The seats are stained.
The food, when available, is garbage.
And half the time they’re running behind schedule.
In fact, a Washington Post report showed that in 2019, less than half of its long-distance trains arrived on time, with average delays clocking in at roughly 50 minutes.
It’s one of the worst passenger rail systems in the world, and quite frankly, is considered a laughable failure by the developed world.
Of course, Amtrak was really designed to be a failure long ago. Mostly as a result of a coordinated attack on the U.S. passenger rail systems back in the 1940s by car and oil companies that strategically bought up a lot of operational rail lines, dismantled them and then phased them out of service.
Decades later, in 1971, Amtrak was founded as a quasi-public corporation, which essentially funds its operations through a combination of fare revenue and government subsidies (state and federal).
Since its founding 52 years ago, it has never turned a profit.
Some of this is the result of the United States being a very car-centric country. But Amtrak has never been a particularly impressive operation, either. Especially today when Amtrak’s trains are essentially museum relics compared to the rest of the developed world.
While the best Amtrak can do is a “high speed” train called the Acela, which averages about 70 mph up and down the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, China just debuted its first “over-the-water” high speed train that travels 172 miles with a top speed of 217 miles per hour.
And check out the difference between the two.
Here’s China’s “over-the-water” high speed train …
Here’s Amtrak’s Acela
And both are federally-funded.
Truth is, we really are missing out.
I’ve had the good fortune of riding on a number of high-speed rail lines across the globe. They are sleek, efficient, clean, and ALWAYS on time.
But I don’t expect we’ll ever see a proper, federally-funded passenger rail system in this country.
Not when most people prefer to drive (even if taking the train is cheaper and easier), and not when Amtrak operates in a manner that’s far more suitable for Soviet-era travel than for a modern, free society.
I don’t say this to be crass. It’s just an observation of reality.
As a society, we don’t want fast and efficient high-speed rail travel because we’ve never had the opportunity to experience modern high-speed rail travel, like that which is quite common in China, Japan, Germany, Spain and France.
And while it’s easy to blame the oil, car and road construction lobbies for this, it’s also the result of government incompetence.
Amtrak is certainly the perfect example of this, but also consider the California high-speed rail project that was supposed to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
That project, which was initially proposed in 1996, was projected to be completed in 2020 at a cost of $33 billion.
Yet here we are today, in 2023, and not only is the project nowhere near done, but the cost has ballooned to $128 billion. That’s more than twice the GDP of 117 different countries!
The target date for the opening of this high speed rail system is now 2030. And I’m willing to bet that target is not met, just like the previous targets.
Now there is one new high speed rail line that just recently launched in Florida.
That one, which is called Brightline, runs from Miami to Orlando in three hours, traveling at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour.
Still not as fast as what we’re seeing in China and Japan, but what makes this project particularly interesting is that this is a privately-funded intercity rail line.
Think about that for a moment …
The taxpayer-funded California high speed rail project has gone over budget by nearly 300%, and it’s more than a decade behind schedule.
But the first privately-funded high speed rail line in the US didn’t go over budget by 300%, and had it not been for COVID, would’ve been completed on schedule.
Perhaps if high-speed rail has any chance in this country, it has to be developed privately.
Because a private company has to be profitable to maintain operations (unlike Amtrak), Brightline will provide a quality service complete with on-time arrivals and departures, clean trains, and just an enjoyable experience.
Again, look at the interior of an Amtrak Acela train …
Now look at the interior of Brighline’s train …
Check out the train stations, too.
Here’s what Brighline’s Orlando station looks like …
Here’s what the Amtrak train station in Orlando looks like …
It’s night and day.
Truth is, I hope Brighline proves to be successful and is able to replicate what it did in Florida in other parts of the country.
The company is already moving forward on a new high speed rail line that will connect Southern California and Las Vegas, using all-electric trains that can travel in excess of 180 miles per hour.
If it is successful, I see no reason why the company won’t continue to expand, and ultimately help this country emerge from the depths of mediocrity when it comes to passenger rail travel.
In terms of investment opportunities here, while Brighline is not publicly-traded, there are some public companies that have partnered with Brightline. Those include Siemens (OTCBB: SIEGY) and Cummins (NYSE: CMI).