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

8 Responses

  1. Cal says:

    Well if its anything run like their airlines I would love to have them run the CailHSR ..they have great on board service

  2. […] freeway closure to point out how rail transit offers commuters better reliability; and Trains for America looks at the possibility of privatization (Virgin Trains, anyone?) in the American rail […]

  3. I have to disagree with you here. I’ve spent a lot of time riding trains in England too and there’s a dramatic improvement over what they had under British Rail. Many new services and most significantly, ridership has exploded. That’s the measure of success.

    I would love to have Virgin trains running over here. They are indeed a class act. I hope that Amtrak under Boardman improves, but up till now they’ve been a pretty dysfunctional organization in a way that goes beyond lack of funds (which is partly a symptom). Compare VIA and Amtrak. Both are starved for funds, yet VIA manages to run an excellent if skeletal service. Amtrak, not so much.

  4. E. W. Dick says:

    I know it’s a pain hearing somebody say ‘remember when’ especially when it comes to passenger rail. BUT I’m old enough to enjoy saying that and wishing there were more people like myself who do remember when the American transcontinental rail system was the best of the best. Of course, you’ll say it didn’t fill the bill when it was necessary to get someplace (LA from NY, for instance, or the reverse) in a hurry. Four days as opposed to several hours by plane just doesn’t cut it these days. And using your car so you can ramble down any road while on a touring holiday means not being hooked to the train schedule.

    Yes, it is a different world. But it just so happens there are enough people who like, even prefer, the relative ease of riding a train across the country. Get up and walk around, enjoy the scenery (not entering city limits, though), chat with strangers in the dining car as you enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner. Unfortunately, what Amtrak delivered just a short while ago has diminished as necessary funding dwindles and services once enjoyed by those of us who do travel by Amtrak are not up to former standards. Many diehard rail fans compare Amtrak to European trains and Amtrak always comes up off the rails.

    We’ll never come close as long as a budget allots a greater portion of its dollars to funding for highways and aviation. Although some of the transportation stimulus is shown for “transit” this does not include Amtrak. (In millions of $, the house passed 30,000 for roads, 12,000 for transit and 800 for Amtrak.)

  5. Adron says:

    Your analysis of Virgin is only working further toward damning passenger rail in America.

    Do you SERIOUSLY contend that Amtrak is better, even REMOTELY close to Virgin Rail? Really? You take a funny pill lately? Compare it to SNCF?!?!?!

    Oh come on now, all the rail over in Europe is higher priced then ours, but ours is crap by comparison. It isn’t timely, it isn’t efficient, it’s nothing compared to what we had in the US (as EW Dick pointed out) and it is a pale joke (as Cal points out).

    When you perpetuate something so inherently false as stating that Virgin is an overpriced road, which is wrong, or that it hasn’t done what it was stated to, which it has, you fail to compare it to what we have, or the massive failings of Government railroads.

    Do a little math. Even though they have a little subsidy here and there, compare it per passenger cost to our per passenger cost? Amtrak is absurdly high by comparison.

    Stop blaming and damning Virgin and work on staying productive. Spreading crap that helps neither Britain nor the US isn’t going to help.

  6. Firetrap says:

    Just to point out that ‘Virgin trains’ operate the majority of Inter-city services along the ‘West Coast Main Line’

    Britain’s ‘Great Western Main Line’ is operated by ‘First Great Western’

    I thought i would clear this up to save any confusion.

  7. Paul says:

    As someone who is forced to regularly use Virgin Trains in the UK all I can say is God help if they get their hands on US lines. Virgin are without doubt the worst train operator in the UK and hats saying something! I have never come across a company in any industry that treats its customers with such contempt.

  8. jon says:

    i can see that if virgin trains was to have the high speed link in america would be great with a boston-new york-philidelphia link plus one into chicago and toronto in canada aswell, california and florida too would be on the high speed link within the los angeles-las vegas-san francisco
    and miami-orlando-tampa too, even australia would be great too for a melbourne-sydney-brisbane route, in my opinion the british style pendolinos would suit the aussie’s railsways as new zealand are using the old british rail mark 2 carriage’s for there railways, because the virgin trains franchise ends in 2012 for britain, so easy group who owns easyjet could have easyrail or easytrain takes virgin trains, eurostar and many high speed routes in europe… so whats the catch then… if richard branson owns virgin trains abroad that would be it, even if china or japan wants virgin in there country for the bullit train then hes making money isnt he.

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February 2009


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