Long distance commuter rail is so... 20th century. It has been eclipsed by air travel, which is why ridership has suffered so much.
I don't completely agree with your assessment.
My personal experience in traveling on the French TGV from Paris to the South of France was exceptional. A 220MPH (slightly slower than No_Strings Audi], smooth as silk ride with stand-up, walk-around creature comforts is completely stress free as compared to the utterly dehumanizing crap we call air travel.
But unlike Europe, our culture doesn't have the capacity to change our ways. So any passenger rail system geared towards local citizens is DOA.
I do agree that there is no reason for the public to underwrite anything other than the base construction - of a viable project. Moreover, while the Privately held DesertXpress is on the verge of landing a $4.9 billion loan from the Obama administration to build the 150 mph train; Originating on a dusty, rock-strewn expanse at the edge of the Mojave Desert in Victorville, the company wants to build a bullet train that would rocket tourists from the middle of nowhere to the gambling palaces of Las Vegas .
This vast park-and-ride project hinges on the untested idea that car-loving Californians will drive about 100 miles from the Los Angeles area, pull off busy Interstate 15 and board a train for the final leg to the famous Strip at a cost higher than airfare.
Even this approach is bone headed IMO. We don't need a government subsidized private operator that "hopes" the locals will use it...That mentality is like Disneyland writing a business plan that only expects local residents to visit the park.
...we need a government coordinated plan that makes it easy for non-local tourist to travel between the Destination points of SoCal, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and the Bay area. This would actually bring in NEW dollars to all of these areas, vs. this stupid attempt to change some air dollars for some rail dollars. The issue is the tourism industry isn't acting as one. The governments role should be one of encouraging the industry to pool their resources to gain new revenue.
Financing wise, the tourist industry of these locations should be the one subsidizing the travel cost. There are about $50 Billion worth of Hotel/Casinos constructed in just the past 10 years here. It's not like the industry is broke. So a round trip bullet train fare from L.A. to Vegas would be less than $100. Or on any leg. Just like Europe, make it an absolute no-brainer for a visitor to travel anywhere.
I should have been more clear that I was referring to passenger rail as it exists in the US, since I have no experience with other countries' rail setups.
You have a good point in that a tourist transport would be more beneficial to businesses than a commuter transport. And yes, the gov't should let private industry put something in and only act as coordinator, not as investor with taxpayer dollars. But academians and engineers in Sacramento don't get it; we are a car-centric culture (esp. in CA) and just short of prying the keys out of our cold, dead fingers we will insist on traveling in personal, individual transportation machines.
The problem with mass transit-- rider appeal, and that it's Mass, not individualized. If we're going to leave our cars in the driveway they will need to offer a system that is as much like a taxi as possible; on-demand and practically door to door. This IMO is technically feasible. I call it a horizontal elevator.
Small cabs that only hold six passengers or so would be light enough to run on a light overhead track. This opens the possibility of installing track on existing utility and muni rights-of-way, much of which passes the same areas as sidewalks. This opens the possibility of putting endpoints at almost any intersection or in front of any building. Arterial runs could run parallel to a freeway. Track switches would let a cab go off the main run to descending track that reaches ground level at the endpoints without impeding traffic flow. Unused cabs leave traffic areas and seek nearby parking track until called into service. Ridership statistics control where cabs are parked to reduce wait times when summoned.
Cabs obtain power from the track and communicate with a central dispatch and each other for collision avoidance and scheduling. Riders buy a rechargable card that is swiped at any endpoint to summon a cab. For quick departure their account stores the most recent destinations and presents them upon entering the cab, or allows entering a new destination. The passenger is prompted upon entry if they're willing to share the cab (for lower cost) or head immediately to the destination without any stops.
The system would be more or less comparable to a multi-cab elevator (but horizontal) in that a cab is summoned when needed and the nearest empty (or shareable) cab responds. It may stop at selected points but bypasses stops where nobody is waiting. Since it's automated (except for central dispatch) it can be available on a moment's notice 24/7/365.
The system is scalable. Build the track a block at a time or miles at a time. Add or remove cars to satisfy demand. It doesn't burn gallons of fuel driving mostly empty around town like a bus or train that must complete it's circuit whether anyone is on board or not.
As far back as the 70's Alweg, builder of the Disney monorail, proposed something similar but found no interested buyers. Two or three experimental systems that are similar to my description have been built around the country but they only cover a very limited area, such as a University campus, and none have the individual personalized transportation concepts I described. As I recall only one was aerial, the others traveled on the ground, which defeats the purpose of bypassing the bumper-to-bumper gridlock.
As dogma pointed out, "...unlike Europe, our culture doesn't have the capacity to change our ways. So any passenger rail system geared towards local citizens is DOA." Large commuter systems that carry a hundred passengers and stop dozens of times along the route have not caught on in our car-centric culture. If it hasn't after this many decades it never will. Since we can't mold the people to the engineer's whim, we need to engineer a system to the people's whim.
What's old is new again. Why not? It happens in the fashion world.
edit: but I'm thinking of a really light track, such as a hollow steel tube or two holding up the cabs and which could be held in the air by light steel frame vertical members not much larger than what holds up the large freeway signs and billboards. The Disney monorail runs on a concrete and steel track that looks streamlined, but is more substantial.
I think what you are referring to is an updated version of Disneyland's people mover:
An elevated system of tracks and autonomous small vehicles. In your vision, each vehicle can be summoned on-demand, pick up the rider(s), travel through a completely computerized grid system that minimizes any potential traffic jams, and deliver the rider to an area near their end destination.
Um, yeah... Idea's like that died when this country stopped doing great things like building the Interstate highway system, the National Park system, the Internet and going to the moon. About 1970. About the same time the government allowed TeeeVeee networks to charge for their news cast programming...which in turn corrupted how Americans received their pertinent information.
...but for your viewing pleasure, we can reminisce about how great we could have been:
Um, yeah... Idea's like that died when this country stopped doing great things like building the Interstate highway system, the National Park system, the Internet and going to the moon....
Which is why we're stuck with what we had in the 70's. Must find a profit motive in it to get private industry to build it because if we wait for gov't it will never happen. Instead we get car makers building overpriced electric cars with very short range that people will only buy because of gov't incentives. That may help the environment (questionable) but does nothing about gridlock and shortage of parking. While I'd rather not see gov't involved, what if some of the money wasted on alternate fuel vehicle incentives and widening freeways went to such a transport system.
Even if it's a government project, though, there has to be a business case. A large dam in the middle the Nevada desert paid for itself quite well, as an example. A transportation system must have a payback from fares or increased tax revenue.
A system to replace cars would not cause builders to develop more quickly or (I think) cause people to buy more houses. The state would lose registration fees, sales tax on vehicles, gasoline taxes and auto dealer tax revenue if your system were to take hold. What revenue would be generated to offset the losses, plus pay for the infrastructure investment and ongoing maintenance?
There are some things we do without a clear ROI, such as the space program and some would argue it didn't pay off well, but most times there needs to be a give to get.
With more than 9 million tourist coming into the state every year, Total direct travel spending in California was $102.3 billion in 2011, a 7.6 percent increase from 2010 spending. Travel spending in California directly supported 893,000 jobs, with earnings of $30.4 billion. Travel spending generated the greatest number of jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation (221,000 jobs), and accommodations and food service (523,000 jobs).
30 Million visit Nevada each year (But 10 Million of those are from California)
I just did some quick ROI numbers on a High Speed (TGV like) route between L.A. - Las Vegas -Tahoe - San Francisco.
Assuming each leg cost $6 Billion, or $24 Billion total. The paid ridership at each station would need to be 30,000 per week @ about $130 per leg. This would be a walk-up ticket.
Break even on a no interest loan would take about 25 - 30 years. Useful life would be about 75 years. Realizing that ROI would be child's play for a co-state industry that captures in excess of $150 Billion/year. One could easily forecast double the revenue and jobs within 12 years if the underlying transportation infrastructure is available.
Problem is that I am using the $6 Billion per leg construction cost. That is the price for a private sector build. If the government does it - triple that.