Boston company plans to offer nation's first private passenger rail line in decades

Industrials Associated Press

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.

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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 Surface Railroad.

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.

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"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.