at anemic rates), even in those regions sprawl has outpaced the rate of growth. The Capital District’s pattern is typical. As the local MPO, CDTC, laid out in their new regional transportation plan draft, despite slow growth the region has basically merged into one “urbanized” (really, suburbanized) area stretching from Albany’s southern suburbs all the way to Glens Falls and Lake George.

CDTC New Visions 2040

CDTC New Visions 2040

No one has done better work showing the costs of this kind of development than Charles Marohn and the team at Strong Towns. Their series on the “Growth Ponzi Scheme”  lays out the ways in which sprawl–especially in declining or economically weak areas–becomes a millstone around the necks of local government, demanding ever-greater maintenance spending, as well as facilitating a mindset that thinks the solution is yet more capital spending regardless of economic realities. That describes the broken cycle in Upstate pretty damn well.

“But Sandy,” you say! “We can’t just leave Upstate to suffer a slow economic death, strangled by the decline of American manufacturing and the forces of globalization.” And I agree! There’s absolutely a place for capital spending on infrastructure Upstate; I even wish the state were a little more aggressive about it. But the money must be spent in the right places and in the right ways. That means fundamentally changing the realities of planning and development Upstate to conserve sparse governmental resources and allow efficient ongoing spending into the future. It means curbing sprawl, which sucks dollars out to the perimeter and demands an ever-growing amount of spending, and reinvesting in cities , whose infrastructure already exists. It means an end to resource-agnostic demands for spending billions on objectively wasteful projects like the “Rooftop Highway” in the North Country or tunneling I-81 in Syracuse (a consideration that DOT officials had rejected as absurd, but added back into the alternatives process at the insistence of local stakeholders).

And more than anything, Upstate needs to earn infrastructure investment by articulating a positive vision for fiscally responsible growth (or decline, as it may be) that upends the currently dominant “way we’ve always done it” mentality and begins a movement toward adapting to the new shape of the American economy. That means dropping the territorialism and learning to work with major global concentrations of intellectual and financial capital like New York City and Toronto, to which Upstate just so happens to be adjacent. If (as) housing prices in those markets continue to skyrocket, Upstate stands a good chance of skimming off some overflow–but only if attitudes and development patterns change.

Of course, part of the problem Upstate faces is its geographic isolation. And that’s where I’ll live up to the obligation I’m placing on Upstate to articulate a positive vision for a new framework for transportation and development. What’s the “parity” I envision for Upstate, given the state’s investment in the MTA? How about building out true high-speed rail (HSR) along what’s now called the Empire Corridor, from Albany to Buffalo? Alon took a close look at NYC-Toronto HSR a while back, and has taken the Cuomo administration to task for its lack of interest in the project. For the record, I concur in the judgment that the current administration has probably chosen to sandbag proposals for real HSR in the corridor, and that the “alternatives” analyzed are somewhat absurd.

Current politics aside, the demand for parity and an HSR project actually fit together fairly well. The overall investment in the current MTA capital program is about $29 billion, all but $3.2 billion of which will come from the state and the MTA’s own funds (which are, as much as Cuomo’s people like to deny it, state funds). Even at the inflated prices sometimes quoted for the California HSR project, that’s either just about enough or almost enough to build a full-scale HSR line from Albany to Buffalo, plus upgrading the existing Hudson line for faster, electrified trains. (though it will never be a true HSR line because all those curves that make it so pretty) A few billion more–most of which would be paid by Ontario–would bring the line to Toronto.

Imagine Buffalo, and Syracuse, and Rochester being 2-3 hours from NYC by train. Right now, there are a few unreliable trains per day, plus buses. Air service is massively expensive and spotty. HSR would give people and firms in those cities quick access to the red-hot markets in NYC and Toronto, and likely even bring some transplants looking for a slower pace of life and more affordability back. That would be a positive vision, one worth spending “parity” money on. Let’s change how things work up here. Then we’ll deserve that parity.