I think rails fall into the same category as interstate highways... rightfully owned and maintained by the State, with some federal funds thrown around to ensure that a poor/unwilling state doesn't screw up goods passing through, with track usage fees akin to tolls on roads like the Florida Turnpike, and a willingness to maintain them to whatever level its users are willing to finance through direct user fees... giving priority to higher-paying users when push comes to shove.
The main problem with rail is that it's just too expensive for normal companies to own. America's railroads weren't built by publicly-traded companies that purchased land a vacant lot at a time at market value and paid union labor rates... they were built by companies that largely got the land for free, and built most of their empires using low-paid workers. And as labor costs increased over the years, they financed the remaining work by selling off the vast amounts of land they ended up owning as a result of building the first round of tracks. That's not because they were evil... it's because it's outright economically impossible to finance and build anything
like a railroad if you're forced to buy everything at metaphorical "full retail cost" from the start. It's simply beyond the capital-raising capabilities of even the biggest, wealthiest companies.
It's the reason why tracks are saturated with freight traffic, but capacity is almost never increased. The amount of capital needed, and the length of time needed to pay it down, and the risk involved due to both the amount and duration, make it impossible. An independently-wealthy, land-rich railroad can't do it by liquidating holdings to raise funds, because the very act of trying to liquidate enough of its land holdings to raise the necessary funds would saturate the market and depress the land's value. A Wall Street-traded company can't do it, because their stock value would be destroyed by having that much debt -- assuming it could borrow that much in the first place. Equity financing would be a no-go, because selling enough stock to raise a billion or more would dilute the original owners' holdings to almost nothing.
Personally, I'd like to see Florida buy at least the CSX "A" and "S" lines (other than maybe the "S-Line" north of Lakeland, since it's largely useless for passenger rail anyway... should that ever become a viable market, there's always the median of I-75 to build in or above), and do a semi-cheap double tracking -- one brand new track, with concrete ties and CWR ready to rock someday at 110mph when/if it ever becomes cost-effective to upgrade the signals and crossings to allow it, but 79mph until then... with the original track and grade crossings left largely unimproved and as they are (using the new track mainly for passenger trains, and treating the old track like an big passing zone). Then, they could divide up the passenger market as follows:
a private company (Amtrak could bid, but would get no special favors) has the exclusive right to offer intrastate passenger travel, with a few exceptions and open-access provisions so they couldn't exercise a monopoly right to NOT offer service between two stations. In other words, they could ignore any cities they want, but if they do, they can't stop Florida from allowing someone else to serve those cities instead. Virgin Trains comes to mind as an obvious candidate... they've expressed an interest in Florida rail in the past, and they've become experts at running fast trains on decrepit^h^h^h^h^h^h^h^h sub-optimal track. This company can also offer unticketed passenger service and carry the same kind of freight UPS will let you ship... but wouldn't have monopoly rights to either.
Amtrak would be allowed to continue serving Florida. They could even carry passengers entirely within Florida (ie, pick up a passenger in Miami, carry him or her to Orlando). But, to keep things fair for the official company, Amtrak would have to operate under one firm rule: no railcar can visit the same city more than twice before leaving the state if it carries even a single revenue passenger who boards AND disembarks in Florida. In other words, Amtrak can add a car in Miami, and use it to carry passengers to Orlando... but at that point, the railcar has to follow the rest of the train to Georgia or Alabama before returning to Miami. In other words, Amtrak gets all the obvious interstate passengers, and has a pretty generous leash with lots of loopholes to let them handle plenty of 100% in-state passengers, too. Amtrak could carry UPS-type freight and parcels, but they'd ONLY be allowed to carry packages that were leaving the state or coming from another state.
Commuter rail operators, like Tri-Rail, would operate under the rule that they aren't allowed to offer reserved travel or checked baggage.
FDOT would assume financial responsibility for laying the tracks and pouring the first bare concrete slabs for stations where necessary... but everything beyond that would be up to the local city or county, who'd presumably take enough pride (or at least practical interest) in their community's increasingly-important public image to build and maintain decent stations.
FDOT would be required to charge two track fees: one, per train passing over an improved segment of track (say, $350 to run between Magnolia Park and Auburndale, or $1,400 to run between Kissimmee and DeLand) which would be assessed ONLY to passenger trains and be set at whatever level were necessary to fully-amortize the railroad's initial purchase and rehabilitation by FDOT within 40 years, and a second fee that would be assessed to both passenger and freight equally that by law had to be sufficiently high to cover 100% of ongoing maintenance and operating expenses. The per-train fee would be equal for all trains passing over the improved segment, and FDOT couldn't give a discount to transit agencies (ie, if the cost to run a train from Kissimmee to DeLand were $1,400, that $1,400 would be charged to Amtrak, the intrastate passenger line, and Central Florida Rail equally; if Amtrak by law couldn't be charged it, FDOT would have to personally fund the difference out of its annual operating funds). The goal here is financing transparency. If CFRail hemmorhages cash because it's charging $6/passenger, while VirginRail is making money hand over fist charging $89/passenger, that SHOULD send a strong economic message to the transit agency that it ought to be charging more to riders). FDOT would also be prohibited from rolling anything besides track construction and corridor improvement into the per-train fees (ie, they couldn't build a half-dozen nice stations for CFRail, and try to roll their cost into the segment track charges borne by Amtrak and the franchisee).
The intrastate passenger franchisee would have one more perk... it could demand that FDOT upgrade any segment(s) of track it chooses to a maximum of 110mph standards, within a fairly short timeframe whereby the franchisee would submit bids to FDOT, who'd then have 60 days to either pay the down payment to the bidder of its choosing, or find one of FDOT's own choosing that met the same quality AND expediency standards (ie, FDOT couldn't pick someone who bid half as much, but wanted 24 months to finish instead of 8 months). The financed improvements would immediately be added to the segment's per-train access charges, amortized over the same 40-year period.
Personally, I'm convinced that it is
possible to run profitable passenger service, as long as you view and run it as a premium-rate luxury service for people who could
drive or fly, but given a viable & more-appealing alternative, would rather not. As opposed to cheap 'n nasty cattle-car transit for the poor unwashed masses whose only real alternative is a bus. At least, over certain carefully-handpicked routes that constitute the passenger rail equivalent of "low-hanging fruit".
The problem is that you have to focus on profit-maximization, not ridersihp-maximization. I had one particularly depressing moment reading an FDOT report on cross-state passenger rail, and realized that two of the scenarios they eliminated from consideration in round II (both involving 110mph upgrades to existing CSX corridors, with a few detours to put stations in slightly better locations) were actually the two that were projected to be profitable
, in favor of alternatives that would have required millions of dollars in annual subsidies to sustain... all in the holy name of "ridership". And the fares they identified as "profitable" were only about half what someone running 99.5% "on-time" trains comparable to the best European 1st class rail service could REALLY get away with charging ($29 to Orlando from Miami? Dear god... you could easily charge $49-59 for 2nd class, $89 for first-class AND rake up cash on the alcohol sales while you're at it if you really tried... set aside a guaranteed-child-free "BusinessFirst" car, and you could probably charge $99 or more to sit in it...