Privatizing Amtrak Won’t Lead to Better Service

Oct 11th, 2012 | Posted by

Amtrak ridership is at record highs, so how do Republicans react? By calling for the trains to be privatized. But despite their ideological claims, privatization won’t do much at all to improve service on the trains, a lesson that we should heed as we move ahead with high speed rail.

Pacific Parlour Car wine tasting
Wine tasting on the Coast Starlight by throgers

Amtrak trains carried 31.2 million passengers in the fiscal year ending in September, the highest annual ridership since the railroad was formed in 1971, the nation’s intercity passenger railroad said Wednesday.

Ridership grew 3.5 percent over the past 12 months compared with the previous budget year, and ticket revenue jumped 6.8 percent to a best-ever $2.02 billion, Amtrak said. Ridership has increased every year but one over the past decade, and is up almost 50 percent from 2000….

The GOP platform adopted at the Republican National Convention in August calls for “the federal government to get out of way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service” in the lucrative northeast corridor between Washington and Boston — the heart of Amtrak’s operations.

This is something of a subtle shift in Republican rhetoric. They’re no longer opposing passenger rail on principle; the evidence is clear that Americans love trains and will ride them at every available opportunity. Now they’re trying to argue that trains would be better off – with better service and more profitability – if they were in private hands.

As longtime readers of the blog know, I don’t really care whether a particular method of transportation is profitable. I don’t think it’s an important issue. What matters is whether it serves a lot of people reliably, affordably, and with a high quality on board experience.

As anyone who’s been on the Coast Starlight knows, especially if you’ve been on the sleepers and enjoyed the Pacific Parlour Car, Amtrak actually does a pretty good job with quality, John Mica’s “Soviet-style” attacks on Amtrak notwithstanding. Amtrak trains are more reliable than is often assumed, especially the Amtrak California routes (though the Coast Starlight had a 81% on time performance in September 2012).

Where Amtrak falls short is on the ability to serve a lot of people affordably. A sleeper on the Coast Starlight isn’t cheap, though it can be comparable to a one-way flight purchased a few days before travel. And it doesn’t usually offer a lot of trips per day – one a day on most long-distance routes, with more daily options on the in-state routes but even those could be improved to meet rising demand. Acela trains are often sold out and speed and frequency improvements require new investment, whether it comes from the public or private sector.

Republicans argue that these issues are the result of Amtrak being “subsidized,” though they rarely point out that the Acela is profitable. They argue that privatizing Amtrak would improve matters.

But as Yonah Freemark argues at The Transport Politic, we know that won’t work – in large part because Amtrak is already forced to operate like a privatized service:

Here is the confusing truth about Amtrak, however: The rail agency, fully government-owned, is in many ways already a privatized operation that receives federal subsidies. The organization does not seem to have the larger public’s interests in mind in setting policies: It has some of the highest fares in the world for services in the Northeast Corridor, it provides no discounts for people of lesser means, and it actively promotes the use of intercity buses for people who want to pay less, in effect strategically reducing its market share. These are not the actions of a government enterprise acting in the public interest; these are the actions of a private corporation attempting to maximize profit.

On the Acela, this has met the goal of Amtrak being profitable, but it comes at the expense of other important goals such as being affordable to a wide range of incomes and infrastructure improvements. Privatizing Amtrak would have the effect of ensuring that the service is operated for the benefit of investors rather than riders, which is of course the entire reason why Republicans want to privatize it.

Freemark goes on to explore the details of four types of privatization and finds all of them wanting:

In general, there are four rough frameworks for such privatization:

1. Publicly owned tracks with competition for services. This is being implemented in mainland European countries under E.U. regulations; public sector track owners (such as RFF in France) allow operators — both public and private — to run competing services on the same lines. This allows riders to choose operators on journeys with the same origins and destinations, just as can be done for airline journeys.

2. Publicly owned tracks with competition for contracts. This is the network organization in the United Kingdom; public Network Rail owns the tracks but then leases the rights to operating rail corridors to private companies. In general, contracts last around seven years and give each operator close to monopoly rights over each corridor.

3. Privately owned tracks with competition for contracts. This was the system previously operated in the U.K.; the privately controlled Railtrack owned all tracks in the country between 1994 and 2002. The tracks were moved into the control of a public operator, as described in the second alternative.

4. Privately owned tracks with one private operator. This is how intercity rail operations are managed in Japan.

The California High Speed Rail project will likely function on the second model, with the tracks owned by the state and operations put out to bid. The problem with models 1 through 3 are that there are competing interests at play that cause problems for the successful operation of quality rail service. For model #2, the problem is that the state may not be interested in or able to fund necessary infrastructure upgrades, limiting a private operator’s ability to provide profitable, quality service. (That’s in fact the problem on the Northeast Corridor, although Amtrak is a public operator.)

Free market ideologues like Ed Glaeser and Stephen Smith are arguing for the 4th model, with Glaeser explicitly calling for the California HSR system to be completely privatized and turned over to a monopoly operator. Smith points to the privatization of JR in the 1980s as evidence why this is a good idea.

Freemark’s response is worth quoting in detail:

The problem with this approach is clear: It is a recipe for monopoly control of a railroad by a private enterprise. Conservatives berate Amtrak and other government-owned enterprises for being “Soviet“-like (in the words of John Mica), but private monopoly control of rail services is worse — and market conservatives should agree on that fact. After all, monopolized services can inflate prices, provide poor service, and in general be unresponsive to customer concerns. Unlike Amtrak, which must respond to political demands in our democracy, private monopolies must respond only to their profit-seeking shareholders, who clearly have different demands than the public as a whole.

Some might argue that rail services in the U.S., even if controlled by one company, cannot constitute a “monopoly” since they are competing with air and road services, which are owned and operated by other entities. Yet if it is in the public interest to encourage fast, relatively inexpensive services on intercity rail lines (that is what we want, right?), we are effectively arguing on behalf of massively increasing rail share on specific intercity travel markets — and significant government subsidies dedicated to investments in new tracks would back this approach. Once we have done that, we do not want people to move back to cars or airplanes, and we will have made those alternatives quite unappealing — thus benefiting the monopoly. Japanese rail operators do not have to compete with air or auto travel for most of their services because of the extraordinary advantages of rail along their routes, allowing them to act as transportation monopolies.

Freemark is pointing out issues that the free market ideologues rarely ever consider – what is the quality of service, and who gets served? Glaeser and Smith are so absorbed by the issue of profitability that they’re missing the other important issues, such as how to get rail service to as many people as possible, and to ensure those services are operated in ways that serve the needs of riders and not investors.

This is no academic exercise. Getting electrified passenger rail to as many communities in this country as possible ought to be a top national priority. Transportation is a major contributor to carbon emissions and global warming. Trains are a more energy efficient way to move people than planes or cars – including electric cars. Fighting climate change by reducing carbon emissions is far more important than the issue of whether Amtrak is profitable. In fact, for those concerned primarily about costs, unchecked climate change will cost this country far more money than subsidizing Amtrak and high speed rail service ever could.

Europe’s failed attempts at making the other models of privatization work are reminders that for most transportation systems, operating it as a monopoly is the only realistic approach. The question is whether that monopoly is public or private.

Public transportation monopolies have a proven track record of being able to deliver quality, affordable, reliable service that everyone can use – assuming the politicians allow that public transportation monopoly to generate the capital it needs to invest in the system.

As the United States as learned from history, private railroad monopolies do not work out very well for the public interest. Whether it was the massive corruption of the Robber Barons in the Gilded Age, or Union Pacific’s profit-driven hostility to passenger rail (look again at the causes of Coast Starlight delays), we know that private transportation monopolies do not work out very well for society as a whole.

Glaeser’s article explicitly called for President Obama to follow Abraham Lincoln’s model and have the private sector own high speed rail lines. This is one area where Stanford historian Richard White provided an important public service – he did an excellent job explaining the failure of the private ownership model of the railroads in the 19th century. White has also raised questions about whether private involvement in California high speed rail would lead to similarly flawed political and transportation outcomes. Unfortunately, White chose to focus instead on a quixotic effort to undermine the high speed rail project entirely, arguing it was unnecessary and that it would somehow not generate riders. What we really needed from him was a strong argument for operating California HSR in the public interest, and not for private profit.

There’s still plenty of time to make that case. Freemark’s observations about the pitfalls of privatization must be kept in mind as we look toward the eventual operation of high speed rail in California. And his observations about the ways political pressure on Amtrak to turn a profit are already limiting that system’s usefulness to the public at a time when getting trains to as many people as possible is a top national priority.

  1. cfhanes
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 11:13

    If you don’t care how profitable trains service is, then, what about losses? If a service is not profitable that means it is running at a loss, whether the entity operating it is private or public.

    Does this mean you are willing for someone’s tax money to be used to subsidize the service? How else could the service be maintained?

    If so, do you have any limit on the size of such a subsidy you would accept? 25% of fare paid? 50%? 100%?

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    What about losses? Explain why they matter. Don’t just assume we all agree they’re the top priority.

    All forms of transportation in America are subsidized. That’s good, because effective transportation generally requires some form of subsidy – it lowers the cost of doing business, of travel, and so on.

    The size of the subsidy doesn’t matter, it can be 0% or 100%, what matters is how the service is operated, how many people it serves, where it connects, and how it supports other broader public goals.

    missiondweller Reply:

    When you completely ignore the economics I think you undermine your own argument for HSR. We certainly are not a state of limitless resources. Though HSR could be run by the public for public benefit, it can not be done “whatever the cost” . There are, however, lots of examples in the private market for sharing “fixed costs” for utilities. As one example, cell phone companies originally operated in regions and had to negotiate deals to use outside networks if you wanted to call someone in NY from CA. All “operators” could pay fees to maintain tracks based on miles traveled with whomever owns the tracks being responsible for upkeep and collection of fees. Airlines currently partner with other airlines to provide service to routes where one airline has an established route and available gates with the other acting as a “feeder” route. This isn’t rocket science.

    One final thought: I was reminded the other day how our last governor once commented that illegal aliens “only” cost the state $6 Billion per year(though most find that to be roughly half the true cost). Many people may, for ideological reasons, may support illegal immigration but we cannot ignore that it requires large amounts of scarce resources that could be allocated to another purpose. If we suddenly had a $6 Billion PER YEAR to spend on HSR, we would not even need Federal funding and could pay for the project in a decade. My point isn’t whether illegal immigration is good or bad, just that its an economic choice that leaves less resources for other priorities.

    Economics matters, especially with such a large project. As always, I believe the project is an important one that I want to see succeed.

    VBobier Reply:

    A lot More entry Visas would solve the illegal immigrant problem, right now the supply is kept artificially low by the US Government to countries south of the US border, one person when I mentioned that said that before that happened that the 14th Amendment would have to be altered, which is wrong, unless one wants to deny anyone who is legally here and who is not White, Citizenship, that is racism and that is WRONG, it’s immoral and I believe it might be a sin. Just cause of the color of ones skin, but I guess when President Abraham Lincoln said that all men are created equal in the Gettysburg Address, some Men though carry the infection of Racism, at one time the Irish were not considered White… And some to this day may not consider any people of Irish descent White.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    A lot More entry Visas would solve the illegal immigrant problem

    I wish everyone thought the way you do.

    VBobier Reply:


    Peter Reply:

    Well, entry visas aren’t the issue, many “illegal immigrants” were originally “legal” visitors on tourist visas. Of course, if you’re referring to issuing more work visas of varying types, that’s a different story.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Well, it’s about 50-50. But anyway, everyone talks about work visas, rather than tourist visas. It’s obvious that both undocumented workers and tourist visa overstayers are looking for work rather than for extended tourism.

    joe Reply:

    It’s just a train.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The military is running at a loss. Do you have a limit to the size of the subsidy you would accept? It’s 100% subsidized (0% farebox recovery) right now. Would you prefer that the military charged people?

    Fire service is also 100% subsidized (0% farebox recovery) in most places. Perhaps you think the “losses” are a big issue, and people should be charged individually to have their houses protected from fire.

    Instead, we provide these services *collectively*, funded through *broad-based taxation*, because they have *collective benefits*. The same is true with transportation.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    In principle, the military can be profitable – just let it manage the resources of the countries it invades and sell them at a profit, instead of give those resources to big business for free.

    It would make American foreign policy even worse than it already is, but still.

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    Didn’t we try that with Iraq and their oil? How did that work out? We spent more trying to keep the pipelines together than we ever got from oil profits.


    Alon Levy Reply:

    No, on the contrary, the Houston ecosphere of oil companies and associated companies providing them services got no-bid contracts.

    Nathanael Reply:

    That would work with a military which could win wars. But yeah, it’s an interesting theoretical exercise!

    Nathanael Reply:

    I have to say I have gotten to the point of using mocking in almost all my arguments because I’ve heard the *same damned nonsense* for so many years in a row, and at some point reductio ad absurdum is the only way to break through the nonsense.

    There are actually paid propaganda outfits which are pumping this stuff out (Cato, Reason, Heritage) which is why the nonsense won’t go away.

    VBobier Reply:

    Well keep doing this, I like it… I don’t like the nonsense either…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    You don’t need to win wars to be able to loot resources. You just need to succeed on the initial invasion, which the US is perfectly capable of doing.

  2. Reedman
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 11:18

    FYI, yesterday a lawsuit was filed to try to stop San Francisco’s $1 billion/one-mile-long Central Subway.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The lawsuit doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I don’t approve of the Central Stubway, but the lawsuit is on incredibly thin legal grounds. Heck, given the lack of utility of the Central Subway, Muni could just say “The Central Subway IS recreation” and win the lawsuit immediately.

    jimsf Reply:

    Union Square has nothing to do with recreation. Please. Its the center of the San Francisco’s retail district. Its only purpose is as a place name to identify the neighborhood when you’re going shopping or booking a hotel.
    No on is flying a kite, throwing a frisbee, or surfing in Union Square.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    It’s a great place to people watch. Especially when a flock of trannies flutter through. :)

    jimsf Reply:

    yes, and I think the subway will only enhance that aspect.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    …well watching the fluttering of the wildlife is recreation…

    synonymouse Reply:

    Highly unlikely the litigation will get very far. I assume a vote of the Supervisors to allow the station at Union Square would suffice. After all you have the precedent of the parking garage profoundly changing the original character of the Square decades ago.

    But the purpose of the lawsuit is to bring attention to the manifold shortcomings of the Stubway. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the issues of the disposition of the TBM and any portal in North Beach. Difficult to visualize Bredas on narrow Chestnut Street in the Marina. Once it opens up the gratuitous, braindead limitations of the Stubway will quite apparent to all.

    Meanwhile “Chinatown” lives on:

    High Desert sprawl inducing TehaVegaSkyRail just more of bringing LA to the water.

    joe Reply:

    “But the purpose of the lawsuit is to bring attention to the manifold shortcomings of the Stubway. ”

    One might eventually accept that most citizens in SF known all about the “stubway”.

  3. Paul Druce
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 11:33

    The Coast Starlight is almost entirely on Union Pacific’s tracks, of course most of the delays will be on their tracks (though it’s worth noting that train interference is disproportionately high [compared to route-miles] on the publicly owned tracks from LA to Moorpark).

    Amtrak’s main problem is the general incompetence which infests passenger railroading through most of the country and having the long distance trains forced on them by Congress, trains which serve no public good that cannot be better accomplished with buses.

    Getting electrified passenger rail to as many communities in this country as possible ought to be a top national priority. Transportation is a major contributor to carbon emissions and global warming. Trains are a more energy efficient way to move people than planes or cars – including electric cars. Fighting climate change by reducing carbon emissions is far more important than the issue of whether Amtrak is profitable.

    Why? Seriously, we aren’t building a society from vacuum and the roads won’t magically disappear, so the reality is going to be one of preparing for electric cars taking over the roads (though expanding transit is still good).

    And if we’re really concerned about carbon emissions, targeting coal is the single biggest issue (especially given all of its other health effects). Coal plants alone emit more CO2 emissions than the entire transportation sector. They represent the single biggest bang for the buck, but of course, they’re not nearly as sexy as “Ooh, a geewhiz train!”, the sensible ways of replacing them are either ignored (such as paying for far better home insulation and the like in the NE) or anathema to the liberals (nuclear), and of course it would also involve fighting a number of major unions. Much better instead to simply waste tens of billions of dollars, buy a fancy expensive car, and crow about how green one is.

    Peter Javsicas Reply:

    Electric cars? Wonderful. Not too many of them, please. Paul Druce suggests that they will simply replace gasoline powered cars. Yet he argues against himself when he says targeting coal is the biggest issue. Where will the electricity come from for those umpteen million electric cars? So far we have not even been able to wean ourselves off coal-fired electric generation. World-wide, coal burning even now is on the increase. Let’s be honest: electric cars equals coal-burning cars.

    And those umpteen million electric cars would need to keep up with the exponential growth in population and car ownership around the world – each car made of thousands of pounds of steel, aluminum and petroleum-based rubber and plastics. What will be the life-cycle cost of all those cars? How about the external costs – more parking, more roads, more accidents, more opportunity loss to other infrastructure needs?

    How about shale gas fueling cars? Fracked shale gas has its own problems – problems that may add up to fatal flaws. And there’s a finite supply. Biofuels? Do the math: life-cycle costs add up to minuscule or negative energy gain. Alternative, clean, renewable fuels? Even the most optimistic production projections pale in comparison to growing world energy consumption.

    Perhaps someone has a viable solution that doesn’t involve reducing our per capita energy consumption. Anyone? How about decreasing the energy we use just to travel. Let’s try increasing accessibility and mobility options that don’t require each of us to tool around in a ton or two of miss-used resources. Public transportation comes to mind. Transit and high speed rail. Also walking- and biking-friendly communities. Car-sharing. Bike-sharing. Complete streets. Integrated, sustainable, transit friendly land use policies. In cities and towns around the world one can find tried and true, operating models for all these measures. Can we engage and mobilize the public to bring all these solutions together? That seems like one major move in the right direction.

    Oh, and have a few electric cars around for car-sharing. They’re also available right now at amusement parks.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Let’s be honest: electric cars equals coal-burning cars.

    Let’s be honest: Electric cars equal whatever the power supply is, which is not 100% coal. The national average emissions rate is 1216 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, which of course translates into 1.216 pounds per kilowatt hour. Looking at, a battery electric vehicle uses about a third of a kilowatt-hour per mile, for a total emissions rate of 0.4 pounds of CO2 per mile. A conventional ICE vehicle, burning gasoline with a rate of 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon, would require 50 miles to the gallon (which means you are already requiring major investments in batteries for hybrids in order to match it with American cars).

    Of course, it’s easy to make EVs cleaner by moving towards a cleaner energy mix: Phasing out coal in favor of nuclear and renewables to a degree where appropriate. For instance, for Californians, the mix is such that CO2 is about 659 pounds of CO2 per MWh, which means an ICE vehicle would require 90mpg to match.

    And yes, public transit is good and ought to be encouraged. But it will not take over the majority of travel if for no reason other than the existence of the infrastructure and development to take advantage of and use the private automobile and that reality must be kept in mind.

    Travis Mason-Bushman Reply:

    Nuclear is not “anathema to the liberals” – it is a fundamentally-unsound way of generating electrical power because it creates a profoundly-dangerous waste product that we have little to no idea what to do with.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    It’s actually not terribly dangerous and we have a very good idea of what to do with it. The best thing to do is to simply recycle it and turn it into more fuel (with similar waste burn measures like a traveling wave reactor a close second), or we can simply seal it up and stick it underground, like Yucca was intended for.

    Seriously, we know how to deal with it and it’s a lot less dangerous and easier to handle than quite a bit of chemical wastes.

    VBobier Reply:

    Making spent fuel into more fuel is what is called a Breeder Reactor I think, in any case I agree with Paul.

    VBobier Reply:

    I was right, a Breeder Reactor is a better idea…

    Breeder reactors could in principle extract almost all of the energy contained in uranium or thorium, decreasing fuel requirements by nearly two orders of magnitude compared to traditional once-through light water reactors, which extract less than 1% of the energy. This could greatly dampen concern about fuel supply or energy used in mining. In fact, with seawater uranium extraction, there would be enough fuel for breeder reactors to satisfy our energy needs for as long as the current relationship between the sun and Earth persists, about 5 billion years at the current energy consumption rate (thus making nuclear energy as sustainable in fuel availability terms as solar or wind renewable energy).

    joe Reply:

    What are some of the downsides? It might help put this simple solution into prespective if they were listed.

    Joey Reply:

    The downside is that it’s against our foreign policy on the grounds that the same process might hypothetically be used to make fuel for nuclear weapons.

    VBobier Reply:

    There is also at that link, Burner Reactors:

    There are two main types of breeding cycles, and they can both reduce actinide wastes:

    The fast breeder reactor’s fast neutrons can fission actinide nucleii with even numbers of both protons and neutrons. Such nucleii usually lack the low-speed “thermal neutron” resonances of fissile fuels used in LWRs.
    The thorium fuel cycle simply produces lower levels of heavy actinides. The fuel starts with few isotopic impurities (i.e. there’s nothing like U238 in the reactor), and the reactor gets two chances to fission the fuel: First as U233, and as it absorbs neutrons, again as U235.

    A reactor whose main purpose is to destroy actinides, rather than increasing fissile fuel stocks, is sometimes known as a burner reactor. Both breeding and burning depend on good neutron economy, and many designs can do either. Breeding designs surround the core by a breeding blanket of fertile material. Waste burners surround the core with non-fertile wastes to be destroyed.

    Now here is one that I’d like to see in the USA:

    Thermal breeder reactors

    “The advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR) is one of the few proposed large-scale uses of thorium.[16] India is developing this technology, their interest motivated by substantial thorium reserves; almost a third of the world’s thorium reserves are in India, which also lacks significant uranium reserves.

    The third and final core of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station 60 MWe reactor was a light water thorium breeder, which began operating in August 1977 and after testing was brought to full power by the end of that year.[17] It used pellets made of thorium dioxide and uranium-233 oxide; initially the U233 content of the pellets was 5-6% in the seed region, 1.5-3% in the blanket region and none in the reflector region. It operated at 236 MWt, generating 60 MWe and ultimately produced over 2.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. After five years the core was removed and found to contain nearly 1.4% more fissile material than when it was installed, demonstrating that breeding from thorium had occurred.

    joe Reply:

    Like many aspects of nuclear power, fast breeder reactors have been subject to much controversy over the years. Since the end of the cold war, uranium has been much cheaper and more abundant than early designers expected, making the economics of breeder reactors uncompetitive in the energy markets. The capital costs are at least 25% more than water cooled reactors. This has stymied their deployment and lent credence to calls for their abandonment. This situation is likely to remain until the demand for uranium exceeds the supply enough to drive prices much higher than they have been during the latter years of the 20th and early years of the 21st centuries.[21] Secondly, safety issues are cited as a concern with fast reactors that use a sodium coolant – a leak could lead to a sodium fire. Thirdly, since plutonium breeding reactors produce plutonium from U238, they could pose potential proliferation risks.[22]

    Creating extra fuel in nuclear reactors, however, is not without its concerns: One is that the plutonium produced can be removed and used in nuclear weapons. Another is that, to extract the plutonium, the fuel must be reprocessed, creating radioactive waste and potentially high radiation exposures. For these reasons, in the U.S., President Carter halted such spent fuel reprocessing, making the use of breeder reactors problematic.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    I’m fairly sure that we don’t have to worry about proliferation with reactors in the United States.

    Travis Mason-Bushman Reply:

    Yes, but if we do it, it’s rather hard for us to argue internationally that other countries (such as, say, Iran) shouldn’t do it.

    John Burrows Reply:

    Every time we build a nuclear reactor we are installing another doorway to Hell. If the seal on that door becomes even slightly damaged we have a Three Mile Island—If the door opens a crack we have a Fukushima—And if that door opens wide for a moment, we get another Chernobyl.

    Once installed these doorways are very very hard to close off, and no matter what safeguards may be in place they can still come open in unexpected ways with catastrophic consequences.

    From a positive viewpoint—The 1,000 plus square mile “Dead Zone” around Chernobyl seems to be doing quite well without humans. Plants and animals are generally thriving in spite of the radiation. Nature’s way I guess of compensating for a really big human screw up.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Every time we build a nuclear reactor we are installing another doorway to Hell

    So install Gellar field generators to enforce reality in the local area.

    Once installed these doorways are very very hard to close off, and no matter what safeguards may be in place they can still come open in unexpected ways with catastrophic consequences.

    Aside from the hundreds or even thousands of reactors we’ve successfully built, operated, and then decommed? Ignoring that modern reactor designs are the next best thing to impossible to screw up (note that Fukushima and Chernobyl combined both significantly older designs and pretty rank incompetence; both were completely avoidable accidents). Heck, there’s up to a dozen reactors bobbing about San Diego harbor and a distinct lack of concern or problems.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yep the Navy uses Nuclear Reactors all the time, I’ve never heard of an accident in the US Navy, I agree Mr Burrows likes His head in the sand, He worries too much, must be great to imitate an ostrich…

    Nathanael Reply:

    Paul, we still have something like a dozen Fukushima-design (GE Mark I) reactors in use in the US *and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission keeps extending their permits*.

    The regulatory system for nuclear in the US is so badly captured that we absolutely cannot afford to build any nuclear reactors; we just can’t *trust* them. Suggest new nuclear plants *after you’ve got the dangerously unsafe ones decommissioned*, OK?

    Nathanael Reply:

    I fully expect you to ignore this and start writing apologia for the inexcusable behavior of Entergy at Vermont Yankee. (Part of the building collapsed, you know! There are tritium leaks into the river!). Nuclear apologists always minimize things like this.

    If you will forthrightly agree that all of the GE Mark I reactors need to be shut down and decommissioned ASAP, I will recognize you as a different, more respectable sort of person. But I’m not expecting it.

    Nathanael Reply:

    I might have gotten the company confused, there are so many bad actors in the nuclear sector….

    Nathanael Reply:

    You are wrong about the long-distance trains. They serve an important public good which absolutely cannot be accomplished by buses, to wit, providing tolerable transportation across long distances.

    No, long-distance buses are not tolerable. No, airplanes as currently operated, with TSA groping and irradiating nudie scanners, are not tolerable. No, driving for days on end is not tolerable.

    Of course, they understand the importance of long-distance train service in much of the rest of the world, including Russia. But the US is SPESHUL, apparently.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    You are wrong about the long-distance trains. They serve an important public good which absolutely cannot be accomplished by buses, to wit, providing tolerable transportation across long distances.

    Nonsense. Bus them to airports (which are quite tolerable indeed) for any long distance need.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    In Russia the long-distance train service is still freight-primary. The most you can say about it is that there are daily trains to many destinations east of the Urals, so they interline and give you several trains a day on a large chunk of the Trans-Siberian. The electrification is not for the daily passenger train that goes to Vladivostok, but for long-distance fast freight; ditto the proposed speed improvements.

    Planes are intolerable, but at least they get you there in 6 hours instead of 60+. Stick a fork in all of this unless and until vactrains become feasible technology.

    Nathanael Reply:

    I’m kind of sad that planes were made intolerable by government policy. They used to be pretty neat.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The government didn’t mandate 32″ seat pitch, fuck-off-we-hate-you yield management, or repeated lining for check-in and boarding. Air travel is unbearable even independently of the TSA’s kinks.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “The electrification is not for the daily passenger train that goes to Vladivostok, but for long-distance fast freight; ”

    You want me to start criticizing the substandard American freight railroad system? OK then….

    jonathan Reply:

    Hell, yes! Let’s have at it!

    Nathanael Reply:

    FYI, I’ve got a superinsulated home (well, almost, missing part of the vapor envelope). So I know all about the home insulation issue.

    This is a project Obama actually did something on — a government fund to insulate lots of homes was a big deal in the ‘stimulus’ package. It wasn’t large enough, but it helped a lot.

  4. TomW
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 12:33

    If Republicans get their way and privatise the profitable northeast corridor, then the US taxpayer will be left with only the loss-making parts… ultimately costing the US taxpayer *more* money!
    (Maybe one way to reduce the deficit would be for the government to buy up profitable companies…)

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    I find it a bit bizarre to say that private rail service can never work because it’s inherently a monopoly, and then point to Japan as an example (“Japanese rail operators do not have to compete with air or auto travel for most of their services because of the extraordinary advantages of rail along their routes, allowing them to act as transportation monopolies”). But private rail clearly does work in Japan, so doesn’t that negate Yonah’s argument?

    (Okay, it’s definitely more complicated than that – Japanese lines are often at least somewhat duplicative, putting them in competition with other rail lines. This isn’t as common today in the US, but rail competition definitely does happen – often between rapid transit and regional rail.)

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    Oops, sorry, meant to post this as its own thread.

    Nathanael Reply:

    It’s not that it doesn’t *work* to have a private monopoly, it’s that the results are *evil*. Japan’s rail lines have mostly not been private for very long, but give them a few years and the monopolists will be reveling in their ill-gotten gains while making the riders suffer. Eventually the people will get very angry and them and will demand that they be made public, or will simply try to destroy them.

    How do we know this will happen? *It happened in the US in the 19th century*. Public hostility to railroads *arose* from the private monopolies which US railroads had in the 19th century.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Public hostility arose because farmers bitched that they weren’t making as large a profit as they wanted because the railroads charged reasonable rates.

    joe Reply:

    History fail.

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    According to Richard White in Railroaded, the opposition to railroads as monopolies came mainly from the farmers west of Chicago – the “Grangers.” And frankly, the Grangers had a point: their railroads were monopolies! The transcontinentals (which at the time really were just trans-western, since none of them west further east than Chicago) were not profitable or necessary projects, so only a few that got government help were around to compete against each other in the early days. And for the most part they weren’t really close enough to be in real competition. Compare this to the situation east of the Mississippi, where there were a zillion different routes to get from point A to point B. There were dominant companies and demonstrably better routes, but they were competitive enough to keep each other more or less in check.

    White argues the same thing about labor – that unionism was stronger out west where workers were stranded in the middle of nowhere, totally dependent on one railroad for employment. It wasn’t like back east, where you could just find employment somewhere else if the railroad you worked for treated you poorly.

    Anyway, this isn’t to say that I’m buying the monopoly argument when applied to transit today. For one, I think transit is largely a natural monopoly. But secondly, there is just too much competition from planes, buses, and cars. These aren’t perfect alternatives, but during the 1800’s there also weren’t perfect alternatives for every route – it would involve a lot of switching of trains, schlepping across town, etc. And yet, it worked pretty well.

    Ditto for Japan – there is basically only one railway company that will get you from Tokyo to Osaka: JR Central. But JR Central isn’t screwing the Japanese people – it’s investing in a friggin’ maglev that will get near-zero government support!

    And then of course there are the freight railroads in the US, which have strong monopoly power on rail in many places. The big bulk chemical and agribiz shippers always like to whine about the freights’ monopoly power, but I think most US freight rail experts agree that this is little more than rent-seeking, and the current laissez-faire approach to freight post-Staggers has worked out very well. (Robert seems to believe that UP’s opposition to CHSRA is evidence that it’s inefficient and private freight railroads don’t work, which I think is pretty myopic.)

    Now, Japanese fares are regulated, and I believe these regulations do keep fares below what JR Central would like to charge. But if JR Central were allowed to raise fares it seems pretty obvious given their past reinvestment that they’d put the money into building the Chuo Shinkansen and making other capital improvements even faster, rather than pocketing the cash like Robert and others here seem to believe.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “Now, Japanese fares are regulated, ”


    “But if JR Central were allowed to raise fares it seems pretty obvious given their past reinvestment that they’d put the money into building the Chuo Shinkansen and making other capital improvements even faster, rather than pocketing the cash like Robert and others here seem to believe.”

    Likely true for the first generation. Read _Theory of the Leisure Class_, then tell me what happens in the second generation.

    Nathanael Reply:

    We’re circling back to a point I’ve made before. Industrialist entrepeneurs are generally good for society, even if they *are* motivated partly by greed. But usually (there are occasional exceptions) the second generation controlling a business are no longer industrialists — they’re financiers. And financiers — well, keeping financiers honest requires one hell of a powerful regulatory system, and may actually be impossible.

    VBobier Reply:


    Stephen Smith Reply:

    Please explain how your theory of “second generation” business decline meshes with Japan’s successful private suburban railroads, which have been in private hands for generations (unlike the JR’s and, to a lesser extent, city metro systems, which were recently privatized). And no, you’re “but they’re landlords!” argument doesn’t fly.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Japan’s classical private railroads have been around for many decades, and are doing just fine. Their source of extra profit is TOD, which is exactly the direction JR East is moving in. For what it’s worth, the same was true of the private operators of urban and commuter rail in the US in the early 20th century; the IRT and BMT were not gouging the riders.

    The difference with the Southern Pacific octopus is the geography served. The Japanese private railroads are serving urban and suburban travel. The private railroads are operating in the big urban areas, and JR East derives the majority of its revenue from commuter travel as well. The intercity lines are either Shinkansen or legacy lines that the JRs keep, all of which were built to established urban centers rather than to frontier speculation. So there’s no reason for Japanese railroads to engage in the same practices of Western American railroads, which were building lines to nowhere.

    Nathanael Reply:

    So they’re basically landlords?

    That business model works, but ask people exactly how socially minded their landlords are.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    No. They’re conglomerates that both run transportation and develop land. The development creates long-term demand for the train service; the train service boosts the value of the real estate.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “(Maybe one way to reduce the deficit would be for the government to buy up profitable companies…)”

    This is done in saner countries.

    The reason it isn’t done in the US is that Republicans are absolutely intent on making sure the government never makes a profit. If there’s a profit, they want one of their rich buddies to make the profit. They can’t stand the idea of profit going for the public good, rather than lining the pockets of their cronies.

    This is essentially evil, but they’ve been pulling this crap for decades, since Reagan at least.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Actually, to be blunt, this was done (buying up profitable companies) by a lot of municipalities in the US back in the late 19th – early 20th century, when the Progressive movement was at its peak. Companies purchased were generally providing public goods — water service, toll roads, subways, electric distribution or generation, etc.

    It worked really well. The only reason we see the opposite behavior today is nasty rent-seeking behavior by right-wingers. “Republican” has become synonymous with “rent-seeker” these days — it wasn’t always so.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It worked, until it didn’t.

    Nathanael Reply:

    That bizarre instance of history has nothing to do with what I was talking about; it’s not an example.

    In that case Mayor Hylan decided to build a subway system *competing* with the existing subway systems, rather than buying out the existing subway systems.

    That’s *not* an example of buying up profitable companies.

    Nathanael Reply:

    If you’re thinking of unification, that is another case which doesn’t fit, because then NYC was buying up *unprofitable* companies….

    Nathanael Reply:

    And if you’re just talking about the question of whether the government should provide public goods, well, it’s obvious that it has done so successfully with both the IND and the unified system.

    So I don’t know what the hell you thought you were trying to say.

    Fact is: “It worked really well.”

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The IND was fairly schizophrenic. On the one hand, it intended to compete with the IRT and BMT, to the exclusion of providing new service (except on QB and the Crosstown Line). On the other hand, it also was built to capture various preexisting lines – it practically pointed at Culver, and the Fulton Street subway took over parts of the el.

    Of course by the time of unification the IRT was bankrupt and the BMT was also doing poorly, but in the 1920s they didn’t anticipate the Depression.

    Nathanael Reply:

    My favorite example is actually the purchase of the privately owned water supply in Ithaca by the city government.

    Following a cholera outbreak.

    The city government had to fight really hard to get the water supply out of the hands of the privateers who owned it. We’ve never had a cholera outbreak since… :-)

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Come now, the NEC is not profitable by any measure. It costs the taxpayer about a billion a year. If you employ some rather shifty accounting tactics you can claim that some of the trains show an operating surplus (call it a profit if you like) but no one, nit even Amtrak, claims that the NEC is profitable.
    So here’s a thought for those of you that think and occasionally contemplate transportation economics. Which would you rather operate and attempt to run as a business, a short haul railroad of which you own the infrastructure, much of which is worn out, and on which you have to permit other operators at subsidized rates, or a long haul system for which you pay a low per mile track rental, and all you have to do is operate the trains?

    Paul Druce Reply:

    How are the accounting techniques shifty?

    And the long haul is restricted in availability and demand while burdened by horrendous labor costs which far outweigh track fees, track fees which are far below market rate and so result in the active dislike of the train by the owner.

    Seriously, a single LD consist carries a few hundred people over several days with a dozen high labor cost employees on board and another dozenish engineers and conductors along the way. Meanwhile, an NEC consist, in the course of one shift, and operating with a theoretical low of three (engineer, conductor, cafe dude), carries about a thousand passengers at a significantly higher fare rate.

    Seriously, it’s a no brainer as to which I, or any businessman, would want to run and its not because of accounting gimmicks that the LD trains have crappy cost recoveries compared to the NEC.

    Jim Reply:

    The fact is that the long distance trains, apart from the AutoTrain (which is exceptional in many ways) and possibly the Palmetto (which is exceptional in a different way), do not cover their avoidable (incremental) costs — crew, on board staff, fuel, access fees, maintenance and turnaround, O&M of stations they solely serve — from their fare revenue. Cancel a long distance train tomorrow and Amtrak’s bottom line immediately improves. There’s no shifty accounting there. The long distance trains are money pits. Managing a money pit can be a good life but only while people are willing to throw money into it. Personally, it’d give me ulcers.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Paul Druce conveniently forgets the NEC infrastructure costs, which are Amtrak’s responsibility. At least the l/d trains contribute something to the class ones for infrastructure. And of course they turn over passengers a number of times en route, and sleeper passengers pay 4 figures for their tickets in many cases. Agreed about crew costs, which apply on all routes, but these can be renegotiated whereas worn out catenary has to be paid for come what may.
    The accounting becomes shifty when operating costs for Acela are included in the capital budget, plus a lot of other gimicks. GAAP it is not. And of course if you “cancel a long distance train tomorrow” Jim, you immediately lose the revenue, including the connecting revenue on other services, while increasing your overhead on every other service, keeping the capital cost of the rolling stock, and probably continuing to pay the employees for quite a long period. The bottom line immediately deteriorates. The l/d trains economics can be improved by renegotiating labor agreements and adding cars to every consist. The NEC will always be a money sink, even if a few trains generate a little cash.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    NEC infrastructure maintenance costs, unless Amtrak is pants on head retarded (always a possibility), are pretty marginal and easily covered by the operational surplus, though the backlog of deferred maintenance isn’t. And the relative crew costs, no matter what negotiating you manage, will always be inordinately high for LD trains compared to the NEC.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Clearly you have never been involved in running/maintaining a railroad. 4 track main, very heavy axle loads (Acela built for FRA standards) at 125mph plus, catenary 70 years old or more, swing bridges, Hudson tunnels, on and on, does not add up to marginal. This is the crux of the problem. If you can’t run a few trains between these major centers of population at an operating surplus it’s a sad thing, but that doesn’t make the system profitable. Therefore it is not privatization worthy. It will be interesting to see next year what sort of model is proposed next year if there is a regime change. I would bet they adopt the British model. It is the least successful but the most profitable for the private sector, and that’s objective.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Neither of us has been involved in running or maintaining a modern railroad, but Paul Druce and I at least know what the maintenance cost of HSR is. It’s low. Of course the Acela’s axle load is high, but it’s lower than that of any other train Amtrak runs (the difference with the Regional is small, but the difference with the diesels is very large). The TGV has an axle load of 17 t and a top speed of 300-320 km/h, the Acela has an axle load of 22 t and a top speed of 215-240 km/h, the diesels have an axle load of 33 t and a top speed of 127-177 km/h.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    The NEC is not HSR, it’s a mixed traffic railroad with old infrastructure. The Acela axle load may be lower than their diesels but (a) it’s speed that kills the track and (b) most diesel mileage is on other folks rail. By the way, “It’s low” is not a very convincing argument.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, and the Acela is slower than HSR… HSR maintenance costs are higher than low-speed rail maintenance costs, because of higher speed and tighter tolerances.

    I can try to dig up the study I’ve seen on this, but at European passenger rail axle loads, track wear is proportional to axle load. It only starts growing superlinearly at the higher axle loads of European freight locos or American diesel locos. D. P. can probably also dig up the quote from Amtrak officials saying that what chews up the tracks on the NEC isn’t any kind of passenger train but the few freights that run, since 33 t is a much bigger deal than 22 t.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Well, Amtrak would complain about the freights, since they are trying to squeeze more money, much more than they in turn pay the freights but that’s another story. Track wear is not only related to axle weight but also to maintenance of the rolling stock, suspension of the traction motors and other factors. Maintenance costs are also of course dependent on the cost of your work force and their productivity. Bottom line, and you can see this from the accounts, is that the NEC is a very expensive piece of railroad and it is not maintained from farebox revenue.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s not even an official complaint – as I recall it’s just railroader lore, for what it’s worth.

    Bottom line is, HSR maintenance costs a lot less than people think it does. It’s on the order of $100 million a year for Boston-Washington, of which not all is owned by Amtrak. You can try to use other methods to figure out from the given attributed costs what the track charge equivalent for Amtrak’s operating on its own tracks is, and it’s much higher than any European track access fee.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    it is not maintained from farebox revenue.

    And Amtrak doesn’t pay for most of it. They don’t let the commuter trains that use it flit about for free.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    That comment about freight trains being hard on NEC track was from a former Amtrak president, the late Graham Claytor. In an article in Trains from years ago, he commented that his track crews could line and surface an interlocking or junction, and his passenger trains–at that time, AEM-7s pulling Amcoaches and Heritage cars–could run over this and not cause problems, but that that one unit coal train going to a power plant would bang the switches up enough that he could feel the difference in his office car as it went over that trackwork at 120 or so. My guess is that the “feel” would be imperceptible to most people, but then Claytor was a professional railroader, and may have been more observant of just a little roughness or bounce than most others.

    I would also hazard some guesses that (a) line and surface might be easier to maintain today with better trackwork equipment and concrete ties that weren’t in use at the time of Claytor’s administration, (b) that interlockings and other special work are more sensitive to heavier loadings and impacts than plain track, and (c) I also wonder if the common problem of wheels with flat spots–something you see a fair amount of in freight trains–wasn’t yet another factor. And of course, let us recall that track irregularities, like road bumps, can be almost unfelt in lower speed ranges but become more pronounced as speed increases. Consider how important line and surface and rail profile are in the really high speed ranges of a Shinkansin or TGV, and of the intense nightly maintenance schedules such a road requires to maintain ride quality and safety at those speeds.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Amtrak owns and maintains 1,555 track-miles in the NEC and Keystone corridor. Even on a high end maintenance figure of $100,000 per track-mile, that’s only $155.5 million. According to CAHSRA, France spends 75-100K per track-mile, UIC Europe 75K, and they’re budgeting 100K, assuming each route mile is double tracked.

    Now, like I said, deferred maintenance (ie, 70 year old catenary)? Sure, that may be above and beyond the current NEC surplus generation ability (though tunnels are essentially freebies, even the absurdly old ones; Newfoundland Fixed Link estimated annual rail tunnel maintenance cost at less than one million for quite a long tunnel). But the NEC beats the hell out of long distance trains any way you look at it.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Don’t confused people with the facts Paul!!!

    The *better question* to contemplate is at what level of ridership/penetration does Acela need to break even given that it has the responsibility to manage the track and assorted infrastructure?

    The long distance trains are like the National Parks or by-pass mail program…they may lose money as an enterprise, but that’s mainly to keep accessibility in reach. I’d still argue that my consolidation plan I proposed in a post here a few months back is what NARP and others need to adopt to keep Amtrak healthy during the PRIIA shake-out.

    Moreover, it’s sort of shocking that given how popular the long distance trains services that aren’t subsidized, (like sleepers) that they don’t add capacity there given how lucrative it can be.

    Jim Reply:

    There are a bunch of Viewliner sleepers and diners on order.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The LD passengers, even the sleepers, pay much less per unit of trip length than the NEC passengers.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Agree. ATK have under priced l/d coach, for no good reason.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    They’ve also overpriced the NEC. The Regional fare per km is well above that of any HSR system I know of, and the Acela fare is even higher.

    Jim Reply:

    The good reason is there isn’t much demand. Even Amtrak will admit in writing that there are segments (the Crescent south of Atlanta, the Zephyr west of Denver) where getting passengers is like pulling teeth (Amtrak phrases it that they’re “weak markets”).

    The NARP white paper talked about how many city pairs that a given long distance train covers. It neglected to mention that most of them have little transportation demand. These are markets the bus companies have abandoned. The social justification for subsidizing the long distance routes is that the people who ride them have no other alternative. Which is another way of saying they don’t constitute a commercially viable market.

    On the other hand, the NEC is “overpriced” because there’s massive unsatisfied demand.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Jim’s comments also suggest it may have not been the best use of money, maybe not even the best idea, to build Interstate highways across much of the Dakotas, Idaho, Nevada, through Appalachia, . . .and now what do we do with the oil price spikes we’re going to get?

    jim Reply:

    it may have not been the best use of money, maybe not even the best idea, to build Interstate highways across much of the Dakotas, Idaho, Nevada, through Appalachia,

    Fixed that for you.

    If the US was going to build Interstates, then it made sense to cross the Dakotas. The (sole) Interstate across the Dakotas does much less damage than the Interstates across Massachusetts (or, for that matter, the Bronx). But it’s not clear the Interstate program was a good idea. It was hella expensive. It was justified on national security grounds. But the real problem for deployment was never getting materiel from its base to its POE, it was planning and coordination — something that was demonstrated in exercise after exercise in the ’60s and ’70s: Nifty Nugget being the poster child. Once DoD got that right, the deployment for the first Gulf War went fairly smoothly, and didn’t involve much of the Interstate system at all. There’s a fairly good argument that an expansion of the US Highway system, plus a few specifically military roads would have been much more effective than the Interstate program.

    But that’s water under the bridge.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The Acela is overpriced because of demand; the Regional is overpriced because of high operating costs. The Acela’s operating costs are also high but the trains are so short they’re at or close to capacity, and so Amtrak charges the maximum fare it can.

    Peter Reply:

    Why are the Regional’s operating costs so high in comparison to the Acela?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    To clarify, the operating costs of both are high, and those of the Acela are higher. But the Regional breaks even, whereas the Acela makes a substantial EBITDA because fares are even higher, due to high demand and limited capacity.

    Peter Reply:

    What is the status on being able to run longer Acela trains? Is that still in the works?

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Yes, Amtrak could be creating shortages to ensure that prices on the Acela stay high. But that’s not so surprising as plenty of private companies test the water on how high they can price things if they feel demand is fairly inelastic. Another benefit is that as demand for rail travel increases, Amtrak can make sure prices go up, not down.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I believe they’re still procuring additional cars for longer consists.

  5. trentbridge
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 16:45

    Sometime ago, the Alaska pipeline sprang a leak – and it wsa discovered that the particular section had not been cleaned in over a decade.

    “2006 On March 2, a surveillance crew discovered a crude oil spill near North Slope Borough, Alaska. The pipeline failure resulted in a release currently estimated at 5,000 barrels (790 m3) of processed crude oil, impacting the arctic tundra and covering approximately 2 acres (8,100 m2) of permafrost. The pipeline’s leak detection system was not effective in recognizing and identifying the failure. Failure to run cleaning pigs to remove internal corrosive build up.

    DOT letter: CPF NO.5-2006-5015H

    Corrective action required: “Perform an internal inspection using a calibrated smart pig on the PBEOA and Lisburne pipelines within 3 months of receipt of this Order.”
    “Develop and submit for approval a plan to perform internal inspections at regular intervals, not to exceed 5 years, and schedule for the repair of anomalies identified through those inspections.

    So, let’s suggest that you’re the maintenance manager for the pipeline. Let’s assume that the pipeline needs to have a cleaning pig run through it every thirty months. Let’s say it costs $5 million. Do you suggest that the cleaning pig cost be put into the next year’s budget or postponed to the following year. During the year, you are promoted – and someone takes your place as maintenance manager. Do you think he’s going to put an expensive pipeline cleaning into his first budget?

    You have a profit-driven entity in charge of maintaining the infrastructure and I can guarantee that the company will find every excuse to defer maintenance to boost profits. Any legal requirements to perform such maintenance will be fought tooth and nail as “Unnecessary and a burden on the shareholders”.

    Companies will maximize profits and cut costs as normal policy on safety issues until, of course, there’s a fatal accident on their watch.

    Jerry Reply:

    @ Trentbridge
    On Sept. 10, 2010, San Bruno, CA experienced a 30″ PG&E natural gas line explosion that leveled 35 houses and killed 8 people. More than 60 minutes passed before the utility was able to shut off the high pressure line.
    An audit revealed that PG&E had illegally diverted over $100 million from a safety operations fund to pay for executive bonuses.

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    Why are the PG&E executives in office instead of jail? Other countries would hold the corporation’s feet to the fire forthis. If this is truely the case, heads should roll, not backs get slapped for making money…

    synonymouse Reply:

    PG&E guys not in jail, but rather heading up the CHSRA.

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    Seriously? Which member(s) are now on the HSR board that had been with PG&E?


  6. Nathanael
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 16:46

    “The problem with this approach is clear: It is a recipe for monopoly control of a railroad by a private enterprise. ”

    The fact is that *this is the main goal of the modern Republican Party*. Profiteering through monopoly control.

    It’s practically a truism that private control of monopolies, so that they can profit off of the suffering of the masses, is the goal of rich capitalists. This was railed against by Teddy Roosevelt. Veblen decided it was such a truism that the interesting question was *why* they behaved this way.

    The Republican Party has been working quite strictly for the benefit of the private monopolists for decades, since Reagan at least.

    So of *course* they advocate private monoopolies. Socialize losses, privatize profits. That’s the Republican / crony-capitalist way!

    Compared to that, the confused muddle which is the Democratic Party seems positively virtuous.

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    Can we all say “CONRAIL”? I knew you could… Nope, can’t have a government company makin’ money, …


    VBobier Reply:

    Another good thing that Private Industry didn’t want foisted upon them by Repugnicans in Congress, both NS and CSX didn’t want Conrail, Congress could have spun it off as it’s own Company, it’s like some think if Government does anything it’s bad, but if Private monopolies do something it is good, even if the monopoly can do what it wants with no accountability to the Citizens of the US who are Human and vote…

    The Ghost of Jay Gould must be cheering on the modern Robber Barrons, like the KOCH brothers of KOCH Industries…

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Sigh, imagine how much easier it would be to get higher speed and then high speed rail across New York or Pennsylvania if the government still owned Conrail. And then onto Chicago. Sigh.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yeah, another Repugnican clusterbomb…

  7. joe
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 22:15

    High Speed Rail contracts
    Robert Padilla, small business program director for California High Speed Rail and former small business program manager for Caltrans, will speak at the Top 10 Asian American Business Awards Luncheon Nov. 8 at the Sheraton in Milpitas, 1801 Barber Lane. Padilla will discuss contract opportunities available for small and minority suppliers with the California High Speed Rail.
    The event is part of the annual Procurement Connections & Western Region Top 10 Asian American Business Awards event hosted by the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation Western Region.
    For more information, visit

  8. D. P. Lubic
    Oct 11th, 2012 at 22:29

    Comments on Amtrak ridership records, profitability, and privatization from Cap’n Transit:

    Of particular interest is that the NEC is not alone in covering its operating costs and a bit extra.

    TomW Reply:

    Shush… keep hat quiet, or they’ll want to privatise other bits too!

    Jim Reply:

    The Cap’n has misread the Amtrak report. Amtrak treats State subsidies as revenue. So the routes which he thinks are nearly profitable (on an EBITDA basis) aren’t. They’re routes where the State subsidy nearly covers the operating losses.

    The two Virginia routes appear to generate an operating surplus due to the way the revenue is split between the NEC and the extension into Virginia. If the revenue is divided evenly, they don’t.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    The Cap’n got a note from Paul Druce on just this point, and has posted a response:

    Oh, be sure to go back to the original post, and check out the following comments that weren’t there when I first put it up. Some interesting thoughts about how the states are looking at their support for Amtrak (quick answer–not all bad, thankfully).

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    The state subsidy issue is quite important in this debate. Back in the early 90’s RailPAC and others successfully campaigned the 2 of the San Diego trains to be extended through L.A. to Santa Barbara. The combination of higher ticket revenues from longer hauls and better equipment ut immediately led to the trains running at an operating surplus under the old 403 b program. Amtrak would have had to return money to the state. The result? Amtrak moved the goalposts, increased the fees to California by about 50%. Now the states represent a handy cash cow and that’s why Amtrak loves its “partnerships” to run state sponsored trains.

  9. Tom McNamara
    Oct 12th, 2012 at 02:16

    There’s actually a fifth option, which is likely what will happen.

    Publicly owned tracks awarded to specific concessionaires. In other words, the federal government will repeal airline deregulation in exchange for awarding each major alliance with exclusive right to operate that part of the country’s network. Competition will still be allowed between cities that don’t sit in the same HSR network.

    If this all seems a little far-fetched, consider how this is exactly what is happening with net neutrality. The government can’t stop internet service providers from effectively derailing net neutrality, so it’s goal is to protect speech by dictating the rules that customers can view sites/channels with major traffic and by giving the providers what they want a little bit, protect the goal of open access.

  10. Mike Brennan
    Oct 12th, 2012 at 08:13

    A public monopoly sounds a little unsavory. I get the concept though. In 2000 when I was traveling across Europe – especially Italy – there were many strikes by rail employees. This resulted in lots of delays, even mid-trip. The train would just stop in the middle of a route and we were told that there was a strike. Is that situation avoidable under the different frameworks for privatization? Besides just give the employees what they want (which is usually pretty reasonable).

    Derek Reply:

    If you give the employees what they want long before the union escalates the matter, your employees would wonder why they are paying union dues.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Are you familiar with SF Muni and TWU 250A?

    Call in sick and then work some gravy ot. And pee in the sanders.

    Go Stubway

    Nathanael Reply:

    This is potentially avoidable through the “contracted operations” model. Under this model, the government owns everything and the top managers are all government officials; the government contracts out individual aspects of operations (train driving, dispatching, etc.) for relatively short periods, cancellable at any time, on roughly fixed-price contracts, with the private company assuming no revenue risk.

    This is how most commuter rail operators in the US function.

    This isn’t privatization in any real sense. This is simply government contract work.

    Of course if the local unions are strong enough, any contractor will still just give the unions what they want, but that’s a different problem.

  11. John Nachtigall
    Oct 12th, 2012 at 09:20

    Make up your mind. You support private HSR efforts in Florida and CA-Las Vegas but you oppose privitazation of Amtrak because of some nebulous concerns over customer service and service of the poor? There is no evidence a privae Amtrak would do better or worse with customer service. And by your own admission, the existing Amktrak does a poor job of serving the poor so there will be no change in that at all?

    Pick an argument. You support private efforts in Florida and CA-NV but oppose a private Amtrak?

    Seeking profit is not evil and it can lead to a robust system that does not require extensive subsidies. the US air transport system required 30X less subsidies then rail

    It runs using private companies of questionable profitablility, but the key issue is that they dont require continues government support for operations and when they go bankrupt the taxpayer is not on the line for the loss.

    Of course this is irrelevent because no one is going to “buy” Amtrak since it can’t make money. The key to a private enterprise is that it actually have a buisness plan that includes profit and growth neither of which Amtrak has or will in the future.

    VBobier Reply:

    Amtrak needs lots of money to make the NEC work better with HSR, why? Cause the land there isn’t cheap and I expect their would be Nimbys to contend with outstretched hands wanting a large payoff… Sounds like CV almost in some cases…

    While the CA-Las Vegas private HSR line goes through mostly empty desert that does not have enough Nimbys to worry about, outside of a few lonely environmentalists who went off the rails years ago…

    And about Florida, well I don’t know enough about that HSR project to make any comment on it…

    I support all 3…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s nothing like the CV on the NEC.

    VBobier Reply:

    I was referring to the possibility of Nimbys in the NEC…

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    at least the NIMBYs along the NEC can’t claim that electric trains will cause the cows to go dry, the hens to stop laying and make the non dairy creamer at Starbucks curdle. It already has electric trains.

    VBobier Reply:

    True, it does, but there will always be some made up excuse. Like HSR costs too much or something, I swear some want something only if it’s priced like in other countries or for Free, I remember some saying why can’t HSR cost like in other countries? Answer: The US doesn’t have other Countries Currencies, just the US Dollar or the steel, copper and concrete which are high in demand in China, which drives up prices on those items…

  12. synonymouse
    Oct 12th, 2012 at 11:12

    Cleveland outdoes the TWU

    Nathanael Reply:

    From the news story, it seem that’s what we call an “abusive passenger”. They happen.

  13. synonymouse
    Oct 12th, 2012 at 18:31

    Also right up there with TWU 250A:

    Vote yes on 32

    VBobier Reply:

    Vote NO on 32, Corporations do not deduct money from employees checks, if they did, what would stop them from taking all but two cents a day? Answer: Nothing…

    Corporations donate money from Political campaigns directly from their profits to Super Pacs anonymously, not their obligations.

    Anyone who votes Yes on 32 is a sucker and the League of Women Voters agrees this ballot measure is disguised as reform when it is not and it’s been tried twice already in almost identical form and defeated twice by the voters.

    Business Super PACs and independent expenditure committees are exempt from Prop. 32’s controls.

    Proposition 226(the “Paycheck Protection” Initiative), voted down in 1998
    Proposition 75(Permission Required to Withhold Dues for Political Purposes), voted down in 2005
    Proposition 32(the “Paycheck Protection” Initiative), voted down in 2012…
    (Prop 32 is trash and it should be voted down for a 3rd time, but We’ll find out on November 6th and 7th 2012).

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    It looks like Koch Bros and Carl Rove are for it, so count me as against it. CA is not for sale, ask Mega-MEG…


  14. jimsf
    Oct 13th, 2012 at 09:00

    Meanwhile parisians are ableto do this just because they felt like it.

  15. joe
    Oct 14th, 2012 at 10:54

    Attacks on HSR using divisive misinformation.

    KRIS A. UPTON: No on 30; use high-speed rail funds

    We need to vote no on Proposition 30 and take the billions of dollars that will be wasted on the high-speed rail fairytale and give that money to our schools.

    We need to send Gov. Jerry Brown to Mars to attend a strategic planning conference (or anything else that will get him out of California) and we need to vote for fiscally conservative, pro-business candidates like Jack Mobley.

    Read more here:

    synonymouse Reply:

    Yeah, vote no early and often on Props. 30 and 38. Yes on 32.

    But of course the zombie electorate will instead vote to tax themselves and give the proceeds to Pelosi’s pet unions. Might as well be done with it and eliminate the two-term presidential limit and elevate our own variation of Hugo to supreme power for life. Just forget about elections as with DiFi. Who needs them when you have the right and beknighted people in place.

    Panem et circenses et cheap dope for the masses. And medical probation for all the creeps, Jerry’s kids.

    Historians speculate the Black Death of 1348-49 as a primary cause of the Renaissance. I can see the logic.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Paleobiologists are also pretty certain that a mass extinction event 65 million years ago allowed dinosaurs to die off and be replaced by mammals.

    If you vote 30 down, all you get is a special session of the Legislature trying to find more money to patch the hole and the HSR money isn’t touchable because it’s bond funds…..

    synonymouse Reply:

    The idea is the loss of 30 might just wake Jerry up out of his PB-induced coma. He claims he is cost-conscious – there is $5bil to save at Tejon plus faster schedule and ongoing economies.

    Changes can be made. Visualize the Indiana cornfield scene in “Casino”. But instead of the Spilatro bros. it’s Antonovich, Villa and Barry Zoeller called to the meet and Jerry goes to the trunk to fetch the Louisville sluggers.

    joe Reply:

    If 30 fails then your State provided meds and services will be impacted.

    synonymouse Reply:

    No Moonbeam oxy for me

    But if #30 tanks, hsr goes into limbo and the foamers all get into a deep funk you can try sub-lingual roxinol. I heard a little extra and it’s adios. Apparently it happens occasionally to the geriatric set.

    joe Reply:

    Prop 30 is not going to make or break HSR. The Feds will continue to offer money to build it out. Then You’ll really need those meds. So vote yes. Keep the pills coming.

  16. joe
    Oct 14th, 2012 at 11:17

    With Caltrain electrification coming, Burlingame city officials are set to discuss grade separation options for the Broadway crossing.

    …Burlingame has six at-grade railroad crossings …

    Six options are suggested to start the conversation ranging from keeping the rail at-grade and creating a street overcrossing for $114 million to a depressed rail with the street remaining at-grade for $500 million…

    Public Works Director Syed Murtuza wrote that Broadway has the worst problems due to the high volume of traffic in the area. Traffic problems started in the early 1960s. Several studies of options to alleviate traffic through grade separation have been completed since then but none have resulted in changes, he wrote.

    Currently the [Caltrain electrification] project is set to include electrification without changing the grade separations, Murtuza wrote. Without changes, traffic could continue to be a problem or worsen if the Broadway station was to open.

    In terms of high-speed rail, the city of Burlingame has long advocated for an underground tunnel rather than raising the tracks through town. If that option proves to be cost prohibitive, residents have often pushed for the city to take a no-build stand.

    The council will also discuss the new environmental impact report for electrification and the revision or withdrawal of the high-speed rail/Caltrain memorandum of understanding
    In other business, the council will introduce an ordinance eliminating the limit on the number of restaurants in the Burlingame Avenue area.

    Traffic problems since 1960.
    Several studies have resulted in no changes.
    Tunnel option maybe cost prohibitive (for Burlingame residents).

    Bet on Burlingame doubling down on thestatus quo – Burlingame will do nothing and oppose any changes to the ROW and vote against the HSR project.

    The City will relax the 1985 imposed limit on the number of restaurants allowed, which gives an idea the city culture.

    Derek Reply:

    Since grade separation will eventually be needed for HSR, perhaps some of the cost could be covered by the CHSRA when the time comes. To save money, I think I’d hold off on any grade separation projects until then.

    joe Reply:

    That is a reasonable expectation.

    There is, however, County money available and one crossing is tops on the State’s list of Grade crossings needed improvement.

    Burlingame, as a City, expects a tunnel or they’ll oppose HSR. I’m not even sure they acknowledged the blended approach will run trains on the electrified ROW and require grade separations.

    My hope is the Mayor knows HSR is coming but politically must use Caltrain electrification and traffic congestion as the motivation for planning grade separations at each of the 6 crossings. Then they’ll advance to step 2, which is do engage the HSR project on options for joint funding.

    My money rests on them not planning for HSR.

    Derek Reply:

    They have until 2029 to complete grade separation. They only need electrification for the 2026 deadline.

    By “tunnel,” does that include any below-grade option? I would think a tunnel would be more expensive than “depressed rail with the street remaining at-grade for $500 million”.

    joe Reply:

    1. I thought the projected competed in 2019. Once completed, train frequency should increase and gates lowered more frequently. That worsens traffic so IMHO grade separations would be best done sooner and coordinated with HSR.

    “The work could be done before 2019, said Caltrain Chief Executive Officer Michael Scanlon.
    Read more:

    A total of $39.8 million was approved Thursday, the first step in Caltrain’s $1.46 billion plan to electrify its train system by 2019. The positive train control system is a necessary precursor for the upcoming electrification project.

    Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

    2. “tunnel” may, in Burlingame, be synonymous with “trench”. I think the City, as quoted in the article, is not paying close attention and believes HSR can be put underground. They’re 100% in control and there’s no way the State can build HSR without Burlingame’s permission.

    Derek Reply:

    Yes, Caltrain is trying to get electrification done by 2020 (or 2019), but electrification isn’t needed for CAHSR until 2026, and then grade separation isn’t needed until 2029.

    joe Reply:

    I think the City is motivated to fix the at grade crossings due to any kind of train blocking traffic.

    Waiting until 2029 is fine with me. Really, keep it as is. It’s just one less place along the ROW where business will want to relocate and one less competitor for ROW improvement funds. Let the Whole Peninsula daydream. I expect Gilroy will get that downtown station and ROW improvement sooner than later.

    synonymouse Reply:

    The solution is to electrify and upgrade Caltrain and fuggedabout hsr, which can enter via Dumbarton and terminate at SFO. Fuggedabout Pacheco and Tehachapi as well.

    J. Wong Reply:

    Either way Burlingame doesn’t get what it wants. Even without HSR Caltrain is going to want to grade separate in Burlingame, and no way is Burlingame going to get a tunnel.

    synonymouse Reply:

    No tunnel for sure and probably no trench – PB don’t play no trenches – insufficiently Brutalist.

    Grade separations good; electrified Caltrain good; hsr-PB-MTC bad.

    May rodent armies megatunnel Barry Zoeller’s golf course.

    J. Wong Reply:

    Hmm, PB don’t play no trenches except from Colma to San Bruno. For every claim that you make @syno, it’s not difficult at all to come up with a concrete example that contradicts your statement.

  17. synonymouse
    Oct 14th, 2012 at 14:06

    Have you checked out PB at Daly City? You know Quentin Kopp was in on gold-plating the kSFO extravanganza. I am sure Richard can clue us in on technically why PB had to pass on aerials Colma to San Bruno.

    PB’s Brutalist corporate culture calls for the ugliest and noisiest possible. BART is a monument to that mindset. PAMPA will have to hire its own engineers, like Berkeley, and fight PB, like Bechtel before it, over every inch of the route.

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