What is the True Value of Passenger Trains?

Story and Photos by Noel T. Braymer

In London, England they are spending 15 billion pounds which is 23 billion dollars to connect 2 existing commuter rail lines in central London with 13 miles of tunneling. This out of 24 miles total for tunneling which also includes a tunnel for a branch to Heathrow Airport for this project called Crossrail. In total this project includes 73 route miles. Crossrail which is currently the biggest engineering project in Europe is expected to open in 2018. The British are paying for the construction of Crossrail with a combination of general tax funds, local tax assessments of London Businesses and with borrowed money. The loans will be paid from the operating profits of the passenger trains. When operational 24 trains an hour during rush hours will run with 10 car trains carrying up to 1,500 passenger.

With this level of traffic there is expectation that the trains will produce an operating profit. But there is no expectation that the money for these trains will be able to pay the entire capital costs of this project. So why go to all this trouble and expense if these trains can’t pay for the full capital costs? The reason according to local calculations is that 15 billion pounds spent on this project will benefit the British economy by 42 billion Pounds or over 64 billion dollars.

It is time that we talk about the value of passenger trains in terms of their economic value beyond the question of whether passenger trains are “profitable” or not. That is not to say that train operations shouldn’t be profitable or at least have a high cost recovery of their operating costs. High cost recovery is a good indication of an efficient and popular passenger train. The question of capital investment for passenger trains should be seen in terms of the greater economic return such as the British find with Crossrail rather than a train’s profitability to fully recover capital costs.

Transportation is at the heart of any growing economy. Major airports are busy activity and job centers. Travelers brings in money to cities both in the form of tourist and business travel. Major hotels flourish around airports. Companies often locate near major airports for the travel convenience of their managers, employees and customers.

However airlines are often not profitable, many go bankrupt and even go completely out of business. Airports don’t make money in this county. Most airports are publicly owned. Basically they are non-profit organizations. But airports are recognized as a major asset in their region. A city can’t make money with an airport in this country. In 1993 then Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan tried to transfer 30 million dollars from LAX to pay for expanding the police department. To get this money he raised the landing fees at LAX which were among the lowest in the country. A major reason for this was LAX wasn’t intended to be profitable. LAX had raised parking fees at the airport to reduce traffic congestion which brought in so much money they lowered the landing fees to prevent a cash surplus.

The reaction of the airlines to this landing fee increase was as a group to sue LAX and to lobby Washington. In the end the airlines prevailed. Federal law for federal funding for airport improvement forbids airports using airport income for non airport purposes. By 1999 the 30 million dollars from LAX for the police department had cost the airport 73.4 million dollars in lost federal funds. By 2001 after Mayor Riordan had left office the landing fees were lowered, the airlines got their money refunded and LAX was rewarded with federal funds.

No one expects airports to make money any more than they expect the sewage, police or harbor departments to make money. But these and other public services are what make business and the local economies thrive. So it should be with passenger train service. Passenger trains should be economical, efficient and popular. It should be seen as a public asset and a stimulus to the regional economy. But it doesn’t have to profitable to stockholders. It is not easy to make money building infrastructure. Local governments are earning extra money charging tolls on HOV lanes to drivers who travel alone and are willing to pay to save time. But in California several attempts to build private toll roads for profit have all been economic failures which in the end have required government to bail these companies out and buy the toll roads from the investors. We need to put passenger trains infrastructure on an economic level playing field with roads, air and water transport.

We can see the benefits of rail service in many parts of California. BART was not an overnight success. But today downtown San Francisco functions with few major freeways. The skyscrapers along the Embarcadero and Market Street couldn’t exist without BART. Roughly half of the people who travel from Oakland to San Francisco do so by BART about as many who drive across the Bay Bridge. The baseball stadiums in San Francisco and San Diego were major local redevelopment projects to attract other construction centered on using local light rail and commuter trains to bring people to the ballpark area while avoiding traffic problems. Over the last 30 years new train stations throughout the State have been built or historic stations renovated. In the past many train stations were in the rundown rust-belt side of town. Today trains stations are in the center of redevelopment and economic growth. What makes this happen, and is needed to continue is more passenger train service and track improvements to run more and faster trains.


This is the view from the old Oceanside, California train station of the new Transportation Center under construction in late 1983. This was the first new train station in California since World War 2. The planning for this went back to 1970 and a major goal of the project was to redevelop downtown and get more visitors to the nearby beach. Two aims of the project was to relocate the train yard out of town seen next to the station in 1983 and eliminate the utility poles used for the railroad signalling  seen on the left with underground cables.


This is the view of the Oceanside Station in 1983 looking north on the east side of the tracks.


This is roughly the same view looking north in 1990. The old station from 1943 is gone but an old fuel tank on the site required years to clean up.


This is the current view at Oceanside looking north near where the old station was. On the right is a parking structure to handle both the many drivers riding the trains  as commuters and for weekend beach traffic. The large building under construction will be a Marriott Springhill Suites resort hotel.  Not far from the Transportation Center by the beach is the Wyndham  Oceanside Pier Resort. A major goal of the the original planning for the Transportation Center was to attract resort hotels , increase property taxes for the city and tourist spending in Oceanside.

The critics we will always have with us. This is nothing new. Back in the 1810’s when the Eire Canal was being planned the critics panned it because you guessed it, it was too expensive and was going to be an economic disaster. It was called Clinton’s folly and Clinton’s ditch after the then New York Governor De Witt Clinton who was a major booster for the 364 mile canal. Not only were the critics wrong, but the Eire Canal was central to bringing trade and people from the Great Lakes and Midwest to New York. That it was a major reason New York became the wealthiest State in the 19th century and is still the dominate region on the East Coast.

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