Amtrak Loses A Ton of Money Each Year. So What?

Mar 3rd, 2013 | Posted by

Over at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog on Friday Brad Plumer got some attention for a post titled Amtrak loses a ton of money each year. It doesn’t have to.

That’s technically true. It doesn’t have to lose a ton of money each year. But so what if it does? The point of transportation isn’t to make money, it’s to provide a public service and make it easy for people to get around. All forms of transportation are subsidized, so why should Amtrak be singled out?

Amtrak Train

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s see what the post actually says:

First, there are Amtrak’s shorter passenger routes that run less than 400 miles and tend to connect major cities. Think of the Acela Express in the Northeast, or the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and Los Angeles. These 26 routes carry four-fifths of Amtrak’s passengers, or 25.8 million riders per year. And they’re growing rapidly. Taken as a whole, these shorter routes are profitable to operate — mainly because the two big routes in the Northeast Corridor earn enough to cover losses elsewhere.

Then there are Amtrak’s 15 long-haul routes over 750 miles. Many of these were originally put in place to placate members of Congress all over the country, and they span dozens of states. This includes the California Zephyr route, which runs from Chicago to California and gets just 376,000 riders a year. All told, these routes lost $597.3 million in 2012.

Well, the long-distance routes were originally put in place 150 years ago because that was the entire point of transcontinental rail – to get people from one part of the country to another. Amtrak didn’t originate these routes, they just continued operating them after the National Railroad Passenger Corporation was created in 1971.

Those routes have been continued not solely because members of Congress want it, but because it is just smart to have passenger trains connecting America. As the climate crisis continues to worsen, it makes sense to not only maintain long-distance passenger rail service, but to improve it by electrifying the trains, adding more trains on existing routes, and bringing back service on other routes. If America is going to have passenger rail, shouldn’t we have a genuine national network, rather than small disconnected pieces of service everywhere?

One point to be made here is that the long-haul routes don’t have “low ridership,” despite what the post implies. Many of these trains, like the Coast Starlight, routinely have a large percentage of the seats on the trains filled. Ridership would rise if more trains were operated, and with more trains comes more profit. One reason that the short haul routes are more profitable is they have more trains, leading to not just more revenue but also a reduction of operating costs as a portion of an individual fare given economies of scale.

Of course, other forms of long-distance transportation face similar issues. Do the long stretches of often empty interstate freeways pay for themselves? Not likely. But the post continues on with the assumption that something needs to be done about the money-losing but still valuable long-distance routes:

So what can be done? The Brookings report argues that Congress should arrange a deal with the states for these 15 longer money-losing Amtrak routes. If a route is losing money, then the states along its path should negotiate how best to provide financial support and fill the hole. (Under the Brookings plan, they’d be allowed to use federal transportation funds.) If the states can’t or won’t chip in, then the routes get pared back.

As it happens, this sort of arrangement is already in place for Amtrak’s 26 short-haul routes — Congress set it up back in 2008. States have already been supporting these shorter routes, and this fall, they’ll have to increase their share. That’s expected to reduce Amtrak’s operating losses by a further $180 million. The Brookings report essentially argues that Congress should set up a similar deal for longer routes — a complicated but doable task.

Even if you think that the long-distance routes are a financial problem that needs to be addressed, I don’t see how dumping the costs onto the states is any sort of solution. States have less fiscal flexibility than does Congress. It’s been the job of the federal government to provide for interstate travel infrastructure for about the last 200 years, although the turn away from that is further sign of the inherently Jacksonian nature of today’s political opposition to government spending.

A national rail network should be nationally funded. Whether or not that network makes money should be much, much lower on the priority list. It’s OK to say we should continue funding, and expand, long-distance passenger rail service even if it never turns a dime in profit. Transportation infrastructure creates its own value in benefits to communities along the route, in money saved for travelers over driving or flying, and in carbon emission reductions.

Figuring out how to fund additional passenger rail service, from a local streetcar to a national bullet train network, overnight long-distance Amtrak trains, and everything in between, is an important matter. But insisting that passenger rail turn a profit, unlike any other form of transportation in America, or be dumped off onto states with less ability to fund their operations is neither necessary nor sound.

  1. D. P. Lubic
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 16:03
    #1

    It’s been pointed out before, and it’s worth bringing up again–the highway system loses multiples MORE money, and no one expects it to show a “profit.” It’s just a double standard and rigged game, that’s all.

    Start requiring the road system to pay for itself, outlaw anything other than user fees to pay for the highway system (and the air system, too), and the requirement for rail subsidy will go away at light speed.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Alternately, Amtrak’s cost recovery ratio (operations only) is now just under 87%. It might not take too much to get to 100%, and if you can do that, you can eventually start going to a true positive return that includes capital costs. Do that, and outside of outright sabotage of one sort or another (which is what the road builders got to do for so long), then there’s nothing to stop a considerable expansion of rail service.

    Question is, how do we get there? My first comments at this stage would be more equipment (this is reportedly Amtrak’s biggest problem currently), improving rail freight operation and cooperation (who knows how we do this?), and expansion of the system with several new routes and a minimum of double-daily service on all lines. Essentially, this is taking us back to 1970, or perhaps 1960; it’s based on the principle of spreading out the overhead of the entire system to get lower unit costs and to also expand the market of the system as a whole. This would also tie in with the various HSR services that have been proposed as well, possibly might demonstrate the need for them, too.

    We do have some advantages to work with, including a disillusionment with driving by younger people, an apparently widening recognition that Amtrak operates under a variety of handicaps, and another recognition that the road system is very heavily subsidized, all things that should make selling this program easier.

    Any other ideas?

    swing hanger Reply:

    I think the irrecoverable reality is that Amtrak and passenger rail will always have the deck stacked against it- the US decided back in the 1950′s to go whole hog on motorization, suburbanization and air travel.

    Given this reality, rather than merely throwing money at any and all Amtrak routes, what needs to be done is to get Amtrak (or whatever it’s called in the future) in a position to maximize it’s potential on the routes it has a competitive advantage in or potential for future growth- and I don’t necessarily mean generating profits, but at least covering operating costs. I think sectorization into regional bodies is necessary- NEC, California, Midwest, PacNW, etc. where funding comes not only from the Fed. govt, but states, and possibly private investment.

    If long distance is deemed necessary, ok, but keep it separate, with a bipartisan understanding that it will require subsidy as a public service, or else use the “luxury cruise train” model and charge premium prices that cover costs, and tack on two (comfortable) coaches on the back of the train for accomodation passengers (i.e. for Aunt Edna who needs to get to the big city 150 miles away to see the cardiologist).

    jimsf Reply:

    thats pretty much the way it works now already. The NEC get all the attention. The feds and states work together with partnerships to meet the needs in those states that want to participate.
    the sleeper “cruise train” portion of the train is not subsidized. The feds will not subsidize first class travel for passenger, only the coach rail fares are subsidized. Even employees have to pay for sleepers, and employee coach fares are based on availablity. Hardly a month goes by now without more and more new penny pinching policies and procedures. i just heard there were a bunch of layoffs this year. More to come likely. Even lost and found items which used to go to charity after 6 months, are now being sold off to companies who do god knows what with the stuff, so camtrak can pull in a few more nickels. Its liekly that thousands more people will be laid off in the coming years. The long distance trains which used to have a wait staff, a trained chef, line cook dishwasher etc, are down to running the dining car with just a couple of people. Tain attendants in each car, down to one for 3 or cars. all while OTP and customer satisfaction are up. along with ridership and revenue.
    Delays on amtrak are fewer than delays on planes, and certainly there are fewer amtrak delays than there are traffic delays.

    So as robert points out, at some point you say is there some value in the pittance we spend on amtrak. yes there is.

    And aside from getting a lot of mostly very happy satisfied people to their destination, safely, and comfortably, teh biggest benefit is that we are introducing new people to rail travel everyday and they love it. Which means when its time to open or propose new high speed lines and other improvments, you have a built in base to get on the bandwagon from the start.

    i would love to see any other mode of transport in america be scrutinized and treated like everyones political bitch, the way amtrak is. Instead of being given obscene buckets of cash without question.

    blankslate Reply:

    Delays on amtrak are fewer than delays on planes, and certainly there are fewer amtrak delays than there are traffic delays.

    They may be fewer, but they are bigger when they happen. I have taken 5 or 6 LD trains, and the average difference between my scheduled time of arrival and actual time of arrival is +5 hours. I have never been delayed 5 hours on a flight, nor have I ever experienced traffic that made me 5 hours late on a drive.

    Even short Amtrak trips can experience delays that dwarf their length. I think the worst I’ve ever experienced was on a trip from Davis to Sacramento (15 minutes) when the train was held for 2 hours on the causeway. It certainly has never taken me 2:15 to drive that route, even in the worst traffic imaginable.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Is Buffalo “midwest” or is Buffalo “NEC branch”. How about Pittsburgh?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Both are NEC branches. They look closer to the Midwest on a map, but both cities have stronger social ties to the East Coast if you look at metro area-to-metro area migration numbers.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Yet the western New York and western Pennsylvania accents are Midwestern-ish. Different Midwestern accents if you believe the maps Google finds.

    Woody Reply:

    Well, nevermind social ties. Politically they are in NEC states. Pittsburgh has very close ties with Harrisburg — it’s the state capital, and with Philly, not far beyond. Buffalo with Albany, and NYC, likewise. Add the strong business ties, banks, sports team rivalries, etc.

    But yes, it’s silly to try to decide into which fragment of a rail system these or other cities best belong. It’s really silly to think of chopping Amtrak up into regions when it works well as a system, a network. One thing we know from Amtrak is that its routes are overlapping city-pairs, whether corridor or long distance.

    The dead-end stump trains, like the one-a-day Pennsylvanian, are at a disadvantage. You can’t buy tickets to ride the Pennsylvanian from Philly, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Altoona, Johnstown, or Pittsburgh to points west, like Alliance, Cleveland, Toledo (with Thruway bus connections to Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, and Lansing), South Bend, or Chicago and thousands of additional destinations beyond.

    The long distance trains do indeed feed passengers onto the corridors. When trains pull into Chicago Union Station having crossed the Rockies and the Great Plains, they’re full of folks who won’t spend a day in the Windy City. These riders are heading to Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, to Bloomington and Springfield, to Champaign and Carbondale, and another thousand places the Amtrak system will take them.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Strong*er* ties to the East Coast, but there are still strong ties between upstate NY and PA (on the one hand) and Chicago (on the other). In fact, the Midwest has pretty strong ties to the East Coast.

    If you’re really thinking in terms of cultural / migration linkages, the Midwest and the Northeast are quite tightly linked. Actually, the majority of the US is quite uniform and quite tightly linked, with migration among California, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, the Midwest, and the Northeast being quite large, period.

    The exceptional aread is “the South” (from Texas to Georgia, very roughly speaking), which is very, very different. History rears its head.

    Nathanael Reply:

    I’m from upstate NY, mostly. When I visit Maine, or Maryland, or Ohio, or Michigan, or Missouri, or Minnesota, or Washington State, or Colorado, or California, it feels “normal”.

    When I visit Virginia or Kentucky, it feels slightly weird. When I visit Texas or South Carolina, it feels EXTREMELY weird.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    That’s not really true. There’s IRS data that I used to have free access to but no longer do. A couple of crib notes I remember:

    1. Very strong links between the East Coast and Florida. Not counting satellite MSAs, the New York MSA’s number one gross migration partner MSA is Miami, just ahead of Philadelphia.

    2. The Northeast exists as a region, with a coastal core. After Miami, New York’s top MSA links are to Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston. The other three’s top MSA link is to New York. Los Angeles is there in the rankings, but far lower relative to how big it is.

    3. Both Buffalo and Pittsburgh have stronger gross migration ties to New York/Boston/Washington/Philly than to Chicago, Cleveland, etc.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    People move for lost of reasons.
    Retirees move to where it’s warmer. It’s cheap and easy to get from the Northeast and Midwest to Florida. So when Gramdma and Grandpa move to Boca, a few years later when one of the kids has to find a new job, one of the options is to move closer to Mom and Dad.
    People who aren’t moving to get someplace warmer are probably moving for a better job. There are more jobs on the East Coast, the kind people move for, than there are in the Midwest.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The decisions of the 1950s will be reversed just as soon as the old fogies (roughly speaking, Obama’s age and up) retire and die off. The US will go back to investing in rail and will allow the unsustainable expressways to fall apart. In cities, the expressways will be demolished; in rural areas they’ll probably be tolled and if that doesn’t cover the costs they’ll just be left to rot.

    The fact is, most Americans these days want passenger trains. They don’t want expressways. And on top of that, railroads are cheaper to maintain and cheaper to build than roads. A LOT cheaper — and the advantage gets bigger every year. It takes a while to turn around a giant bureaucracy, but it’s turning around.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    a minimum of double-daily service on all lines

    Gawd I’m getting old… the first thing I though when reading that was “Can we have exacta service too?” How ’bout trifecta, superfecta”

    political_incorrectness Reply:

    Not really a double standard but I see mostly that the public believes because there is a gas tax that the roadways are fully covered. It mostly would be about educating the public but of course the MSM does not want that, nor the car and oil companies. http://taxfoundation.org/blog/response-randal-otoole-road-funding The back and forth on this debate has actually been quite interesting and I hope there continues to be this debate because that will set the standard on what is considered a charge to users.

    Reedman Reply:

    A reminder that there are two gasoline taxes: the excise tax and the sales tax.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Does a sales tax on restaurants go to a dedicated restaurant funding source?

    Chad Reply:

    Sales tax is irrelevant, unless you believe that if the money wasn’t spent on gas, it wouldn’t have been spent at all. In reality, any money spent on gas it money NOT spent on something else, so there is no net gain in sales tax revenue when gasoline is purchased.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    In many states motor fuel is exempt from sales taxes.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Gas tax is exempt from sales tax in almost all states which have a gas tax.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Not the tax on a gallon, the fuel itself.

  2. Alon Levy
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 16:06
    #2

    If you weren’t trying to justify more funding for rail, would you wave away the Gang of Four corruption as “the long-distance routes were originally put in place 150 years ago because that was the entire point of transcontinental rail – to get people from one part of the country to another”?

    California’s prosperity today makes it easy to ignore real questions about whether it’s desirable to spend massive amounts of money on imperial infrastructure.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    The transcontinental railroads ought to have been built, but not in the corrupt and privatized way they were in the 19th century. The US would have been better off building them as publicly owned infrastructure as we did with the Interstates a century later – a funding decision made in deliberate reaction against the transcontinental railroad experience. But we didn’t do that in the 1860s in part because anti-spending ideology, handed down from the days of Jackson, ruled the political world and even the Republicans, heirs to the Whig Party and its support of national infrastructure spending, weren’t willing to go quite that far.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    But why? What did people who did not work for the railroads get out of this? More population dispersal? More company towns? Destruction of the Plains Indians? More cities in the deserts while the eastern half of the country was under no population pressure? What’s the point of this empire building? And don’t say California; other than the weather and the oil there’s nothing that’s done there that wouldn’t have been done in Ohio or something.

    Eric Reply:

    1. The Great Plains are now the world’s breadbasket, and various places in the West have great mineral wealth.

    2. The “safety valve” theory: each poor disgruntled Easterner who heads west is one less who will participate in a revolution, like those Europe had in 1789, 1848, etc.

    3. As you say, empire building. To secure US sovereignty in the West against the Indians, Mexicans, and whoever else might want to take it from us.

    TomA Reply:

    Yes – Ohio is the prime location for access to the Pacific.

    Ant6n Reply:

    How dare those Indians want to take their land away from US

    Eric Reply:

    I didn’t say it was perfectly moral, just that it was perfectly logical.

    John Burrows Reply:

    Had more powerful weapons been available to the Indians—weapons such as CEQA which has been used so effectively by the NIMBYS—The Transcontinental Railroad might by now be almost all the way through environmental review—And there would still be plenty of buffalo.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Not everyone thinks of that as a bad thing.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Alon — the opportunity to steal Native American land was a BIG motivator. You didn’t have to work for the railroads to enjoy the cheap, cheap land in the West…

    If you look at the embarassing saga of the Union Pacific, its initial period involved a scheme to make the railroad as twisty as possible in order to maximize the land grant land. It had to be reorganized and management replaced in order for it to actually bother to head towards California.

    BeWise Reply:

    I don’t know about you Robert, but I think our private freight railroad companies have done a fantastic job of transporting goods and cargo across the country, in addition to reinvesting in themselves. Many say our freight railroad system is the envy of the world, and for good reason. Having them publicly built, owned and operated would have only lead to the same types of significant problems that came with the construction of the interstate highway system (roads to nowhere that nobody uses out in desolate regions). Had the railroads been driven by the public sector, it’s very likely that routes would’ve been driven by politics rather than what the market called for. A la Palmdale?

    Nathanael Reply:

    Our freight railroad system is OK. However, Russia’s is just as good, and arguably better. And it is publicly built, owned, and operated.

    flowmotion Reply:

    Private railroads built tons of “roads to nowhere”. Much of the investment was the results of Wall Street hysteria, and the lines were “reorganized” (went bankrupt) many times. The whole system was taken over by the government during the first world war to “rationalize” it. The current freight rail system is the result of a lot of pruning.

    BeWise Reply:

    Besides, since when was government exempt from its share of corruption and bribery? Have you seen what’s been going on with this state’s HSR project? At least the private sector has an incentive to keep costs down.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Most of the private sector has NO incentive to keep costs down. Please do some research on CEO looting of companies; this is done *entirely* by escalating “costs”. You could also look up the early history of the Union Pacific — or a number of the other railroads in the “land scam” period of railroading. Some railroads never actually built any railroad and were run purely as stock market scams.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Some? It made the dot.com bust look tame.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    For background–one of the most notorious capitalists of all time:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Drew

    http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h864.html

    A couple of his friends:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Fisk_(financier)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Gould

    And then there was this boy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_C._Durant

    No wonder there was so much anti-corporation feeling in this country in the period prior to WW II.

  3. Ant6n
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 16:46
    #3

    Aren’t the shorter trains (except for NEC trains) “profitable” only in the sense that they are subsidized by the states rather than the feds? Why can a train be considered profitable when states subsidize them, but when the feds subsidize them they are considered losing a ton of money?

    Ant6n Reply:

    As an aside: if Amtrak is charging the states for the operation of rail services, i.e. it turns from a national passenger operator to a passenger operator for hire, wouldn’t it only be fair if they could bid out the operation and give them to another operator (which of course would have to get the same track-access as amtrack)?

    swing hanger Reply:

    +1

    Jim Reply:

    They can now. I expect BNSF to eventually take over operating the Cascades. It already runs Sounder.

    Ant6n Reply:

    So Amtrak has access to track, and the track owners — not much competition for operating passenger rail lines. Maybe with the funding that is thrown at the railroads to upgrade their tracks, the States should get the right to have slots on the tracks — which they ould use to have competitive bids operating them.

    jimsf Reply:

    states can choose any qualified operator. In fact, it common to choose one for a while then change to another when the contract is up.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The Class Is would fight pretty hard if the states were given the right to run passenger trains on their tracks — right now, only Amtrak has that as a legal right. Now, I’m all for it, but you should be aware that BNSF, UP, CN, CP, CSX, and NS would oppose it.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    In most states when the railroad says out of one side of it’s mouth that the land is too valuable to be used for this that or the other thing the tax assessors all up and down the line listen very carefully, get out the really sharp pencils and start looking over old tax bills. One of the Classis, I forget which, loves to sell off ROW. If the state owns it there are no property taxes to assess….

    Nathanael Reply:

    NS prefers to be a tenant of the state, and Wick Moorman has said as much.

    Woody Reply:

    Ant6n said, “With the funding that is thrown art the railroads to upgrade their tracks, the states should get the right to have slots …”

    That’s pretty much how it is now.

    For example, in mid-December, Amtrak extended a Regional train that came from Boston to Richmond to go on to Norfolk, on NS tracks. The State of Virginia paid for improvements to the tracks. The plan is for the state to put in more money and get two more frequencies added within a few years. These investments in better right of way were part of a package deal including revenue guarantees to Amtrak, that if ridership did not meet certain levels, Virginia would cover any losses. (btw, Based on the first month or so of barn-burning results, there won’t be any losses for Virginia to cover, which could help bring forward more trains to Norfolk and/or an extension of the Lynchburger to Roanoke.)

    This relates back to Robert’s post about losing routes. Depending on the freight operator and the route, the negotiations to get slots for passenger trains can be hairy. The freights owning trackage in the Northwest wanted half a billion in upgrades to restart long-abandoned passenger service Denver-Salt Lake City-Boise-Portland-Seattle. It’s much cheaper to keep an existing service going than for a state (or Amtrak) to restart passenger service. But deals can be done. In this Norfolk example, the freight road will also benefit from about $100 million spent on better, safer grade crossings and other work done to start the passenger train(s).

  4. trentbridge
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 16:59
    #4

    An Amtrak with all “current generation” rolling stock and twice as much as it has now would be much closer to profitable. You can’t expect better results if Congress only gives you enough money to replace the current equipment “average age 28 years old” over a decade or so. Ordering seventy new locomotives and 130 new long-distance carriages is a start to improving the situation but Amtrak couldn’t handle sixty million passengers a year without much bolder investment. At peak travel times, like Thanksgiving, the system is already operating at the capacity of the physical rolling stock. Maintenance is then deferred so every possible car can be utilized at such times. The easiest productivity gains are a) lengthening trains or B) increasing the frequency of existing trains from less than daily to daily or from daily to twice daily.

    swing hanger Reply:

    Yes, more rolling stock is good, and is a visible and easily understood (by the general public) improvement, but what also needs to be looked at is operating practices- improving turnaround times, eliminating archaic steam-era rules, incremental line speed increases (particularly in terminal areas) and improving relationships with the track owning freight rr’s.

    Nathanael Reply:

    (1) Operating practices. The really problematic ones are entirely caused by the FRA, NOT by Amtrak. Amtrak has gotten rid of all the archaic steam-era rules, except the ones retained by the FRA. (In contrast, LIRR retains steam-era rules.)
    (2) Improving relationships with the freight rrs. I have been following this for decades, and this situation is entirely, 100%, the freight RR’s fault. The way to “improve relationships” with them is for Congress or the STB to smack the freight RRs upside the head and punish them when they don’t cooperate with Amtrak. Period.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The FRA doesn’t require single-file queuing at train stations.

    swing hanger Reply:

    I wonder if Amtrak could send management trainees to intern for a year at organizations like SBB or JR East- I think they would learn a thing or two…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I don’t know whether they teach people in American schools that that’s what Japan did in the late 19th century, but they definitely taught that at my off-brand IB school in 8th grade.

  5. Ryan
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 17:09
    #5

    Why pick on the California Zephyr? Moving 367,000 people a year turns out to be 1,000 people a day. That’s 1,000 people that don’t use the gas and oil it takes to drive themselves, or demand that 3-6 new plane trips and subsequent fuel usage be available.

    A thousand people a day is nothing to scoff at.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    CAHSR is expecting 200,000 people per day at full build-out.

    Woody Reply:

    These aren’t “either/or”. It’s “both/and”.

    The US has lost its former train culture. Trying to talk to most politicians about HSR seems to them like talking about Moon bases. And where trains have a really bad reputation — “always late” “dirty” “those people” — it’s hard to make a case for an entirely new and different kind of passenger rail.

    (Amtrak’s biggest achievement in recent years probably was to raise the onetime performance figures from the 60s up into the mid-80 per cents. Almost as important was adding Wi-Fi. The two moves really helped to change the brand image.)

    Meanwhile conventional Amtrak is the teaching tool. Illinois paid to add trains between St Louis and Chicago, from 3 a day to 5. Capacity went up 67% and ridership went up 100%. Simple figures like that the politicians can understand. So now over $1 billion is being spent to speed up the tracks and order new equipment for this and other Midwestern routes. When the faster routes are running full, and more or less break-even on operating costs, it will be easier to sell true HSR between Chicago and its big city neighbors.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Congresscritters are on the Acela all the time. It’s much easier to shake the money trees in Manhattan if you are actually in Manhattan. Of course the Congresscritters who tell their constituents that Washington is evil and so is the rest of the East Coast, don’t tell their constituents that they take the train to Manhattan to attend fund raisers.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    But they ride the business class car (or I guess first class on Acela), so it doesn’t count as socialism. If it’s good enough for George Will, it ought to be good enough for everyone.

  6. Derek
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 18:39
    #6

    The point of transportation isn’t to make money, it’s to provide a public service and make it easy for people to get around.

    Making it easy for people to get around facilitates commerce, which brings more revenue to the government. With direct and indirect returns, there’s no reason why the government should lose money on investments in transportation infrastructure.

    joe Reply:

    I’m not 100% in agreement with Robert’s framing.

    Transportation and infrastructure services generate a wealth of revenue in the form of economic growth and increased tax revenue. The government does NOT lose money on transportation and infrastructure – it just not do direct, full cost recovery on operations.

    Rail is a less expensive alternative to non-rail solutions such as expanding road capacity and air travel. It is also a provides a more diverse, and resilient transportation system (a good thing).

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    My view is that if we accept conservative framing – that rail has to be profitable – then we are going to lose no matter what we do.

    joe Reply:

    And my view is to change the framing of the argument. AMtrak out performs Roads: Safer, less costly less pollution and cheaper than alternatives. Fails to fully examine all private, Government and societal costs.

    I would not accept “profit” as a way to describe the service.

    IF Profitable then
    Privatize
    Else
    Cut.

    It’s lose – lose.

    “Profit” also divides rail into a set of Good and Bad service.

    Brookings is plain nuts. This is interstate commerce and interstate service – a core federal responsibility. Confederate solutions to rail are nonsense. One state’s refusal to shoulder responsibility can ruin the entire line. The line has to be maintained and interstate rail is a Federal Responsibility. They’re not even wrong – it’s that ridiculous.

    As for the POST – it’s a continued drag on the Corporation. Brad Plumer might tune his keen mind for business operations on the POST. Maybe shed some costs for the shareholders and set an example.

    Newspaper Publishing revenue came in at $162.1 million, down 6% from the year-ago quarter. Print advertising revenue at The Washington Post tumbled 12% to $67.5 million, reflecting a fall in general and retail advertising.

    Revenue from newspaper online publishing activities, principally washingtonpost.com and Slate, jumped 5% to $33.1 million, whereas display online advertising revenue climbed 7%. Online classified advertising revenue dipped 2%.

    During 2012, Post daily and Sunday circulation fell 8.6% and 6.2%, respectively, from the year-ago period.

    The Newspaper division’s operating income came in at $2.6 million compared with $6.8 million in the prior-year quarter.

    Let’s see the POST stop publishing that boat anchor newspaper, cull the corporate herd. It’s axiomatic.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Wonkblog is about the only part of the WaPo that’s salvageable.

    joe Reply:

    The site is nothing without the newspaper branding that’s behind it.
    The website is piggybacking on the newspaper’s branding but book-kept separate – it is non union. Print paper is union.

    “.COM” is a drop in the bucket compared to the Kaplan Education Prep monster that brings in 500+ M.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Depends on who the readers are. Those of us who care about policy have been reading Ezra Klein since not long after he was out of college, sometimes even before that. Wonkblog is basically the same thing he was doing in The Health of Nations only on a bigger scale. If the For-Profit College Post wants to spend money on giving him more cred with the Beltway insider crowd, I’m for it; that’s money they’re not spending on scamming more students into going to their sham college.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Heh. Decent summary. Ezra Klein’s a mediocre pundit — he’s definitely been pandering to conventional wisdom — but he’s less stupid than the Beltway insider crowd. I stopped reading Klein a while back because he never said anything I hadn’t found a better analysis of elsewhere (Atrios usually links to everyone good).

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Still, you have to give him credit for figuring out that US health care is way less efficient than single-payer, almost Pareto less efficient, before most other people did. And yeah, he’s very establishmentarian, but he’s been that way since forever. When the For-Profit College Post hired him, one of the commenters at my local watering hole at the time said, “What except for his entire writing career could make us believe he aspired to Washington establishment status? I feel betrayed.”

    Jerry Reply:

    joe
    A new way of accounting must be established. (How do we reform the GAAP – General Accepted Accounting Principles? Even Hewlett Packard had to take a Billion $ loss because England views their accounting differently than the USA.)
    The Army Corp. of Engineers builds dams on many on the rivers in order to make the rivers navigable. How would Brad Plumer suggest that so called “profit” be measured in all of this? Does a l
    short river make more money than a long river? What accounting is used when a levee is built and later when the levee breaks? What kind of balance sheet to we use for things such as that?
    Profit? Cheney/Rumsfeld said the Iraq War would pay for itself. Now that’s real “profit” for you!

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Kind of like how Hong Kong with its conservative framing of the subject is more car-oriented than Houston?

    Derek Reply:

    My view is that if we accept conservative framing – that rail has to be profitable – then we are going to lose no matter what we do.

    No, all we have to do is expand the definition of “profit” to include both direct returns (fares) and indirect returns (increased commerce). And we can take it one step further by also internalizing all externalities. Anyone who understands economics knows that externalities make the market less efficient, just like monopolies.

    In other words, we beat conservatives at their own game by taking their framing of the argument to its ultimate conclusion.

    joe Reply:

    “No, all we have to do is expand the definition of “profit” to include both direct returns (fares) and indirect returns (increased commerce).”

    Or expand the system under review to be an economy, not amtrak. That’s what this is about. Comments in the newspaper seem to show a large number think this way and also understand subsidized roads are subsidized.

    The risk I see is this argument: if it’s profitable privatize it. Otherwise cut it. The MBA, business lexicon for government is trouble. It has a language that and reasoning that undermine public goods and services.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The MBA attitude has been basically about looting for a while. It’s actually destroyed the corporate sector already, with a few exceptions like Berkshire Hathaway. We cannot let it destroy the governmental sector too.

  7. Back in the Saddle
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 21:41
    #7

    There are a several of the “transcontinental routes” that serve communities that don’t have any other form of transportation (outside of cars/trucks which many residents can’t or won’t use). The Empire Builder for one is a economic life-line for several northern-tier states. I don’t think that passengers in these areas are concerned about Amtrak making a profit. All they are concerned about is a way to travel to a community where publically subsidized “essential air service” provides a way to travel to other parts of the country/world. Yes, it is nice to cover costs, however, passenger rail service as we see it today keeps various parts of the country and diverse groups economically viable. The Brookings Report and others need to see what passenger rail does for large swaths of this country not just this dream of everything public transit system making a profit in order to survive.

    Donk Reply:

    Oh boo ho. If a place is so podunk that the only way to get there is by long distance, 3 day/week, 3am departure Amtrak, then it is a place not worth subsidizing. Too bad. We can’t subsidize everyone. Lets cut all of the subsidies to podunk airports as well. If you want access to somewhere else, then move somewhere else. Maybe Ted Turner will buy your land for the Buffalo Commons project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Commons)

    joe Reply:

    Someone thought about that already.

    “To balance power between the large and small states, the Constitution’s framers agreed that states would be represented equally in the Senate and in proportion to their populations in the House.”

    Podunk’s have Senators.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Some of them have more Senators than they do Representatives.

    Donk Reply:

    I’m not talking about large and small states, I’m talking about Podunk towns

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    I’ll gently remind you that the residents of those places are fellow citizens, and at least some of them are or were productive members of society. One could suggest where I live as being like that, possibly some others who post here are in places like that, too. Service to them, at least as part of a longer route (like what the Empire Builder does) is the decent thing to do–and it will eventually be needed again, and will tie the nation together again.

    I still recall a speech by James J. Hill on something like this subject, entitled “The Townsman and the Farmer Must Be Friends.”

    Donk Reply:

    DP, the obvious solution here would be to provide a Greyhound bus rather than a long distance train. At least the bus doesn’t get stuck behind freight trains. It isn’t like there are traffic jams in these places we are talking about. Aunt Edna does not NEED a fancy train.

    swing hanger Reply:

    If “bustitution” results in having more train frequency on the portions of LD routes with traffic growth potential (allowing several trains serving a station during the daylight hours when people are awake, rather than going through town at 3am), I’m for it. The bus connecting the non-rail portion can be a cut above your average Greyhound, such as having 2 or 3 abreast seating, with seat TV’s.

    Jonathan Reply:

    ROTFL.

    Woody Reply:

    Donk, let’s get ruthless about something that matters.

    Amtrak is … well, Obama’s budget proposed to spend $3.8 Trillion,
    and Amtrak was a part of that, about $1.5 billion counting spending
    on infrastructure, debt retirement, etc. Better to visualize Amtrak
    in the great scheme of things, make a pile of 7,600 pennies.
    Three pennies will represent Amtrak.

    Lessee, look at sweet business deductions for rich corporations
    (especially extractive companies like coal mining and oil & gas)
    or their rich managers (who use fully deductible private planes,
    for one). Look at farm subsidies. Look at the unfunded (no taxes
    levied to pay for it) Iraq War, or for that matter the unending war
    in Afghanistan. Look at the price of still another battleship in
    an era when they *might* be vulnerable to missile attacks.
    Look at other subsidized programs of the military-industrial
    complex. Each one of those budget items will have you scooping up
    pennies by the bucket.

    So why get so heated about Amtrak’s lousy three cents? We
    had 31 million citizens riding Amtrak last year, with roughly
    11.5 million on the NEC, 15 million on other corridors that
    will all be covered by states effective Oct 1, 2013, and 4.7
    million on the long distance trains. The whoop-de-do loss
    on the long distance trains was less than one of those pennies
    in your huge pile.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Because Amtrak’s ridership doesn’t merit more than 3 cents out of a pile of 7,600. I’m tired of this imperial belief that the goal of transportation advocacy is to raid funding from other government priorities.

    Donk Reply:

    You are totally missing my point. I don’t care about the impact of those funds on our deficit. We should move the $600M or $200M or whatever it is into regional networks, where there is more demand for the service and where the investment can create more demand and more investment.

    We should spend more money on routes that make sense and where you have a reasonable expectation that you will be on time. Transcontinental routes are for tourists and train enthusiasts who long for the steam engines of yore.

    Woody Reply:

    It is simply factually incorrect that the long distance routes are for tourists and enthusiasts. You can find some of those on any train, but not 5 million to fill them.

    Surveys of passengers on the long distance trains show that overwhelmingly they are “purpose” travelers, for business, family visits, medical appointments, etc — just like those on corridor trains.

    OK, that’s except for the less than 10% of all riders who go end to end, Chicago-West Coast, using sleeping cars to do so. Most, but surely not all of those are probably tourists, but some are infirm and would have severe difficulty traveling any other way.

    Consider this: People can go from Chicago to St Louis on one of the four Lincoln trains (two morning, and two p.m. deparetures), or they can ride the Texas Eagle on the exact same itinerary, with a mid-day departure. Do you imagine someone controlling access to the tracks, making sure that no corridor type riders are allowed to board the Texas Eagle to get to St Louis, limiting all the seats to tourists and foamers? The stretch of the Eagle between St Louis and Chicago is a corridor train. Eliminate that long distance train and those costs would roll over to the state of Illinois.

    The Empire Builder acts so much like a corridor with its one daily Chicago-Milwaukee-St Paul run that Amtrak adds and removes cars at St Paul to handle the extra passengers. You embrace these corridor passengers. Why can’t you see that 20,000 people boarding at Grand Forks and Fargo sometime between midnight and dawn are also on a corridor to the Twin Cities or Chicago too? Or do you imagine that the boomlet of passengers (40,000 or so) boarding the train at Williston, ND, are rail fans or tourists visiting the Oil Patch? And when you eliminate the Empire Builder, you give the Governor of Wisconsin the veto over the train, and you know, that wanna-be corridor is as good as dead then.

    There’s no need to demonize “the others” who ride trains that we don’t ride. Why can’t we believe that the good people buying tickets and riding the long distance trains have their own good reasons to do so? They are not part of the phantom 47% trying to leech off the super rich.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If the 40,000 good people of Minot get a train, I want an intercity train station in Morningside Heights.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Morningside Heights has more train passengers in day than Minot has in a year. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Morningside Heights has more intercity train passengers in a year than Minot. But then it’s 250 miles from Minot to Fargo. 250 miles from Morningside Heights and you are in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC or the New Hampshire suburbs of Boston. … In nice round numbers there are 650,000 people in North Dakota. Over 2 million in Brooklyn. Why doesn’t Brooklyn have an intercity train station? Or Queens? One in Hudson county might be nice. And there’s already a station that Amtrak trains pass through. With level boarding….

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Honestly, I think there’s a strong case to be made for making more local Amtrak trains stop at Secaucus and at the unfortunately-neither-built-nor-planned-to-be Sunnyside. Sunnyside done right is a better transfer from Grand Central and lets people from Queens and Long Island avoid Penn entirely.

    Express intercity trains, inc. Acela, of course have no business stopping at those stations.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Amtrak doesn’t stop at Secaucus, so there can’t be more. Twice as many nothings is still nothing. So is ten times as many. Not that Amtrak,with todays constraints, wants to make more stops. If we are running fantasy trans regionals how about Hicksville, Mineola, Jamaica, Brooklyn, Wall Street, Newport, Newark, Plainfield, Bound Brook, West Trenton, Langhorne, Jenkingtown, Fern Rock, Temple, Market East, Suburban, 30th Street, Cornwalls Heights, Trenton, Princeton, New Brunswick, Metropark, Rahway, Newark, Secaucus, Penn Station, Sunnyside, Jamaica, Mineola, Hicksville? There’s always the option of running local between NY and Philadelphia and express to Baltimore and DC. Just like they could run the Keystones to Philadelphia and run then express to Baltimore and DC… people who wanted to go from Harrisburg to New York would use the train that swoops through Philadelphia on the west side of Zoo cutting big chunk of time off the trip…. Via Philadelphia until the cutoff from Harrisburg to Baltimore is rebuilt…

    joe Reply:

    “routes that make sense and where you have a reasonable expectation that you will be on time.”

    So you think we should shut down ORD and DFW as fight hubs – They make no sense to fly people out of their way to connect and flights are chronically late.

    swing hanger Reply:

    Point well taken, but “realistically” we have to work with what we have now (very little, admittedly) and the immediate future, and don’t expect monies allocated for wars in Asia to be shifted suddenly to passenger rail.

    JBaloun Reply:

    There are a several of the “transcontinental routes” that …

    There only ‘are’ several transcontinental routes” .

  8. Donk
    Mar 3rd, 2013 at 23:03
    #8

    We are talking about $600M here. Is this really where you want to spend this money, on 15 routes that have no real value in the transportation network? Imagine if they just zapped these 15 routes and transferred the $600M annual subsidy to the more viable regional routes. Unfortunately there is no way Amtrak would be able to hang on to this money if they zapped the 15 long distance routes.

    Jim Reply:

    This is where the Brookings report was misleading. If you zap the 15 routes, you don’t save $600M. The costs are allocated costs. Amtrak has a bunch of fixed costs — operating and maintaining yards and maintenance facilities, overhauling rolling stock, cleaning, lighting, heating and cooling and staffing stations, etc. — which for accounting purposes are allocated to routes. But if the routes go away, the fixed costs don’t. They simply get reallocated. For example, Amtrak has a yard in LA. It supports the three long distance trains which terminate there and also the Surfliners. The cost of running it are apportioned between them. CalTrans gets to pay the Surfliners’ portion. The LD portion contributes to the $600M. If the LD trains go away, then the whole cost of running the yard gets put on the Surfliners and CalTrans’s bill goes up.

    While Amtrak doesn’t report to the level of detail one would need to figure out precisely what happens if fixed costs are reallocated, one can guess. My best guess is that if the LDs were cancelled, Amtrak would save about $200M of the $600M. Somewhere between $100M and $150M would get reallocated to the state-supported corridors and the rest to the NEC. It’s a good question whether the states would stand for this: it would represent an increase of over 50% to the subsidy that they thought they’d negotiated with no increase in service. And the NEC would go from generating a surplus with its current allocation of fixed costs to generating a loss. With no Federal subsidy — the appropriation is clearly for the LD trains which wind their way through as many states and congressional districts as possible — Amtrak would go broke.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They would be able to reallocate the equipment too and run longer trains on the NEC. It would probably be a wash.

    Nathanael Reply:

    No, it wouldn’t. The train lengths on the NEC are limited by platform length.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    the platforms at the major stations can handle 16 car trains with room to spare. The intercity express isn’t going to be stopping at the patch of asphalt by the side of the tracks SEPTA likes to call a station.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The LD cars could only be used on Regionals, not on Acelas (the intercity expresses). Actually, it’s worse than that: only the SINGLE-LEVEL LD cars could be used on the NEC at ALL. Most of the LD trains use double-deckers which can’t make it through the tunnels in NY or Baltimore.

    Nathanael Reply:

    (And please note that Regionals stop in places like Mystic.)

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Mystic is already a three-cars-only stop and most Regionals skip it anyway. Reallocated and rebuilt Viewliners would be used on more routes with fewer stops anyway because they have just one door. In fact you could do a hand-me-down thing: rebuilt Viewliners and Amfleet IIs go to corridors like Empire, Amfleet Is go from those corridors to the NEC.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Amtrak ran 16 car trains in the past

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987_Maryland_train_collision

    The platforms they stopped at haven’t evaporated. Deteriorated perhaps but they are still there.

    Amtrak uses NJTransit multievels for “extras” every year. Takes four hours to get between NY and DC but they run multilevels. BTW the multilevels are designed for 125 just like Amfleets. Why they don’t run them at 125 is a different question.

    Until there’s more tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan their only alternative is longer trains. They could do it if they had the equipment. They don’t.

    Woody Reply:

    Amtrak claims they couldn’t put more trains thru the Hudson Tunnel, so capacity is very constrained. And even if you could reallocate equipment from all the single-level routes — the Silver Star and Silver Meteor to Florida, the Palmetto to Savannah, the Crescent to New Orleans, the Cardinal to Chicago, and the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago — you couldn’t move the bi-level equipment used west of Chicago. Maybe some coaches would find a new home in the California corridors. But ALL the sleepers, diners, crew dorms, and baggage cars would have to be rebuilt or scrapped.

    Meanwhile Jim neglected to mention the general corporate costs. The reservation system and the IT department that keep it running; salaries and benefits for everybody in Legal, Labor Relations, Congressional Relations, and every other administrative unit; advertising and marketing expenditures; the planners who work with states trying to develop new corridors; etc. That overhead is now partly allotted to the long distance trains. You can make them go away, but you won’t see much of those costs go away.

    Not to mention severance payments, and no doubt other costs of downsizing.

    Good business practice is to try to grow a business out of trouble. I don’t care how many Blockbuster stores you close … And Amtrak, even the long distance trains, ain’t no Blockbuster. Almost ended the word “late” from most discussions, as the on-time performance has vastly improved. Added Wi-Fi to more than half of all trains and more than half of all passengers. Introduced electronic ticketing. Introducing electronic payments in diners and cafe cars, to free up employees from counting change and keeping paper records (and also likely to reduce, uh, shrinkage in the supplies). Producing record ridership, lower loss-per-passenger figures, and a million new customers each year.

    If we can just hold on, a nice bunch of projects funded by the stimulus will be coming online. Guess what! Almost every Amtrak route got a little something in the stimulus. So in the next year or two or three, almost every line will get better. “Better” will mean that the train leaving St Louis and arriving in Chicago 5 1/2 hours later, at 10 a.m., will be able to make the trip in 4 1/2 hours and arrive by 9 a.m., obviously a much better arrival for business travelers and others. “Better” will mean that the train leaving Chicago at the end of the working day will be able to save an hour or more and make the trip in time to arrive in Detroit BEFORE midnight instead of AFTER midnight as now. Two of the long distance trains coming into Chicago from the West Coast will use an upgraded route totally within the state of Illinois, but long enuff and better enuff that these trains will save half an hour and have a more reliable on-time performance.

    With all the trend lines looking so good, why the excitement NOW to kill off the national network?

    joe Reply:

    Anyone at Brookings (1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036) figure out how the NE would connivence the Senators from all these podunk States, that the best use of Federal Dollars is to give DC and the NE modern rail and shit for the other because….profit.

    And this fine reasoned allocation of taxpayer money and savings comes from WA DC Newspaper regurgitating a DC think tank funded by taxpayer dollars. DC is the only metropolitan area robust economy to weather the recession with taxpayer subsidized security-state sending.

    Donk Reply:

    Thanks for the explanation. However, I am now confused. Are you saying that the NEC is actually a money loser, and that they don’t count the subsidies since they come from long distance routes? I thought the NEC was profitable. Is this all just creative accounting?

    Jim Reply:

    All accounting is creative. I’m sure that Richard Florida regards accountants as part of his creative class.

    The NEC generates an operating surplus. But that surplus is not sufficient to cover the overhead costs that Amtrak incurs in order to be a national passenger railroad. So Amtrak would not be profitable even if it jettisoned the long distance routes (and restructured its debt). Without the federal subsidy it would go broke.

    But there’s a useful thought experiment. Suppose that later this month the continuing resolution zeroed out Amtrak’s appropriation and the House Republicans made it clear that as long as they run the House it won’t be restored. Suppose then that Amtrak responded by abandoning the attempt to be a national passenger railroad. Suppose in addition to cancelling the long distance services it closed or sold off all it’s assets west of the Alleghenies, mothballed or sold most of the bilevel fleet, and withdrew to “fortress NEC”: the NEC itself and the state supported corridors that interact with it, New York, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, with the same level of state support as was negotiated under PRIIA #209. It’s likely that with that fairly massive reduction in overhead the surplus generated by the NEC would be sufficient to cover the remaining overhead costs and with a debt restructuring such a reduced Amtrak would then be profitable.

    It’s in that sense that the NEC is profitable. And some sort of scenario like this is what would be envisaged by “privatization of the NEC”.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    Jim is accurate in saying that privatizing the NEC is a nice thought experiment.

  9. Eric
    Mar 4th, 2013 at 01:49
    #9

    I support HSR, in CA and elsewhere, because I think it is often the best answer to the question “If you have a given amount of money to invest in intercity transportation, which means of investment gives the greatest economic return”?

    So it is disappointing to see the owner of this blog taking a completely different position, namely: “Yeah, trains are often the more expensive and less useful transport mode, but we need trains everywhere anyway, because I think trains are cool!”

    Eric M Reply:

    Well that’s you opinion and this blog is Robert’s. To each his own.

    Eric M Reply:

    ….your opinion……

    Nathanael Reply:

    Eric: Robert is quite clear that trains, even “money-losing” trains, are less expensive than rural interstates. (ONE INTERSECTION on an Interstate can cost $500 million!)

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Do the rural low-volume cloverleafs cost that much?

    Eric Reply:

    Of course not. $500 million is the cost for urban stack interchanges. Not to mention that interstates are already built and maintenance is cheaper than construction.

    And interstates have the following advantages, even when their cost per passenger-mile or passenger-trip is higher than rail:

    1. A high fraction of their traffic consists of small-scale freight or other miscellaneous uses that rail can’t provide (no, not every destination that is currently visited by a tractor trailer or pickup truck can be provided with a rail spur)
    2. Given that SOME people will need to drive long distances, the interstate safety standards and grade/direction separation make that much safer.

    I would say however that all interstates should be tolled, at least for trucks, to the extent needed to pay for their maintenance.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    No argument on #1, but on #2, it’s simply not true that building the Interstates increased travel safety. Look at per-VMT death rate history: the late 1950s and early 1960s were actually a period of stagnation within a multi-decade trend of constant decrease.

    joe Reply:

    Where do we look at VMT History?

    joe Reply:

    ohh here. Huh ?

    http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/wk/mm4818.pdf

    Despite this steep increase in motor-vehicle travel, the annual death rate has declined from 18 per 100 million vehi- cle miles traveled (VMT) in 1925 to 1.7 per 100 million VMT in 1997—a 90% decrease (Figure 1) (1 ).

    blankslate Reply:

    Looking at that graph, the steepest declines were in the mid-late-30s and the late-40s, before the Interstate era. During the decade when the greatest amount of Interstate construction took place, deaths- per-VMT actually went up slightly. After that deaths continued to decline, but not as fast as before Interstates.

    In conclusion, this graph does not support an argument that Interstates led to increased safety. In fact, the reduction in deaths-per-VMT from 1965 to 1995 was completely offset by a doubling of VMT per capita over the same period.

    Andy M Reply:

    Decrease in mortality does not nbecessarily reflect that autos themselves or drivers are getting safer. They reflect that behavior has changed. People no longer let their kids play on the street. There are fewer pedestrians about. etc.

    I bet if you drew a graph of horses kill in road accidents it would show a similar decrease.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    For what it’s worth, something like that may have happened with train/ped crashes on the street. In 1900 or so, 11th Avenue was called Death Avenue because of the trains hitting pedestrians, but within 20 years the death rate went down to almost zero, even before the railroad was grade-separated.

    joe Reply:

    Or Andy M just described highways.

    “People no longer let their kids play on the street. There are fewer pedestrians about. etc. ”

    That’s a highway.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    I live in the kind of place where no one locks the doors to things. Talk to people my age, by the time we were about to go to kindergarten our mothers let us wander the neighborhood. Tell that to a parent today and they shudder.

    http://www.nysun.com/opinion/why-i-let-my-9-year-old-ride-subway-alone/73976/

    By the time I was 9 I was on the bus to downtown Newark to check out the stuff in Woolworth’s…

    aw Reply:

    The thing about the 50s and 60s and flattening of the mortality rate per VMT may have to do with the fact that, at the time we were learning to build safe freeways. The limited access roads of the times had horribly designed intersections and interchanges, killer gaurd rails and primitive safety equipment in the cars for the increased vehicle speeds and traffic. Improved highway standards and vastly improved safty equipment in cars got things on the downward trend again. The 55mph speed limit in later years probably helped some too.

    joe Reply:

    wikipedia:
    In 1965 and 1966, public pressure grew in the U.S. to increase the safety of cars, culminating with the publishing of Unsafe at Any Speed, by Ralph Nader, an activist lawyer, and the National Academy of Sciences’ “Accidental Death and Disability—The Neglected Disease of Modern Society”.

    In 1966, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings regarding highway safety, passed legislation to make installation of seat belts mandatory, and enacted Pub.L. 89–563, Pub.L. 89–564, and Pub.L. 89–670 which created the U.S. Department of Transportation on October 15, 1966.

    EJ Reply:

    Robert’s repeatedly taken the position that all rail projects are automatically good, and you’re either pro-rail, meaning you blindly support all the projects proposed by your social betters, or anti-rail. He doesn’t really seem to understand “criticism” of projects or programs as such, it’s purely a binary “attack or defend” mentality.

    swing hanger Reply:

    I think the liberal “politicals, who defend all rail projects, have to differentiate between rational criticism of rail project coming from “technicals” (who come from a rainbow of political spectrums), from ideological criticisms emanating from the rabid right.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    A lot of them do. Robert is the only one I can think of who’s for every rail project. But Ben Kabak, who’s very much a political, has repeatedly called the 7 extension the subway to nowhere. Streetsblog routinely links to Market Urbanism, Systemic Failure, and me. Etc. The distinction is not “People who support everything” vs. “people who only support some lines”; it’s “people who think the main obstacle to US transit revival is political” vs. “people who think the main obstacle is regulatory/technical.”

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The 7 line to Corona was a train to nowhere downwind from the dump. That already had train service. It’s a chicken and egg problem. If they don’t build it now the development in the area won’t happen. If the development happens without the train everyone will be whining about how hard it is to get there. Probably much cheaper to build it now then it would be to build it later.

    EJ Reply:

    That’s a valid point – being on the west coast I don’t read Kabak all the time, but I do get the sense he’s both a big booster for the NYC subway and also a frequent critic of its management.

    Eric Reply:

    Which is disappointing, because he is one of the highest-profile HSR supporters in the blogosphere. It would be nice to be able to say that he has a good reason for his support.

    joe Reply:

    Robert’s repeatedly taken the position that all rail projects are automatically good, and you’re either pro-rail, meaning you blindly support all the projects proposed by your social betters, or anti-rail.

    Which is disappointing, because he is one of the highest-profile HSR supporters in the blogosphere. It would be nice to be able to say that he has a good reason for his support.

    Neither complaint is even closely reasonable.

    EJ Reply:

    Are you new here? Robert even supports the Oakland Airport Connector, the train that literally nobody but the Building and Trades unions wanted, purely because it’s a rail project.

  10. TomA
    Mar 4th, 2013 at 08:57
    #10

    I think Eric generally has the right idea – its not about profit so much as cost-effectiveness.

    There is a market for interstate travel – is spending $600 million (or however much it actually costs to run these trains) the best way to move those people. How many of them wouldn’t make the trip if they had to fly or drive. How many MORE would make the trip if you invested more.

    Its much much more than simply – does the service in its current configuration (which is just one of many when you consider station stops, train length, schedule, etc) make or lose money.

  11. synonymouse
    Mar 4th, 2013 at 09:54
    #11

    Homeless welcomed on board the PB and Tutor-Saliba gravy train:

    http://www.planning.org/news/daily/story.htm?story_id=182964826

    Why not? The intellectually challenged and age-impaired are already in charge of planning.

    http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Calif-lawmakers-scrutinize-high-speed-rail-plan-4310107.php

    The comments underscore that the majority of Californians now oppose the CHSRA scheme.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Nonsense.

    It’s perfectly normal to welcome the homeless and so forth to the manual labor jobs on government projects. They’re usually perfectly good at them, and simply being discriminated against by incompetent private companies.

    It’s also clear that a huge supermajority of Californians support the CHSRA plan.

    swing hanger Reply:

    Newspaper comment sections are the worst places to gauge overall public sentiment as they attract all the nutjobs.

    BrianR Reply:

    I don’t see a problem with that provided that the homeless people they are referring to are mentally stable and not the crazies that should really be in the mental institutions Reagan shut down years ago. I would have to imagine these people would be employed for low skilled work and under supervision.

    The U.S. military hires plenty of ex-convicts too. Where is the outrage over that? We all know these people are doing the jobs none of us want to do so there is no point bitching about it. It’s a lot like complaining about immigrant farm workers from Mexico “stealing our jobs”.

    I would expect all the important stuff like new construction to be by skilled unionized workers, and if not unionized there needs to be documentation that the workers are trained and compensated to a level equivalent to unionized workers.

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