Archive for the ‘Rail and Mass Transit’ Category.

"Livability" Means Sitting in Traffic

Via the anti-Planner, comes this amazing slide from a presentation by the city of Omaha on their new initiative for "Livable Transportation" (ppt presentation).   Ray LaHood recently asked that all transportation authorities include "livability" in the next round of their 5-year transportation plans.

What does "Livability" even mean?  Well, I was not sure.  This is one of those vague happy-sounding words that give liberals a hard-on in the context of government programs but generally just end up being an excuse for the exercise of state power at the expense of individual choice.

But in this case we don't have to guess, because in the presentation linked above we have the following as the first slide in the presentation, defining livability in this context:

I kid you not -- the two key steps in livable transportation are apparently increasing delay in auto commutes and increasing the cost of auto commutes.   Wow, that certainly sounds like something that will make my life better  (on the bright side, it strikes me as a goal that the generally-incompetent government can actually achieve).

Of course, the issue is not really about livability, but about the imposition of a few intellectuals' disdain for cars on the rest of us.

And if you want to look for the financial incentives, the size of government per passenger-mile of commute is maximized with rail mass transit.   First, this is because rail is simply more expensive than driving -- way more expensive - - per passenger mile in any Western city like Omaha, even when all the costs of driving are considered.  Second, with rail, the government nationalizes things like driving and maintenance that you do yourself or are done by private actors, and brings them in-house to be performed by powerful government unions.

Postscript: Left unsaid in any of this presentation is how increasing commute delay leads to keeping  jobs and businesses in the lower left.  That strikes me as a non sequitur of epic proportions.

The Elite Hatred of Buses

Several times in the past I have posited that folks in power simply hate buses.  How else to explain light rail and high speed rail projects that are both substantially more expensive and substantially less flexible than buses.  Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Politicians like rail better because it is sexier.  Period.   They are trying to spend taxpayer money to support their own re-election talking points.
  • Unions and city workers like rail because it is more expensive.  More money gets spent, either creating more union jobs or giving transit leaders bigger budgets which translate into higher salaries and more prestige for themselves.  And the lack of flexibility is good for them because it makes their job immune to budget cutting.  Just too many sunk costs.
  • Middle and upper-middle class folks in the public have a deep disdain for buses, which they associate with poverty and blue collar labor.  Riding buses hurts their self image, even if the service is no worse than trains.  Rail is the Louis Vuitton handbag of transit.

In Phoenix, light rail requires a subsidy of $3.82 center per mile (that is the government spending above and beyond the fare), which is nearly 10x what we spend on buses.  And light rail uses more energy per passenger mile here than driving.

Anyway, this story from Iowa seems to support my point -- the government is proposing to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a rail service that is slower and more costly than existing private bus service.

The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108—not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.

Oh, one other thing. Cox reports that there is already luxury bus service, with plus for laptops and wireless Internet, from Iowa City to Chicago. It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.

$273,000 A Second

That's how much is being spent between Chicago and Detroit to improve transit times on a money-losing passenger rail segment.

When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced (last) week that he was awarding Michigan nearly $200 million for high-speed rail, he claimed that the project would bring “trains up to speeds of 110 mph on a 235-mile section of the Chicago to Detroit corridor, reducing trip times by 30 minutes.” But Michigan’s own grant application says the $196.5 million will only increase average speeds from 60 to 64 mph – with the top speed remaining unchanged at 79 mph. That is, travelers will save a mere 12 minutes – not 30.

In short, anyone who thinks they will soon see bullet trains in Michigan has been misled.

Why the discrepancy between the claimed 110 mph-and-30 and the real 79 mpg-and-12?

Page 12 of the grant application tells the tale: After spending the $197 million, the state is applying for another grant that will require hundreds of millions more to increase speeds to 110 mph.

Together with Michigan’s senators and governor, LaHood’s press conference was an exercise in high-speed deception.

Last year, about 480,000 people rode the Chicago-Detroit trains, which are some of the biggest money-losers in the Amtrak system. Can anyone really believe that saving 1,315 people 12 minutes a day is worth $196.5 million? The state will have to spend a lot more money to have trains reach top speeds of 110 mph (which means average speeds of around 75 mph). Michigan’s 2009 Chicago-Detroit rail plan projected costs of more than $1.3 billion, of which the state has less than $400 million so far. So bringing the tracks up to 110-mph standards will cost at least $900 million more.

This doesn’t count the cost of locomotives and railcars, which the plan projects will be more than $350 million for enough trains to make 20 daily round trips. Last Monday, the federal government also gave $268.2 million for locomotives and railcars to five Midwestern states. Assuming a third of that goes to the Michigan corridor, the state still needs some $250 million more.

I sometimes get accused of having a weird bias against rail.  What I actual have is a bias against stupid spending, but for those unfamiliar with my blog, I offer this to fight the rail bias meme.

City Planning, Light Rail and White People

I have argued for a long time that the shift of city transit departments from buses to a love affair with light rail has been a disaster.  Rail is so much more expensive per passenger mile, and so inflexible, that it generally forces a shrinkage in the total number of riders at the same time that budgets explode (example article here).

There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon.  Part of it is incentives - heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural - rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn't be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

So, I ask you, what city in America is most famous as a model for urban planning and light rail?  Portland.  So it is interesting to see what effect this planning and transit strategy has had on the population.  I have already written here before that Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect -- shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has... caused Portland to be increasingly white.  What a surprise.  Via the anti-Planner

Shifting Capital from the Productive to the Sexy

My Forbes column this week focuses on the US rail system, and argues that despite all the angst that we are somehow missing the boat in emulating Europe, Japan and China in building expensive bullet trains, we actually have the best rail system in the world.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff.  We are “asleep.”  Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occured when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

China Spending Its Way Over a Cliff

Hayekians would argue that both the Japanese lost decade and the recent US housing crash were both caused by massive mis-allocations of capital driven by a variety of government interventions and corrupted price signals (particularly on interest rates).  This may be an early signal of a lulu of a bust coming to China, in an story on the high speed rail system in China

With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.

Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.

The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.

“They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,” said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.

“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”

It should be noted that this is the system that has been lauded by folks from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama as something we should emulate in the US.  By the way, this problem identified in China is in fact endemic to the US -- the cost overruns in every rail system.  In the US, this probably has less to do with outright individual corruption (i.e. the stealing of money for personal gain) but more common political corruption, in the form of purposefully underestimating costs to get public approval, knowing that when inevitable overruns appear, it will be too late to stop the project.

Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.

I wrote earlier on high speed rail as triumphalism rather than real investment here.  Why the US actually has the best rail network in the world is here (hint:  from an energy, pollution, and congestion standpoint, the best thing to put on rails is freight rather than passengers, and the US does that better than China or Europe, by far)

Government Agencies Run For Their Employee's Benefit

About 20 years ago I did a rail transit study for McKinsey & Company with a number of European state rail companies, like the SNCF in France.   With my American expectations, I was shocked to see how overstaffed these companies were.  At the time, the SNCF had more freight car maintenance personnel than they had freight cars.  This meant that they could assign a dedicated maintenance person to every car and still get rid of some people.

Later in my consulting career, I worked for Pemex in Mexico, where the over-staffing was even more incredible.  I realized that in countries like France and Mexico, state-run corporations were first and foremost employment vehicles run for the benefit of employees, and, as  distant second, value-delivery vehicles and productive enterprises.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen more and more of this approach to public agencies coming to the US.  If nothing else, the whole Wisconsin brouhaha hopefully opened the eyes of many Americans to the fact that public officials and heads of agencies feel a lot more loyalty to their employees than they do to taxpayers.

I see this all the time in my business, which is private operation of certain state-run activities (e.g. parks and recreation).  I constantly find myself in the midst of arguments that make no sense against privatization.   I finally realized that the reason for this is that they were reluctant to voice the real reason for opposition -- that I would get the job done paying people less money.  This is totally true -- I actually hire more people to staff the parks than the government does, but I don't pay folks $65,000 a year plus benefits and a pension to clean the bathrooms, and I don't pay them when the park is closed and there is not work to do.  I finally had one person in California State Parks be honest with me -- she said that the employees position was that they would rather see the parks close than run without government workers.

Of course, if this argument was made clear in public, that the reason for rising taxes and closing parks was to support pay and benefits of government employees, there might be a fight.  So the true facts need to be buried.  Like in this example from the Portland transit system, via the anti-planner.

In 2003, TriMet persuaded the Oregon legislature to allow it to increase the tax by 0.01 percent per year for ten years, starting in 2005. In 2009, TriMet went back and convinced the legislature to allow it to continue increasing the tax by 0.01 percent per year for another 10 years. Thus, the tax now stands at $69.18 per $10,000 in payroll, and will rise to $82.18 per $10,000 in 2025.

At the time, TriMet promised that all of this tax increase would be dedicated to increasing service, and as of 2010, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel claims this is being done. But according to John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, that’s not what is happening.

Poring over TriMet budgets and records, Charles found that, from 2004 (before the tax was first increased) and 2010, total payroll tax collections grew by 34 percent, more than a third of which was due to the tax increase. Thanks to fare increases, fares also grew by 68 percent, so overall operating income grew by about 50 percent, of which about 7 percent (almost $20 million) was due to the increased payroll tax.

So service must have grown by about 7 percent, right? Wrong. Due to service cuts made last September, says Charles, TriMet is now providing about 14 percent fewer vehicle miles and 12 percent fewer vehicle hours of transit service than it provided in 2004 (comparing December 2004 with December 2010). TriMet blamed the service cuts on the economy, but its 50 percent increase in revenues belie that explanation.

By 2030, according to TriMet’s financial forecast (not available on line), the agency will have collected $1.63 billion more payroll taxes thanks to the tax increase. Yet the agency itself projects that hours and miles of service in 2030 will be slightly less than in 2004.

Where did all the money go if not into service increases? Charles says some of it went into employee benefits. TriMet has the highest ratio of employee benefits to payroll of any transit agency. At latest report, it actually spends about 50 percent more on benefits than on pay, and is the only major transit agency in the country to spend more on benefits than pay. This doesn’t count the unfunded health care liabilities; by 2030, TriMet health care benefits alone are projected to be more than its payroll.

What if We Bought Into the Light Rail Hype, and Built It For Everyone?

Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for just 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2**, this means that to roll light rail out to every urban commuter would cost $6.4 trillion a year in government spending, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Light rail only works today because we drain resources from millions of taxpayers to benefit just a few generally middle class commuters.    This is not a model that will scale.

** This includes both service on the debt, which is payment for the original construction costs, as well as annual operating losses.  This subsidy is required essentially forever.  After 20-30 years when the original bonds are paid off, by that time systems generally have to be rebuilt in their entirety   (as folks in places like Washington DC are learning).  There are probably only 5-6 cities in this country that have the urban population densities to make rail systems come even in the ballpark of working financially, and places like Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Portland and LA are NOT among them.

Light Rail and Sustainability

Let me offer up a definition of sustainability that I think most environmentalists and progressives would accept:

We are acting in a sustainable manner if we are achieving our goals in a way that does not hamper the ability of other people in the world, or of future generations, to achieve their goals.

Most environmentalists and progressives would call light rail lines in US cities a "sustainable" technology because of its notional impact on fuel use and CO2 output (yeah, I know, but we are not going to address those assumptions today).

Let me present one fact, from Federal Transit Administration's 2009 survey of public transit authorities, whose data is linked in various ways here.  Or you can download the summary spreadsheet here.  For all US light rail systems in total:

User fares paid per passenger-mile:           $0.18

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $2.22

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $2.04

Since I live in Phoenix and the Phoenix light rail system seems to get particular praise as a "success" from light rail supporters, here are the Phoenix light rail numbers;

User fares paid per passenger-mile:          $0.07

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $3.89

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $3.82

So there, folks, is your sustainable technology.  As I have written before about sustainability, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Nationwide, non-users of light rail pay for 92% of its costs.   In Phoenix, non-users pay for 98% of the costs.  Taking the Phoenix system as an example, resources are drained from literally millions of people so that 17,000 or so people can ride it round trip each day.   Using resources from millions of people, and building up debts that will last into the next generation, to support the transit of just a few people, seems to be the antithesis of sustainability.

If there is any common denominator among progressives, it is that they have little respect for how individuals spend their money.  So they might be unmoved by the loss of resources from so many.  So lets just look narrowly at transit, which I presume the do care about.

Before Valley Metro operated a light rail system in Phoenix, they also operated a bus transit system.  This system still requires a subsidy, but it is much lower than the light rail subsidy.  In 2009, the bus subsidy was $0.74 per passenger-mile.  This means that for the same amount of taxpayer funds, Valley Metro can provide 1.0 passenger-mile by train or 5.2 by bus ($3.82/$0.74).   I can guarantee that cities building light rail are not having their budgets quintupled.  So the result is that, as light rail gets built, total transit ridership falls in most cities as rail costs crowd out existing bus services.

Update: Most light rail articles in our local papers, which have been mindless boosters of the system, generally consist of asking riders if they like the system, who inevitably answer "yes!"  This is somehow a proof the system is great.  Well, duh.  I too am likely to be happy with a service where I only pay 2% of the costs.

Update #2:  Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for about 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2, this means that to roll light rail out to everyone would cost $6.4 trillion a year, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Phoenix / Valley Metro Light Rail Report Card: F

Folks who read this site know I have been critical of Phoenix light rail since well before it was opened.  So often, folks just willfully misinterpret my criticisms.   The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though).  If Santa Claus had just delivered the Phoenix light rail system for free to Phoenix, I would be thrilled with it.   But Santa unfortunately was not involved, and instead the rail line was paid for by area residents, and it cost them over $75,000 per daily roundtrip rider to build, plus annual operating deficits infinitely into the future.   I would be thrilled if an Aston Martin Vanquish showed up in my garage tomorrow, but I am not going to fork over a quarter of a million bucks for one.  Ditto the light rail system.

Anyway, the 2009 FTA transit database is out, and Randal O'Toole has helpfully summarized it in spreadsheet form, which you can download here.  You can peruse your own local system.  Probably the hardest thing to figure out are the mode codes, which are deciphered here.  Since 2009 was the first full year of operation for Phoenix light rail, we can finally look at data for Phoenix on an apples to oranges apples basis with other transit systems  (it is really, really hard to squeeze useful information out of the data Valley Metro posts on their site).

I am just going to highlight two numbers for Phoenix light rail (TRS_ID 9209 in the data).

  • The public subsidy per individual trip (that is one person boarding and riding one way) is $32.73!!   No one would pay this amount if it were the fare.   This equates to a public subsidy (beyond the fares paid) of $3.82 per passenger mile.  Remember, this is not a hostile analysis, but based on the numbers Valley Metro itself submits to the FTA.   Note the IRS reimbursement rate for the total cost (capital and incremental expense) of driving a car is 50 cents per mile, which drops even lower per passenger mile when the car has more than one person in it.  The average occupancy of a car is something like 1.5, which would make the cost per passenger mile of the average car to be about 33 cents per mile.  Ignoring the passenger fares, the public subsidy alone for light rail in Phoenix is 11.6 times larger [note: and yes, this includes the gas tax, so it includes a lot of the maintenance of the road infrastructure.  To include full cost of maintaining and building highways, it might have to be a few cents higher, but its not going to come anywhere in the ballpark of the light rail number].
  • But we are paying more for rail to save the environment, right?  Well, the BTUs expended per passenger mile for Phoenix light rail was 4402.  This compares to the average for passenger cars as determined by the DOE at 3437 BTU/PM.  So the train actually uses 28% more energy to move one rider one mile than does the average car.

Years before the light rail system was completed, I made my light rail bet:  That with the capital cost, I could easily buy a Prius for every daily rider, and still save money.  And for less than the annual operating subsidy, I could give all the new Prius owners free gas each year.  Already my bet has proved more than correct.  But now we know that under my Prius plan, we also would have saved energy, since the Prius uses less than 1700 BTU/pm, less than a third of what Phoenix light rail consumes.

Train to Nowhere

Apparently, Congress just before the election appropriated $900 million to build part of a high speed rail line in CA.  Rather than focusing either on LA or SF, Congress apparently appropriated the money for a mostly rural district that just coincidentally had a Democratic Congressman embroiled in a difficult election.  So now Congress has dedicated a billion dollars of your money for this high speed rail line, from Borden to Corcoran:

I am not kidding you.  More here from the AntiPlanner.

I discussed the CA high speed rail project here and here.  I discussed the practice of building even one useless section as a way to commit the public to building the whole thing here.  An excerpt of how this is done the Chicago way:

But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line "” no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Mass Transit and Energy Use

The Anti-Planner argues that mass transit will never be energy efficient, mainly because it is virtually impossible to improve occupancy.  The arguments for transit saving money all tend to include the line "will be efficient when occupancies increase" but he shows pretty clearly why that is probably not going to happen.

Also note pages 2-15 and 2-16 of this report.  Compare the trends of auto and airline energy intensity with rail and bus.  While cars and planes have decreased their energy use per passenger mile by quite a bit, rail has been flat and buses have been getting worse.  In fact, auto transit became more energy efficient than buses twenty years ago and continues to get better.   Airline travel has become nearly as energy efficient as Amtrak.

The Seen and Unseen: Passenger Rail Edition

We have all heard environmentalists and other American intellectual snobs lamenting that we just are not as smart as Europeans because we have so much less passenger rail.  But because freight and high-speed passenger rail service does not coexist well on the same tracks, urging more passenger rail on the US rail net is effectively asking for more freight to be dumped onto the highways.

Megan McArdle writes:

Moving freight by rail rather than by truck is an enormous carbon saving; one locomotive can haul as much as hundreds of trucks.  It also reduces highway congestion.  Unfortunately, it's hard for passengers and freight to share tracks.  In part, it's difficult simply because it's expensive to upgrade track to handle passenger speeds, but also because freight moves much more slowly, and on an irregular schedule.
I might well argue that if we were simply trying to maximize environmental benefit, we'd ignore passenger rail, and focus on upgrading our freight systems, which sorely need it.  Moreover, these upgrades could largely be made without the massive procedural obstacles that block new high speed rail lines.

But freight rail is not sexy.  It does not excite donors, and it does not excite most of the voters who are motivated by high speed rail.  Politicians win votes by delivering (or at least promising) highly visible improvements; not by silently enhancing the movement of goods from port to Wal-Mart.

I am not sure politicians really have to do anything other stay out of the way (we already have among the cheapest rail rates in the world, 1/2 of China's and 1/8 of Germany's).  The numbers on freight movement are pretty dramatic:

See the percentage of goods moved by freight, which is dramatically higher for the US.  The end result is we have a LOT less freight on our roads than the EU or Japan, and might have even less if US maritime laws had not done so much to kill coastal shipping.
This is the great unseen in all these "sophisticated" conversations about Europe.  These Euro-philes are so much smarter than the rest of us that they manage to ignore the most important part of the equation  (largely because it is unseen and not sexy).  In fact, the US has the best rail system in the world, and in fact the governments of Europe and Japan have likely sub-optimized their rail systems by forcing their focus towards passengers rather than freight.
I will leave the last word to the Anti-Planner:

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.

Light Rail Killing Another Bus System

As predicted by skeptics of light rail, like myself, the Phoenix light rail system is starting to kill bus service.  This is a familiar pattern -- in most cities that have added rail, from LA to Portland, total transit ridership has fallen as light rail systems have been built.  That is because rail is so expensive, and its costs are mostly fixed (ie bond payments for construction costs) and absolutely inflexible (ie you can't shift routes).  Since rail costs far more, even orders of magnitude more, per rider than buses, this means that even with modest increases in total transit budgets, total ridership falls when capacity is being shifted to much higher cost rail.  Bus service is inevitably cut, because even if you close rail lines, the costs remain.

So here we are, in Phoenix.  The article is mainly about the regional transit coalition falling apart, which I have no opinion or interest in, but you can see what is going on anyway.

A bad economy has meant that building a regional bus system in the Valley is no longer a regional endeavor.

A half-cent sales tax was supposed to be the magic bullet that paid for transit and roads. But as tax revenues continue to shrink, cuts to the plan have become inevitable.

Avondale leaders say the toll includes the decimation of future West Valley bus routes and the end of the regionalism that Proposition 400 promised....

Paul Hodgins, capital-programming manager for Valley Metro, which operates the transit system,said every region took a 25 percent cut in transit dollars.

Here is what is going on, though the article only sort of alludes tangentially to this way down in the last 2 paragraphs.  Half of the transit dollars in the sales tax increase went to rail, and half to buses.  The rail money is almost all for debt service on capital spending which has already occurred.  This money has to be spent or the local authorities will default on their bonds.  The other half was for bus operations.

Now, there is a 25% cut in the sales tax dollars from this sales tax increase.  The half that went to rail can't be touched.  So the 25% cut results in a 0% cut in rail and a 50% cut in buses.  Further, since bus service carries a lot more passenger trips per dollar spent than rail, this 25% cut will end up affecting well over 50% of the total ridership that benefited from the sales tax funds.

It is clear from the article that folks probably understand this, but no one from the AZ Republic to the transit agencies are yet ready to admit it.  Expect the proposed solution to be in the form of more taxes rather than a rethinking of transit strategy.  Rail is an albatross, and I wonder how often it has to drive failures like this before people start recognizing it as such.

Cargo Cult Light Rail

Several people sent me this Reason video on light rail in Detroit

I was really struck by the cargo cult reasoning here and the confusion of cause and effect.  Because we see rail in highly developed urban areas (e.g. Manhattan) then if we build rail in a blighted area, it will soon look like Manhattan.

Note the mentions of serving sports stadiums.  As I have observed earlier, light rail systems almost always service professional sports stadiums.  Is there no limit to the public subsidies that politicians are willing to throw at sports franchise owners?

Then ending is a classic

Update: From Wikipedia, for those not familiar with cargo cults:

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Sure sounds a lot like Detroit, trying to bring back the prosperity.  This is actually pretty endemic in modern-day policy making, as so few people really understand the origins of wealth.  Obama's stimulus programs can be seen in the same light, as cargo cult economics.

Phoenix Light Rail Fail

My column in Forbes is up for the week, and discusses the failure of light rail.  In particular, it focuses on Phoenix light rail, which has been hailed by the intelligentsia as a stirring success.  Which it is ... if you are willing to completely ignore its costs.  Saying that Phoenix light rail represents an example to be emulated is roughly equivalent to saying that an Aston Martin makes a sensible middle class family car.

One reason Phoenix is a particularly bad candidate for a light rail line is that our population is so dispersed, and there are not any obvious commuting routes.  Our downtown is a destination for very few, but even here the commutes, as shown on this distribution map, are from all over, hardly very good fodder for rail (the downtown is near the "phoenix" label).  More importantly, people work all over, so taking a suburban zip code, look at where people are commuting to from suburban 85032.   Again, all over.  Notice how few are going downtown (where the light rail line is -- downtown is toward the south about where the "phoenix" map label is).  In other words, people in Phoenix are driving from all over to all over.

Update: Now here is my idea of rail running in the streets, via Shorpy

California Rail Boondoggle

A while back I wrote how the simplest reality checks demonstrated that the ridership forecasts for California high speed rail were absurd.  A new study from Berkeley comes to the same conclusion, that the ridership figures are bogus, though they spent a lot more time and money coming to the conclusion than I did.

Gridlock

I saw Randal O'Toole (known to bloggers at the "anti-planner") speak at the Goldwater Institute last night on transportation.   He is on a book tour for his new book "Gridlock" and he is really a fascinating speaker.  Highly recommended if he should be speaking near you in the coming weeks.  The really crappy cell phone picture below is of O'Toole on the left talking to Byron Schlomach of the Goldwater Institute.

Making Fiscal Sense

Kudos to Kevin Drum for his obvious skepticism about California high speed rail.  Too often the left accepts high speed rail projects credulously, despite their backbreaking costs and little proven impacts on energy use or greenhouse gas production.

I have had back and fort over rail projects with supporters for years, and I am always particularly amazed at how supporters treat me like some kind of neanderthal  (e.g. "the debate is over!" and "rail is settled policy.")  I finally figured out the other day how to characterize rail supporters arguments.

They are like kids who might say, "why wouldn't you want Santa Clause to bring you an Xbox for Christmas?"  They treat rail like it is a birthday present, and that I am some sort of schlub for turning down such a shiny new present.  But of course it is not a present, and costs matter.  The problem with rail is not that I don't like riding on trains, the problem is that I don't like draining resources by force from millions of people so that a few thousand middle class commuters can ride on trains to work.

It's Just Going to Get Worse

California high-speed rail advocates are already backpedalling on the numbers, and from experience with other such projects, it will only get worse.

In the face of the state's perpetual budget crisis, some Californians are beginning to regret their votes in favor of the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond last year. Even though proponents of the train have now admitted the bond was only a down payment on the actual cost to build the system, the numbers that were projected are changing"”and all in the wrong direction.

The business plan released by the train's advocates last month show the dramatic differences in what the voters were told and what reality is. For example, the price of a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles is now projected at $105, up from the previous $55 estimate.  That new number changed the ridership predictions: now 41 million annual riders by 2035, down from last year's prediction of 55 million passengers by 2030. The cost for building the train system has also grown.  The proponents had been thinking $33.6 billion (2008 dollars) but have revised upward to $42.6 billion.  Recently, the Obama administration announced $2.25 billion in funding for the project. Proponents said federal money would be used to close the gap between the voter-approved bond and the ultimate cost, but
this is a drop in the bucket and still will not work.

Do not expect a true LA to SF high speed rail line for less than $75 billion and the ridership numbers are still absurd, as discussed here.  By the way, Southwest's advanced fair from LAX to SFO is $114 right now.  If you are willing to go Burbank to Oakland, the fair is $90.

Faith-Based Government Investment

The Tampa Rail blog has responded to my post criticizing Phoenix light rail (which the Tampa folks used as a glowing example of rail success).  Remember I wrote, in part:

Look, I don't think I have ever argued that Phoenix Light Rail was run poorly or didn't have pretty trains.   And I don't know if moving 18,000 round trip riders a day in a metropolitan area of 4.3 million people is a lot or a little (though 0.4% looks small to me, that is probably just my "pre-web" thinking, whatever the hell that is).The problem is that it is freaking expensive, so it is a beautiful toy as long as one is not paying for it.  Specifically, it's capital costs are $75,000 per daily round trip rider, and every proposed addition is slated to be worse on this metric (meaning the law of diminishing returns dominates network effects, which is not surprising in this least dense of all American cities).

Already, like in Portland and San Francisco, the inflexibility of servicing this capital cost (it never goes away, even in recessions) is causing the city to give up bus service, the exact effect that caused rail to reduce rather than increase transit's total share of commuters in that wet dream of all rail planners, Portland.  Soon, we will have figures for net operating loss and energy use, but expect them to be disappointing, as they have in every other city (and early returns were that fares were covering less than 25% of operating costs).

Of course, as with all government issues, the ultimate argument is that I am some sort of Luddite for actually demanding definable results for billion dollar government spending

Sorry Coyote, save for the topic matter I'm afraid I'm just not going to be much fodder for you. We're years past 'it's an expensive tax thing'.

We know that. We know rail like any capital project is expensive to execute and expensive to maintain - in dollars. But anyone who raises the math to me will wind up with the same big 'so what'. Community investment doesn't bother everyone the same way and different people see different value. There's no way you or I cold supernaturally understand the net benefit for or against light rail. We must simply choose to believe and pick our sides.

If you believe that just because rail is expensive they aren't worthwhile, you need to explain every public vote that has gone for implementing and expanding rail systems around the world even though most operations are publicly subsidized.

Gotta run'em well, and, over time, integrate with a city, but LR is a carefree mobility solution in areas where people choose to support and pay for it.

See, they are well past my neolithic argument, into their little post-modernist world where aesthetics and political correctness trump any actual need to demonstrate money is being used well.  Though it is interesting to see him resorting to faith as a justification.

I have two words for this person -- "opportunity cost."  On one hand, the money for this project must be taken out of private hands to build the rail line -- even leaving out the substantial individual liberties questions here, there is still some obligation to demonstrate the money is better used than it would have been in the private hands from which it is taken.  Ditto, by the way, for the stimulus bill.   On the other hand, to the extent that one wishes to spend government money to move people from A to B, one needs to demonstrate that this method is better than others.  I would argue high speed rail fails both tests.

Update: Joel Epstein and I have a go around the same issues in the Huffpo comments.

On What Freaking Basis?

Tampa Rail writes (hat tip to a reader):

The new Phoenix light rail system is emerging as one of the most successful new systems in the country.  This is especially poignant for Tampa because in scale, project scope, and demographics, Phoenix represents the apogee of operating examples.

Over the course of its first year the system has received high marks in community integration, stunning ridership figures, and respectful financial constraint (making tough decisions on long-term planning that do not inhibit the value of its starter-line status today).  This is exactly what Hillsborough County is shooting for in its own implementation.  A perfect balance of conservative control and benchmarking combined with progressive action and democratic freedom, the latter which may finally come to Hillsborough County in the form of a referendum.  That all good stuff was achieved by such a strikingly similar auto-depenent culture is a great omen.  A starter light rail system can be championed by civic conservatives (Mark Sharpe), and civic progressives (Ed Turanchik) to great outcome....

Both pieces I link to here embarass anti-rail or anti-tax groups who are, as the Phoenix article notes, "muted" if not definetively silenced.  Their arguments against community investement were loud, often intelligent (once one bought into the ideological premise that rail systems must 'pay for themselves' and that community investement is somehow inherently evil - points not firmly established by any means among rationale individuals), and grossly atypical.  I will forever hype on how mechanical, unchanging, and how pre-web these attacks were formulated.

Ooh, how can I overcome my embarrassment?  Look, I don't think I have ever argued that Phoenix Light Rail was run poorly or didn't have pretty trains.   And I don't know if moving 18,000 round trip riders a day in a metropolitan area of 4.3 million people is a lot or a little (though 0.4% looks small to me, that is probably just my "pre-web" thinking, whatever the hell that is).

The problem is that it is freaking expensive, so it is a beautiful toy as long as one is not paying for it.  Specifically, it's capital costs are $75,000 per daily round trip rider, and every proposed addition is slated to be worse on this metric (meaning the law of diminishing returns dominates network effects, which is not surprising in this least dense of all American cities).

Already, like in Portland and San Francisco, the inflexibility of servicing this capital cost (it never goes away, even in recessions) is causing the city to give up bus service, the exact effect that caused rail to reduce rather than increase transit's total share of commuters in that wet dream of all rail planners, Portland.  Soon, we will have figures for net operating loss and energy use, but expect them to be disappointing, as they have in every other city (and early returns were that fares were covering less than 25% of operating costs).

PS- I get a lot of comments that I have some weird anti-train bias.  Actually, I have an n-scale model railroad in one room of my house, and spent a lot of my teenage years traveling along rural rail lines and photographing trains.  I love trains.  I just don't like stupid investments.

PPS- I was just thinking, on the basis the Tampa writer declares the building of Phoenix Light Rail a raving success, I could say the same thing about buying a super-size 100" flat screen TV for $50,000.  It is beautiful.  Everyone who sees it will love it.  It works flawlessly.  Lots of people will be able to enjoy it at one time.  In fact, it is the greatest, most sensible and successful purchase of all time as long as you never mention the cost.  Which is, by the way, why only one person I have ever met has one (I happened to be at a Reason reception the other night and the homeowner had such a beauty on his living room wall).

Update: I try to anticipate every argument in these posts.  The one other argument is that rails takes congestion off roads.  But for most of its length, Phoenix light rail displaced one lane of road in each direction.  These lanes had a capacity as large or larger than what Phoenix light rail carries.  The were also much cheaper to build.  I must say I liked my quote from that post

If running trains requires, as you suggest, draining resources from millions of people just to move thousands, how is it sustainable?

Heroic Assumptions

Previously, I have criticized the proposed California high speed rail line (from San Diego to San Francisco) as grossly underestimating potential costs.  Brian Doherty has an article this week reality-checking its projected ridership, after the California legislative analysts' office questioned the contingency analysis in the high-speed rail plan.

Eric Thronson, a fiscal and policy analyst for the office, called a risk assessment in the business plan "incomplete and inappropriate for a project of this magnitude.''

Thronson warned that there is no backup plan to keep the rail system solvent if it fails to draw 41 million people yearly. A bond measure approved by voters to help pay for the train network prohibits public funds from being spent on operating costs.

Doherty provides this reality check:

The future: where all of California's fiscal messes wait to be addressed! By the way, that ridership figure of 41 million averages to over 112,000 train riders every single day of the year. The average daily usage of I-5--the entire road--is around 71,000, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Here are a couple of other reality checks

  • The entire passenger traffic from LAX to and from every other city in the country is 44 million a year (excludes international passengers)
  • The current air passenger traffic between LAX and SFO is 2.7 million a year
  • The passenger traffic of Amtrak in its entire national network is 28.7 million (including local commuter operations)

The Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.  First it was Thomas Friedman, and now its Joel Epstein in the Huffpo, eulogizing China.    These are the same folks who tried, disastrously, to emulate Mussolini's "forward-thinking" economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act.    These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI's management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession).  These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was unbreathable.  These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens.  To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

Epstein, like Friedman, seems to think that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds much more stuff.  We are "asleep."  Well, I have a big clue for him.  Most of the great progress in this country was built when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

Epstein in particular thinks we need to build more trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that Epstein in fact does not have the dictatorial powers he longs for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China's, 1/8 of Germany's).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe is not even close.

modalsplieuusjapan (source)

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail -- not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make an energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel -- especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real efficiency comes from moving freight.  More of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reasons for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

The US has not been "asleep"  -- at least the private individuals who drive progress have not.  We have had huge revolutions in transportation over the last decades during the same period that European nations were sinking billions of dollars into pretty high-speed passenger rails systems for wealthy business travelers.   One such revolution has been containerization, invented here in the US and quickly spreading around the world.  Containerization has revolutionized shipping, speeding schedules and reducing costs (and all the while every improvement step was fought by the US and certain local governments).  To the extent American businesses are not investing today, it has more to do with regime uncertainty, not knowing what new taxes or restrictions are coming next from Congress, than any lack of vision.

I would argue that the US has the world's largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause folks like Epstein to swoon.

Update #2: The author Joel Epstein emailed me a response to this post.  I will give it to you in its entirety:  "You should get out of the country more often."  Wow, he played the provincial American card on me.  Except that I have been to about 20 countries, from Singapore to Argentina to Hungary.  Besides, I really don't understand what the hell he means by this in the context of my post, except as a bid for some sort of intellectual superiority.   Anyone else understand?

Postscript

Boring, but environmentally friendly and cost-effective:

10.9.2004-04

Sexy, but environmentally useless (at best) and tremendously costly:

high-speed-rail21

So, explain to me what drives these guys investment thinking.  Can it be anything but triumphalism?

Update: Energy use comparison of passenger modes. Note how close rail transit and cars, both at average occupancies, are in this analysis.  The differences in freight are much larger:

transenergy

Great Article on Transit Decision-Making

Via a reader, the article is about Madison, Wisconsin, but it could be about anywhere.  The author highlights at least three issues with the plans:

  • Unelected tax authority

Dane County, for instance, plans to fund its transit authority with a half-percent sales tax. Members of the RTA board were told by the officials who appointed them to put the tax to voters in a referendum, likely next fall.And if the voters say no? In theory, said County Board member Al Matano, a key RTA backer, it means no funding. But "it's not on our list of things to worry about," he told me.

Why should it be? The legal fact is the tax needs no referendum. Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed that part of the transit authority law. Struck it right out. The decision is solely up to an unelected RTA board.

"Quite honestly, they don't need (a referendum), legally," said Dave Ripp, a County Board member who doesn't favor the RTA. "And if it fails, they don't have to follow it."

  • Obsession with trains over more affordable solutions

Quite a few wonder why Madison, with 480,000 people and short distances, needs the expense of trains. Buses are much cheaper. They can go more places, and you can afford to run them more frequently. "We actually support buses," said Richardson. "They're very flexible."

"The main thing that worries me, and I'm not the only one," said Susan De Vos, head of the Madison Area Bus Advocates, a riders' group, "is that people put in rail at the expense of the existing transit system, and that's the bus." That's how things worked elsewhere, such as in Los Angeles, said De Vos. When train plans inevitably outstrip revenue, the money comes from cutting back the unsexy part of the system. She favors a series of limited-stop express "bus rapid transit" lines for a fraction of rail's cost.

  • The real focus is on rigid government control of development (ie the Portland model)

"Their agenda really isn't about transportation," as Dane County Towns Association President Jerry Derr put it to a reporter. "It's about land use. They want to build a rail system so they have a reason to force all new development to within a half-mile of the rail corridor." Surely he exaggerates? No. The commuter rail plan's founding document lays out the rationale thus: "Goal 1: Promote Efficient Land Use/Develo

Sounds like a another great town (Madison is really a great place from my experience) is about to be screwed up, just like Portland has.