Everybody knows the U.S. is a pathetic train country. Japan leads the way in passenger rail travel, according to Eurostat, and European countries are not far behind. According to Forbes, the United States ranks 14th on the World Economic Forum's infrastructure list. Our version of high-speed rail—the Acela—travels at a fraction of the speed of Europe and Asia’s bullet trains. Amtrak’s long-haul routes are something of a joke. And the investments required to make the system functional are astronomical.
But in one corner of the U.S., a transit agency has shown a surprising ability to create a new, popular, reasonably priced rail passenger route. It’s the CapeFlyer, which runs from Boston to Hyannis. MassDot and the MBTA introduced the CapeFlyer on Memorial Day, May 27. It’s a modest affair. It runs only on weekends and has stops at five stations. It is geared toward city dwellers, weekenders, and tourists who prefer a two-hour train ride to the massive traffic that clogs up the route to the Cape on weekends.
Tom Cahir, administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, said the agency decided to run the CapeFlyer for 15 weeks as a "pilot" to see if something like this would work. It not only "worked" but the train is about to cover its operating costs much earlier than expected. The CapeFlyer carried more than 2,300 passengers over the July 4 holiday weekend—1,080 of whom left Boston’s South Station on July 3. The train can fit about 1,100, according to the CapeFlyer Facebook page. "Our operating cost is about $165,000 for 15 weeks and we're already at about $140,000” in revenue, he said. "It's an incredible success so far. We're just at 7,000 riders and we only needed about 310 a week to get to our operating costs."
While the project was not subsidized by the government, $1.1 million was used to help clean tracks and enhance the general infrastructure—a one-time cost that was "certainly worth it," says Cahir. Passengers pay $35 for a round-trip ticket from South Station to Hyannis and back ($20 for a one-way.)
Cahir said many people are wondering why similar limited rail services can't work elsewhere and what improvements are going to be made on the current system. For now, he's just focusing on what can be done during these few summer months and the several weeks left before the train ends its service on Labor Day, Sept. 2. One of the issues is that locals are resistant to trains running by their homes with great frequency. The cost of further infrastructure is also a potential obstacle. Cahir's team has also focused on improving the experience for visitors once they’ve arrived on the Cape. The train terminates at Hyannis, which is at the base of the Cape.
What's important to focus on, he said, is the "genuine enthusiasm and enjoyment that [the passengers] seem to have." In just these few months the CapeFlyer's Facebook page has netted about 2,500 likes from happy customers and general fans. Patrick Holland, a Facebook user writes, "I'm so excited to be taking the CapeFLYER for the first time tomorrow! Should be a fun day in Hyannis especially since I don't have to worry about traffic."
Passengers can enjoy beer, wine, and free wifi while on board. Riders can also bring their bike along for free. "Labor Day we're going to assess how things went," he said. "I think it's certainly probable that there will be some kind of expansion, though I don't know that."
“It's an incredible success so far. We're just at 7,000 riders and we only needed about 310 a week to get to our operating costs.”
Working train systems in the United States have never been up to par with that of Europe or Japan, but states keep trying. Florida in 2010 proposed investing $47.4 billion for passenger-related train projects, including a $13.7 billion high-speed rail improvement and $3.2 billion for "freight capacity improvements." In a large state like Florida, the dream would be to zoom between large cities such as Miami and Tallahassee in fewer hours than driving. Privately financed company "All Aboard Florida" has a $1.5 billion plan for passenger rail connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with Orlando, according to The Florida Times-Union just recently. Meanwhile, California is proposing a $66.4 billion high-speed rail system.
It’s tough to find a formula—and the financing—for large-scale, state-wide rail projects. Regardless of how fast they go over long distances, trains will find it difficult to compete with air travel. The best hope in the short-term is for systems to focus on areas in which the train can offer a more pleasant experience than a car. Which is what the CapeFlyer does for Boston residents— at least as far as Hyannis.