Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

More serious thinking about high speed rail

Since we seem to be involved in a lot of deep thought, here is a post designed chiefly to direct you to an excellent essay on the Streetsblog group by Ryan Avent. He superbly deals with the multiple errors in logic proposed by an essay from economist Ed Glaeser.

That unfortunate item ran in the Boston Globe. Here’s the link. It is capably refuted by the comprehensive Avent commentary on DC.Streetsblog.org. The outstanding work is titled “Missing the Point on High Speed Rail.”

Avent’s arguments are exactly the kind of intelligent sober material necessary to deal with the so-called “conservatives” (who are not anything like traditional Eisonhower conservatives) and libertarian “think tanks,” which have become mere pawn of greedy special interests.

In view of TFA’s sincere admiration for a well stated case, we hope Mr. Avent will allow for a small friendly objection. We fear that, for a moment, he may have been channeling his inner Randal O’Toole.

And finally, Glaeser’s Amtrak statistic is extraordinarily misleading, and bordering on dishonest. Amtrak routes include fast, competitive, and successful lines — like the Northeastern corridor — as well as congressionally mandated, slow, and poorly traveled ones. Amtrak makes an operational profit on its top corridors, but loses a lot of money on slow routes.

Glaeser would have you believe that all routes are money losers, when in fact it seems clear that high-speed, reliable service is extremely cost-effective.

Arvent implies that long distance trains are entirely political in conception and necessarily unprofitable. Although I am not academically trained as a transportation specialist, and hence at a notable disadvantage, a few points cry out for attention.

President Carter emasculated the network of inter-city passenger trains and cut about 30 percent of the destinations in a single stroke of the pen. Presidents Clinton and Bush have continued a policy of starving Amtrak of the necessary capital for equipment to expand and operate a reasonable national network of so-called “slow” trains.

These trains operate over the trackage of frequently indifferent host railroads and, prior to the economic slowdown, have been subjected to numerous lengthy delays which destroy public credibility for the Amtrak product. The inter-city trains have lacked the political leadership and management support necessary for successful operation.

While these factors are not economic in the strictest sense, they have a strong bearing on Avent’s seeming misconception about long distance trains. Long distance trains do not get anything approaching the capital commitment of the northeast corridor.

There are significant sums spent in the northeast corridor on stations, platforms, signals, crossovers, and a myriad of operational necessities for operation at 125 mph. Acela could not operate at its supposed high volume of revenue without the intensive capital investment which has become customary in this corridor. It is, in my opinion, quite a leap of faith to presume operational profitability for any link in the Amtrak network.

Long distance Amtrak trains provide essential service in towns like Minot, Texarkana, and Meridian. Since most routes have only one train, half of the service area is reached in the dead of night (like Little Rock) and is essentially unserved.

Avent is right to assert that “it seems clear that high-speed, reliable service is extremely cost-effective.” There is a big difference between “cost effective” and “profitable.” (O’Toole, be gone!!)

Finally, the big-shots at TFA are a small bit aggrieved at the suggestion that long distance trains are “poorly traveled.” This hearkens back to the voo-doo days of David Stockman in the Reagan administration and his outright politically inspired lies about “empty Amtrak trains.”

A professionally trained transportation specialist such as Ryan Arvent has no need to be schooled by little old me on such arcane topics as passenger train load factors. For cryin’ out loud, it is not an airplane that completely empties and fills up at every major city.

Because long distance trains operate over long distances (clever turn of a phrase, huh?) and stop in many smaller towns, some seats are unoccupied on a longer basis than would be the case on a commercial airliner. Professional analysts of such things inform me that long haul trains experience a type of bell cure for traffic intensity. The highest loads are often in the middle of the route.

But we loved the essay! (Imagine how this might have gone if I really got ticked off.) Furthermore, I wish to call your attention to Avent’s outstanding references to the transportation needs and population growth patterns in Texas. He is entirely correct and the commentary deserves to be widely disseminated.

If you wish further information validating the Texas situation and proposed HSR solutions, I direct you to my own coverage of the National Intermodal Transportation Steering Committee joint meeting in Little Rock with the Texas High Speed Rail Corporation board.

Of special note are the interviews with co-chair Maureen Dickey David Dean of Dean International, and Temple Texas Mayor Bill Jones. The Texas supporters of true European-style HSR make an excellent case for the expanding population and necessity of the service.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

3 Responses

  1. Allan says:

    That was just a confusing article. Trains and transit are two different creatures.

    He’s really showing his ignorance and/or his bias with the wide open areas of Texas remark.

    Long distance trains serve a lot of towns that do not have airports.

    “There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line.” – Yea, frequency of service for one thing and some feeder routes for another.

    Build a better matrix over the rest of the country and you might find that ridership will jump quite a bit.

  2. NikolasM says:

    Indeed. The networking effect. The more nodes, the more legs, the more daily frequencies you add, the more it is used.

  3. doug H says:

    Some long distance trains DO cover their operational costs , Specifcally , the Empire Builder . 550,000 boardings last year with only once daily service .
    One also needs to look how at Amtrak allocates many of their system cost including the huge expense of keeping up the NEC, and the large buruecracy managing it ,over to the long distance trains that run over host railroads .
    And there is No Way a thrice weekly train ( Cardinal ) can operate efficiently . Ever try to arrange a round trip on this route ? Impossible unless your only reason for riding it is as a railfan…..

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