Young people today — millennials or perhaps even Gen Z’ers — are supposed to be changing our culture.
They prefer high-rise or townhouse living to a house on a quarter-acre lot. Many of them would rather rent than buy. They like short commutes and walkable neighborhoods. They would rather summon an Uber or take mass transit than buy a car and sit on the freeway. You can find all of this with a quick Google search.
But will they bring back train travel — the long form?
If they do, I hope they have math skills. I’m not sure it will add up.
The Deseret News/KSL editorial board met last week with leaders of the Utah Transit Authority. During the discussion, the topic turned to the idea of establishing a train line from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, to the south, and to Boise, to the northwest. This would be a revival, of sorts, of portions of Amtrak’s old Desert Wind and Pioneer lines, respectively, which died for lack of interest.
For now, UTA is hoping to get the discussion started. It has applied for a grant through the Corridor Identification and Development Program, which is administered by the Federal Railroad Administration, to study the idea. KSL reported that Idaho officials have applied for the same grant. In fact, UTA is thinking about organizing a summit of all states included in this idea.
UTA Executive Director Jay Fox was clear that the agency wouldn’t run these new lines. It’s unclear right now who or what would. But UTA already operates 83 miles worth of FrontRunner service up and down the Wasatch Front, and the two lines would be a welcomed extension of that, he said.
I asked whether these would be high-speed lines, like the 300 mph “floating” trains in Japan. If so, I might buy a home in St. George and commute an hour each way to Salt Lake City.
No, Fox said, at least not right now. That would require the construction of special tracks.
California has been toiling in vain to build such a line from Los Angeles to the Central Valley, and eventually to San Francisco. As CNBC reported earlier this month, voters there approved a $9 billion bond for the line in 2008. Fifteen years later, not a single mile of track has been laid, and the cost has jumped to somewhere between $88 billion and $128 billion.
No one is sure where the extra money will come from, and that ought to give every American, even the young ones, pause.
Republicans and Democrats have been mired in talks lately to avoid a government default while trying to tackle a national debt that’s approaching $32 trillion. Debt is a real issue, even though Washington often seems to forget that.
Amtrak ran an $885 million deficit in fiscal 2022. Officials say the pandemic is to blame for that, but some, like Ike Brannon of the Jack Kemp Foundation, argue the rail company’s push to “the hinterlands” will accelerate losses. In a recent Forbes piece, he said Amtrak’s regular use of freight lines ends up costing the economy.
UTA isn’t talking about anything high speed to Vegas or Boise, at least not by Japan’s standards. And the trains would, at least to start, share lines used by Union Pacific freight trains.
“I’d say, as somebody who used to work in Amtrak, I like to get the rail first,” Fox said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
But using those lines would keep the trains to speeds of no more than 79 mph.
Which raises the only pertinent question in this debate. Would you take a train at that speed to Las Vegas or Boise? Would you do it despite airlines offering quick flights (albeit with the hassle of TSA checks and parking), or despite automobile speed limits of 80 mph much of the way?
I think of myself as a rail fan, but I’m not sure my fellow baby boomers would do that, even though UTA board chairman Carlton Christensen told our board, “Having driven twice to St. George in the month of April, I would have loved to have done it on a train.”
But the people studying these rail lines aren’t necessarily thinking about boomers.
Christensen said the average UTA rider is 34. People in the 18-34 age group don’t see transit as merely a tool for the daily commute. They use it to go places with friends or to access entertainment.
Maybe enough millennials and Gen Z’ers would leave their apartments, walk to a station and grab a train to Vegas to make a new line profitable. Maybe they will erase decades of American behavior that suggests otherwise.
If so, more power to them. Just keep an eye on all the costs.