Years ago I found The Road More Traveled quite convincing on the inefficiency of light rail. I recall there was a formula involving how many people had to live within some short distance - a quarter mile perhaps - of a station before it was cost effective. There were adjustments for the expense of building parking near a stop and whether that improved matters or was mostly a wash, or even a further loss. Everyone loves the idea of trains. They are part of the settling of the West, mobility for those who could not afford cars (or expensive urban parking), and the romance of looking out the window and watching America unfold.*
Europe is different, which is why it works somewhat better there. The population is denser overall, the distances shorter. Also, Europeans are willing to put up with more crap than Americans are. That may not speak well to our spoiled character, but it's real and needs to be factored in. If American riders don't like something, they sue someone or start an organisation to make the authorities change it.Furthermore, European trains are not what we imagine them to be from the old days either. Lines have been discontinued as unprofitable, same as here, and have to be heavily subsidised to continue.
I've enjoyed trains over the last few decades a few times myself. The 4 hours to NYC was lovely; the 13 hours to Williamsburg a bit much, but had its charms; the 26 hours from Houston to Tucson on a sleeper had some great moments but was too much. Yet I am always aware that Amtrak is subsidised and it could all go away. The light rail once you get away from the densest populations in most metro areas is a money-loser start to finish. But if it went away, the resultant problems might be worse. But I have just incorporated into my overall thinking that all the activism to extend Boston commuter rail up to downtown Nashua is based on nostalgia and wishful thinking, not solid numbers. But it will stimulate business for restaurants and services near the terminal. No, it will take up valuable downtown space and stimulate businesses only in a very narrow radius. Fortunately, current governor Chris Sununu has science degrees and can do arithmetic. After him, the deluge.
Yet I am not beyond persuasion. If the cost of expensive and less-necessary add-ons to terminals, plus special interest groups making sure that new bicycle trails and landscaping is part of the final package drives up the cost to the ridiculous extent of some of the examples listed over at City Journal in Why is American Rail So Costly?, maybe it could be done better and the trains come back. So, maybe. I remain suspicious.
Here is my worry. Even if the basic versions of stations and rails could be made cost-effective, once the seal is broken and we start entertaining the idea again, the bells and whistles will inevitably be added back in. The ratchet only moves in one direction.
*I like to listen to a few versions of songs I post when I can. The version by The Highwaymen is also good, but even with its harmonies I prefer this. I saved the Johnny Cash version for last, resigned to the fact that his cover would be the best, and he would have succeeded in owning a song again. But this was not so. His was in 1974, and there was still some of that odd mixture of hokeyness in him. He was legit rockabilly and folk in his early career, but trying from the beginning to cross over to mainstream country and even pop, where the money was. A man's gotta make a living after all. Eventually he became one of those rare birds who became more authentic as he aged, able to take a variety of musics and bend them to his will. In his version of this you can see him about halfway there, talking about trains and America and changes.