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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Choo-Choo? Boo-Boo!

I am not a train hater. From elementary school through high school I spent a lot of time on trains. For many years when we lived in Philadelphia and New York our Dad was a train commuter. We would take the train to see the Phillies or to Manhattan for the day. When we moved to Europe the summer vacation for high school kids was a backpack and a Eurail pass giving us the freedom to ride the rails throughout Europe. It is somewhat genetic as my grandmother, Sis as she was known throughout Sacramento, was always telling us stories of the West and the railroads. I might have been the first kid at Hillside Elementary in Berwyn, Pa. who knew what the Golden Spike was because of Sis. Her passion for the West and railroads culminated in her activism to get the California Railroad Museum built in Old Town Sacramento; in fact she died at a meeting for the committee building the museum. Trains are in our DNA.

That said our region, our state and our federal government have wasted billions and billions of dollars on trying to encourage Los Angelenos, Californians and Americans to ride the rails. One of the biggest government handouts nationwide goes to public transportation and the Oliver's of Rail are at the stew pot hands and bowls extended saying, "Please sir, I want some more."

Amtrack is the quasi-public private partnership that controls most of the passenger lines in the United States. It is a public private entity because the government owns the controlling preferred stock and is the sugar daddy that keeps the operation afloat. In 2008 Amtrack had approximately 28.7 passengers on its various rail routes. The bulk of these riders in the Northeast using Amtrack to commute as my Dad did in the 1970's. Also in 2008 Amtrack received $2.8 billion from Congress, which it will continue to receive for the next couple of years. It used to get a subsidy about about $1.5 billion but that was not enough as the cost of 19,000 employees and 21,000 miles of track were not supported by the train fares charged the passengers. So Amtrack operates at a loss of $90 per passenger that is made up by the taxpayers.
In California the voters in 2008 passed Proposition 1A which allowed the state to sell $9.95 Billion in bonds to partially fund a high speed train in California. The amount is woefully short of what is expected to be needed. Estimates of the cost for the high speed rail system in the state are up to $85 Using history as our guide for the future we can expect if and when this high speed rail is built to exceed $100 billion. As part of the high speed rail program the state is looking for "matching funds" to this effect our Governor Schwarzenegger this week asked the Federal Government for an donation to the high speed rail of $4.95 Billion.

For those keeping score that is $14.9 Billion of taxpayer funds for a high speed rail system that will connect the major cities. For what? Why does our state need a rail system that will get train travellers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority (we have authority!) in 2:38.

I can fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1:00 and it costs $100 or less any day, with numerous flight options. Other than someone who has a major fear of flying or an intense love of the rails would ride a train for two and a half times what it takes to fly from point A to point B, especially if the cost is the same.
What will be the fare? The only comparison we can use is the Acela Express which is Amtrak's version of high speed rail in the Northeast, hitting 115 mph for a 35 mile stretch. It is a comparable distance from Boston to Washington D.C., there are stops in New York and Philadelphia, but the ride takes over 6 hours. The cost? About $200 per ticket. For "high-speed" rail. Still cheaper than the one hour flight (about $30o) but you save five hours.

"But Europe has such a great train system." That is an argument of many who favor continued and higher government subsidies of public transportation and rail projects. And it is true, Europe does have a great train system. The reason is because Europe grew around its rail system. Towns and cities placed the rail station in the middle of town and built from there. Major cities such as Paris and Brussels have multiple train stations serving passengers north, east, south and west. America has grown around its highway system. We are an auto-centric culture. Drive around the country and look where new towns and communities have been built--near major transportation corridors, transportation meaning highways.
Those pushing high-speed rail in California are creating huge amounts of public debt for future generations, not just the debt to build the system but the future debt to support and subsidize a system that must operate at a loss to have any passengers. They are operating on a belief that Californians will want to ride the rails instead of the roads or skies, a belief based on fantasy or romance of the clickety-clack.

Unless....the government forces ridership of the public railways and buses of public transportation. One reason public transportation is so prevalent in Europe is not only that cities were designed with public transportation in mind, but also because those who use their cars are taxed tremendously. Registration fees are very high and the taxes on gas and oil push the price per gallon in Europe to over $5. This is a model that has support in the United States to force Americans to use transportation, impose higher taxes on gasoline, auto registration, turn freeways into toll roads, and increase the taxes on air travel. If you make the alternatives expensive enough then the cost of rail travel in terms of fares and time begins to drop relative to driving our own cars or flying commercial air.

It is time for Californians to take a realistic look at the huge cost of high-speed rail. It does not make any sense to spend billions and billions of dollars to create a rail system that will be uncompetitive with other means of transportation and cost billions more in annual subsidies to keep afloat.

Build a better choo-choo? I say, "Boo."


Bob Schilling said...

I started to write a long diatribe here about the history of Amtrak, why it turned out the way it did, and why rail service, both regional and long-distance, are worthy of public support. I'll skip all that, except to say that, with all its flaws, Amtrak has done the best it could in a harsh and hostile environment. I'm cautiously hopeful for the future, since for that past few years it's been run by people who know something about railroads.

As to your main point, I agree with you that High Speed Rail is a boondoggle of major proportions. The real issue here is that California, unlike France, is not flat. High Speed Rail needs very modest grades to maintain its line speed, and that implies enormous capital costs, on top of the imposing capital requirements of electrification. I've worked in and around transport systems for most of my life, and I've done a good deal of analysis of them. Barring convincing evidence to the contrary, I think that the cost of High Speed Rail (top running speed of 150 mph or greater) are not justified by the benefits.

What IS justified is significant public investment in improving our overall rail system. Imagine what we could do with $10 billion -- the bond money -- if we applied it intelligently. We could make major improvements in connections between Southern California and the Central Valley, opening new opportunities for development in Kern County and the Antelope Valley. We could lower and straighten the Coast Route, providing a potential passenger and secondary freight corridor to better link north and south. We could provide more efficient facilities for interchange with Mexico. We could strengthen our lines to the north, bringing Oregon and Washington economically closer. And we'd still probably have "change left over." That would mean working more closely with the railroads, but I'm sure that we could find a way to protect the public interest and still reap the substantial benefits that would accrue in both the public and private sectors.

On the broader subject of Amtrak, I wait patiently for us to reach a full understanding that the American public wants and needs passenger trains, and that we're willing to spend public money to have them at subsidized prices. That, to me, appears to be simple historical fact. Given that, why keep passenger service as the province of a public agency? Why not simply go to the railroads and say, "look, we want passenger trains to run in these corridors, and we want to do that efficiently. We'll enter into long-term contracts to pay you BY THE PASSENGER, to provide the service. That last provision is key. There needs to be an incentive for the operators to preserve and increase ridership, and in our system that incentive is profit. The State of New York has for years subsidized its upstate commuter buses in just that way, with remarkable success -- a large number of robust, profitable bus companies providing customized service to their riders -- because if they get more riders THEY MAKE MORE MONEY. Apply the same concept to railroads and see if their famous -- or infamous, depending on your point of view -- hunger for profit doesn't come into play. Add in capital investments in rail systems that benefit both freight and passenger services, and I think you've got a winning combination.

And forget about doing away with Amtrak. Conservatives from the South and West tried that for years, and it turns out they're harder to kill than the Taliban. You've GOT to have rail in the Northeast, and the rest of the Congress won't keep that and let their own services wither.

Sheryl said...

I vote for high speed rail to Vegas!