Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Costly American Rail

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.


james said...

I remember liking the Geneva bus system very much, and trying very hard to find out what the real subsidized cost was. No luck.

Mike Guenther said...

Back in the 70's, rode trains in Europe from city to city for concerts when in Germany and also from Germany to Amsterdam and back. They were efficient and usually on time. On another trip, we drove to Italy from Germany. I think I liked the driving better, to be honest.

Then in the 80's, when living in Atlanta, rode the commuter train system quite a bit. Every train station had parking for suburban workers going downtown. Also an extensive bus system feeding off of the stations.

At the main terminal, where the N-S and E-W track system crossed, had a hand in building an "air rights" facility over the Southern Railroad tracks running through the middle of downtown. Basically a platform for retail stores or mini strip mall. The commuter trains were underground.

I'm not sure if they ever made money or were substantially subsidized by the city, but they were always expanding.

Thos. said...

It is my understanding that passenger rail has never paid it's own way in this country. Railroads ran passenger cars at a loss in order to buy the public and political support needed to allow them to haul freight.

Nothing would make me happier than to be able to travel by train. I've grown to hate air travel, and the amount of time necessary to travel by car makes me pass up most of those trips, too. Sadly, I just don't see rail travel ever being a very realistic option for most of the US.

David Foster said...

For all forms of urban and commuter rail...especially subways, but also surface rail in its various forms...Covid-19 creates a real negatives, as will the fear of its recurrence even when it is largely suppressed, owing to the high passenger densities involved. Less of an issue for intercity rail, such as it is.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Which causes me to wonder what on earth they are doing in Japan where commuters are forced together almost immovably?

Mike Guenther said...

The people in Japan and other Oriental countries have been wearing masks as a normal part of life in public spaces. And the Japanese are fastidious about cleanliness. That would be my guess. Also being a homogeneous society might help too.

David Foster said...

There also do seem to be some genetic factors in Covid-19 vulnerability...and there is definitely an obesity and general health factor in outcomes for those who do contract the disease.

Donna B. said...

My only experience riding a passenger/commuter train was in 2002 from Wemyss Bay to Glasgow. It was unpleasant... slow, numerous stops, and abysmal - almost desert-like scenery - until the outskirts of Glasgow. There, it changed to vulgar graffiti on factories or warehouses and sad glimpses into poverty-stricken flats near the tracks. (Few curtains, and so close to the tracks!) This route was certainly not included in Scotland's tourist guides. Wemyss Bay is lovely and the tourist guides would put you on the ferry to the Isle of Bute rather than the train to Glasgow. I always remember this whenever I hear someone tell me how much better everything in Europe is.

Grim said...

I like riding trains, but it only really works well in the northeast. I regularly catch the train from DC to points north when I'm up there and want to go further north; it's not really much of an option down here. If I wanted to go to DC by train I'd have to trek three hours east to catch the train, which is then about 17 hours. I can be in DC in 13 hours if I just ride overland. Or take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Skyline Drive, do it over two or three days, and enjoy a beautiful ride in gorgeous country. Camp at night by an open fire.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

We looked into taking the train down to Asheville when we had a wedding there a couple of years ago. The system breaks down at Richmond for us. You can get from Boston to Richmond quite nicely in 12 hours, but then you start having to wait around for other trains. Changing in DC helps somewhat, but continuing south from there involves waits and changes as well.

The train is great if it is leaving from very near you and going to very near your destination. If you are going from Boston to Cleveland, you are fine. But if you are headed to Columbus or Cincinnati it suddenly gets complicated.

Grim said...

If you take the closest stations to Asheville, you either get in at 11 PM after everything closes and you have to wait until morning to rent a car; or, if you're headed northbound from New Orleans or Atlanta, at 4/5 AM when you still have a few hours to go. And you've got to get a taxi to the car rental places, which are by the airports, not the train.

My favorite illustration of this is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in the very final scene. The train company is trying to bend itself backwards to get a Senator back to DC as quickly and conveniently as possible. "The engineer has a full head of steam, and we're going to make twenty-five miles an hour or bust the boilers! And we've wired ahead. They're going to hold the express. In two days and two nights, you'll be right back in Washington!"

I guess that was really something, at the time. All the same, the steel horse will do it better than the iron horse ever did.

HMS Defiant said...

As we naval professionals used to say about Kim, "he'd use it or lose it." We were talking about his black hole nuclear/chem/bio wastehole. So anyway, the wife and I love taking Amtrack from our little ville on the edge of the Great Plains to California and Seattle and sleeping and rolling and dining the miles away in absurd comfort while seeing America at ground level. As Kim used to say, use it before it vanishes away on stealthy little feet. Rail passenger service over any length isn't viable or cost effective. It's another hidden benefit you don't get to know about until it is too late.

Oh, BTW, if you don't book a room on the QE2 from here to there, you're an idiot. Splurge. You only live once.