March 8, 2013

Another View: Passenger rail 'dreamers' should have dose of reality

There is a future for rail service, but it will have to start slow and build gradually over time.

By GEORGE C. BETKE JR.

The story "Expansion of passenger trains in Maine takes slow track" (Feb. 4) makes a good educational start in bridging a wide gulf between dreamers needing a dose of reality and realists capable of dreaming.

Extending Downeaster service beyond Brunswick introduces entirely new benefit-cost considerations that are conjectural at best in the current fiscal environment.

But to say the "problem boils down to three missing pieces of infrastructure" is misleading and off-point.

The real problem is lack of demonstrable demand that can support required capital investments in rail infrastructure and equipment without inordinate public assistance. Instead of grandiose "build-it-and-they-will come" approaches, our focus should be on finding cost-effective means of satisfying existing mobility needs in light-density markets.

It is irrational to envision a Portland-Montreal rail line costing up to $899 million when that market cannot justify a direct air route and is served by two daily overnight buses taking 14-18 hours with two intermediate transfers. If there isn't a plane (faster) or a bus (cheaper), there's no reason to think about a train.

Federal and state finances are constrained, the public is reacting to increased taxation, and the future of Amtrak is in endless controversy.

If any extension of passenger service is going to happen in Maine, Freeport's Kristina Egan has the right idea.

It initially should involve economical, self-propelled, reversible vehicles designed to run in multiples on jointed track and capable of single-man operation -- essentially an oversized and comfortable bus on rails.

George C. Betke Jr. is president of Transportation Economics Inc. in Newcastle.

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