PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A Boston company wants to offer the first
private passenger rail line in the nation in more than 30 years,
reviving a once-popular business model that was stopped dead in its
tracks decades ago.
Boston Surface Railroad Co. is planning a commuter rail line that
would shuttle passengers between Worcester, Massachusetts, and
Providence in about an hour. No private passenger rail line has existed
since 1983, and it’s been even longer since there was a significant
private investment in passenger rail.
While some experts doubt that private rail can be a viable business,
others say the market demand is there. Companies in at least two other
states — Florida and Texas — have passenger rail projects in the works.
“We’re going through changes in this country with how people travel.
Everybody’s looking for more choices,” said Robert Puentes, director of
the metropolitan infrastructure initiative at the Brookings Institution.
The 45-mile stretch between Worcester and Providence presents the
perfect opportunity for commuter rail because there are existing
well-maintained tracks, which are owned and used for freight by
Providence and Worcester Railroad Co., said Vincent Bono, CEO of Boston
Bono likens the project to a proof-of-concept to see if a private
company can use existing infrastructure for passenger rail service for
relatively little money.
“Because we’re private, because it’s an existing railroad, because
they’re willing to operate it for us, we don’t have to spend ridiculous
money,” Bono said.
He hopes the rail will be up and running by 2017.
The nation’s existing passenger railroads rely heavily on government
subsidies. In recent years, Amtrak, the nation’s government-funded
inter-city railroad service, has come under attack for expensive
subsidies of its money-losing long-distance routes and losses from its
food and beverage services, although the busy Northeast corridor route
has growing operating profits.
Still, some doubt that private passenger rail projects can make a profit.
“If commuter rail is to be competitive, it has to maintain
artificially low fares, fares that are below the fully allocated cost of
service,” said Albert Churella, a professor at Kennesaw State
University who specializes in the history of the railroad industry.
But companies in at least two other states see a market for private passenger rail.
All Aboard Florida is working on a $2.25 billion project to build a
passenger rail from Miami to Orlando. It plans to begin operating a
limited route by 2017.
Texas Central Railway is developing a $10 billion high-speed rail
line between Dallas and Houston beginning in 2021. The company has said
the bullet train would make the 250-mile trip in 90 minutes.
The Worcester-to-Providence rail line would be much smaller scale than those.
Bono said capital costs are budgeted at $3 million to $5 million,
because the company needs to build very little: a short passing track
and a passenger platform at the Worcester train station. It plans to
keep costs down by relying on equipment it will get refurbished — three
used locomotives and 12 former Amtrak passenger coaches.
Boston Surface has entered into a memo of understanding with the freight railroad, which owns nearly the entire route.
A feasibility study was just completed, and the project is in the
planning stages. Bono says it doesn’t need federal or state money.
Puentes said the private ventures can help economic growth and recovery.
“This is the right conversation to be having, particularly in a place like Rhode Island,” he said.