Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Why Virgin Trains shouldn’t be eyeing our rails just yet (even though they are)


Many of you probably already know that ever since 1997, the trains in the UK have been franchised out to private companies. I’ve taken them a number of times since I’ve been over here, and it’s an interesting system to see and to travel with. Stations, service, and signage are no longer standard, and while that’s an annoyance that’s certainly possible to put up with, privatization in the UK hasn’t really delivered the results. Conservatives should take note that the scheme does not mean that the operating companies are not publicly supported. The government pays them a certain amount to run the lines. The fixed infrastructure also continues to be owned by Network Rail, a government-owned company. But most worryingly, Britain has some of the highest fares in the world, as the BBC and other UK news outlets were lamenting recently.

If this sounds like the sort of transportation future you want here in the United States, take heart! Virgin Trains, the private operating company that manages Britain’s Great Western Main Line, is one of the companies planning to submit HSR corridor development bids, as requested by last year’s Amtrak legislation. Critically, these proposals are just that, non-binding proposals. They’re supposed to illustrate what could be done with private rail investment, but ultimately the DOT-solicited bids mean nothing unless Congress decides to act again.

Apparently no one told this to Virgin and The Times. Check out the tone of this article:

Virgin and other high-speed operators, such as SNCF, of France, are expected to work with the US Department of Transportation to develop its rail plans and then bid to operate individual services.

Virgin is keen on the Los Angeles to San Francisco route and also the East Coast line linking Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. There are 30 return airline flights a day between Los Angeles and San Francisco and a high-speed train service could replace many of those, cutting carbon emissions. The journey would take less than three hours and voters in California have already agreed to raise $10 billion to start work on a line that would run from Sacramento, the state capital, to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Expected? By who? Nowhere does this article mention that such public-private arrangements are only being conducted with theoretical trains running on imaginary high-speed corridors. It also suggests that Virgin has met with the administration regarding high-speed trains. More details would be necessary to decipher what that means, although it might point to an interest in privatization on the part of the Obama team. Not exactly an impressive journalistic performance for the News Corp-owned Times, which seems to be rapidly losing ground to The Guardian as the paper of good repute here.

The private option is certainly one way to go, but how much of a difference does it make whether we’re starving one company or ten? Let’s try and actually get our rail network up to international standards first and see how that goes. Conservatives seem to view privatization as some sort of golden free market bullet that will end rail subsidies, but that’s just not the way it would work in reality. You can either pay for a train system or you can not have one.

Image credit: Trains for America. And that’s an Arriva Wales train, not a Virgin one, but oh well. The principle is the same.


Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail

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February 2009