30 January 2009

Dukakis on Midwest Rail


Interesting interview in Wired with Michael Dukakis, rail advocate:
Dukakis:...It's absurd to say we don't have money to expand rail. For what we spend in Iraq in a week or maybe 10 days, we could fund Amtrak's ongoing operations as well as make major investments. We spend about $30 billion a year on highways and about $15-to-$16 billion on airports and airline subsidies. We're talking about 6 percent or 7 percent of that for a national rail-passenger system. ...

...If you want to build a European-style 200-mph high-speed system — the kind that California is now committed to — that requires exclusive rights of way. And it probably argues for electrification. That's an expensive proposition.

... We can use our existing rights of way to reach speeds of between 110 and 125mph...

...There's a 10-state plan to connect downtown Chicago to every other major Midwest city within 400 miles using trains that travel between 110 and 115 mph. The whole thing would cost around $7 billion, and the basic proposal calls for using existing right of way.

That $7 billion is half of what it will cost to move forward with the planned expansion of O'Hare airport. Every third flight out of that airport is less than 350 miles. So if you build a regional rail system in the Midwest, you're also helping with congestion at O'Hare and opening slots for longer flights.

... from the Mississippi River east, we actually look a lot like Europe. There's similar population density and distance between cities. That's why the Southeastern states want high-speed service extended from Washington, D.C., down to Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta. They know it can work...

Wired.com: The cool thing about traveling by train in Europe is when you get off the train, you can cross the platform and hop on a subway. What do you do in a city like Charlotte or Houston, where those local connections just don't exist?

Dukakis: With the exception of a handful of U.S. cities, we are not where we should be in this regard. But if more investment is made in intercity rail, you'll see local and regional transit systems reconfiguring themselves to improve the connections.

...If we commit to a first-class passenger-rail system, you'll see local and regional transit organizations start talking about finding ways to connect to it...using airplanes to fly 300 miles makes absolutely no sense at all.

...The cities in this country that are planning light-rail–type systems will need to purchase every stick of rolling stock from a foreign manufacturer. There's no reason our car companies can't make them instead.

Image from here.


kid-cincy said...

The entire article missed the 800 lb gorilla in the room -- there's no demand for high-speed passenger rail service.

Sure, if someone called me on the phone and asked if I think energy-efficient, high speed rail trips to Chicago are a good thing, I'd say "yes". But as soon as they talk about a) the amount we have to subsidize via the government, and b) how high the fare would be, I'd say "forget it". Why? Because a month ago I drove my wife and four kids to Chicago and back in a Suburban, and the total gas cost was about 80.00. Even a year ago, it would have been less than 200.00. Think we'll get six people to Chicago and back on the train for that? Not a chance.

How many stops will the "high speed" train have to make between Cincy and Chicago? Just one, in Indianapolis? Better hope we have hundreds of people weekly who want to make the trip in these two cities. And how many people are looking to travel from Chicago to Cincinnati?

Maybe make more stops on the way? Then our high-speed train slows way down. I can drive to Chicago in five hours, six tops if I stop for food/gas. If the train takes longer than that, and costs a lot more, who will ride it?

We already know the answer -- nobody. That's why Amtrak only stops in Cincinnati a few times a week, in the middle of the night.

CityKin said...

It becomes competitive when the price and time is similar to or less than flying. Thus daily routes with tickets under $100 and time under 3.5hrs would attract substantial ridership IMO.

Plus trains are much more comfortable and they take you right into the center of the city. Between Cincy and Chicago it would probably stop at Indianapolis and Lafayette as the Cardinal does now but the stops should only add a few minutes.

Mark Miller said...

It also could be competitive if the journey becomes an event in itself. There are boutique dinner trains and "murder trains" that don't have any travel benefit at all, and yet most of them are more self-sufficient than public transportation.

There's no reason that the journey part of a train trip couldn't be as alluring a selling point as the destination. Isn't that what the entire cruise ship industry is all about?

If you could wander among a Jean-Robert dining car, a casino car, a sports-bar car, a Marriott sleeper car, and others, then driving starts to look like the chump's way to get to Chicago.

The biggest obstacle to this is government's monopoly on rail transit. They aren't profit focused, so revenue enhancement never really enters their minds. Plus there's an element of capital risk involved, and governments aren't comfortable with that either.

Innovative solutions invariably come from outrageous entrepeneurs risking substantial sums of their own money, not staid bureaucrats risking public money. We have to find a way to marry the creativity of the market with the power of government to undertake mammoth projects.

Anonymous said...

Mark Miller said:

"The biggest obstacle to this is government's monopoly on rail transit. They aren't profit focused, so revenue enhancement never really enters their minds. Plus there's an element of capital risk involved, and governments aren't comfortable with that either."

Just wondering how this theory of public administration squares with the Interstate Highway System.

Mark Miller said...

Good question John. After half a century, the best cost sharing program our govt can come up with is to let Perkins pay a fee to put their logo on the blue sign for "Next Exit".

They spent millions of our money on an Artemis system that has worse text quality than the old dot-matrix printers, and is usually dark. But 50 feet away private billboard companies erect jumbotron screens and make obscene profits displaying messages to the same audience.

Why can't we let the billboard companies put their screens in the prime spot with an agreement to pre-empt ads for emergency messages? The public would get a better quality system at low or no cost.

The goal of traffic messaging was met, but govt-think focused on cost minimization instead of optimizing the return. It never occurred to them to try to MAKE money with the system.

kid-cincy said...

Bad analogy. Nobody here is talking about the government building just the rails, and then getting out of the way to let private companies compete for private passenger rail service. What everyone is talking about is the government massively underwriting the creation and operation of the entire system.

If "boutique" or affordable rail service were in demand, the private companies that already own the rail lines would be providing it. There's a reason private rail travel went out of business in the early 70s -- nobody rode it anymore.

One thing and one thing only will create demand for affordable private rail service -- when the cost to take your private car is overwhelmingly unaffordable. I used to think that 5.00 a gallon gas was about the tipping point, but we were above 4.00 a year ago and nobody flinched. I now think we'll need gas in the 10.00 - 15.00 per gallon range before people get serious about giving up the convenience of their cars.

CityKin said...

It is not a bad analogy at all. The trains themselves could definitely be run by private enterprises. This is done often in other countries.

But competitive, fast rail requires expensive infrastructure improvements. In every country in which this has been done, rail ridership has significantly increased. And when a 350 mile trip like from St Louis or Cincy to Chicago is done in comfort and in about 3 hours it would no doubt win over air passengers. In the Dukakis article he says 1/3 of all flights out of the overburdened O'hare are less than this distance. And there is no comparison in comfort between the two modes of transport.

Rail failure in this country was not inevitable. If so, why did it not fail in many other countries? It failed here because we decided as a country to subsidize oil and cars and not rail.

Anonymous said...

My point was to illustrate that the Interstate Highway System, for all its benefits, is not a free-market outcome. It's the greatest social engineering project in the history of the world.

I was just comparing the irony of Mark Miller's observation about the government's monoploy of rail transit. I mean, how many privately-owned roads do we travel on every day?

Among libertarians, there really is a blind spot in terms of the types of transportation improvements they enthusiastically endorse and those they oppose.

And it's never really about the money. Libertarian-types opposed MetroMoves -- five light rail lines, two streetcar lines and a huge expansion of the bus system. It would have cost an average Hamilton County family about $68 per year, about what we paid for a tank of gas last summer.

They basically just stand for the status quo.

Anonymous said...

kid, you're right it doesn't make much financial sense to take a family of six from Cincy to Chicago on a train rather than a car in the current conditions. But imagine if the auto culture wasn't almost 100 percent subsidized like it has been for the past 50 years.

Your $80.00 trip would look a lot different if you had to pay for your highway use in the form of a toll perhaps or you had to pay a tax on the harmful emissions sent into the air by your Suburban.

There is no current demand for rail service in the Midwest because essentially there is none. We have been socially engineered to accept the fact that the automobile is the only method of transportation in this country..

Jim Uber said...

Kid-cincy says: "Because a month ago I drove my wife and four kids to Chicago and back in a Suburban, and the total gas cost was about 80.00."

I have an engineering/anal streak about economic costs; I am sorry about that, but I can't help it!

The true personal cost of an automobile trip to Chicago, or anywhere, is not the fuel cost. And, I will ignore the "hidden" subsidy costs that are many and hard to understand and have been mentioned, to focus only on the direct out-of-pocket costs.

Cars are very expensive to purchase and to maintain and to insure. One great way to quanitfy this is the end result of number crunching by the GSA accountants, who compute that it fairly costs $0.55/mile to operate an autombile in the US; that is the official Gov't per diem reimbursement rate for private automobile use. At 294 miles
Round trip the true cost for your travel to Chicago is closer to $323 than to $80. You don't feel that cause the other real costs are spread out over time, but you still pay them.

Also, it is freaking expensive to take a car to Chicago or any other major city. The last time I was there, a few months ago, I paid $45/night to park my car in the hotel parking lot. So, for a quick weekend trip, add $90 to your $323 and we're looking at over $400 for the trip.

Yep, my car stayed in the Chicago hotel garage all weekend. Forced slavery to the auto, once again.

kid-cincy said...

I'm a freak for numbers too, but your estimates are not accurate, at least not for me. The 5 year old Suburban required no maintenance costs beyond oil changes last year, so we'll say that cost 120.00 for the year. We drove about 12000 miles last year, so my per mile cost would be about .01 per mile. So that added a whopping 6.00 to my trip to Chicago.

Very true about parking costs, but I believe that makes my point rather than refutes it -- we were still willing to pay the cost for the convenience to drive to the Natural History museum and the Science and Technology museums. Not everyone would be willing to pay that cost, but based on the number of families I saw staying in our hotel, I believe most would and did. And that's in a city that provides a number of mass transportation options. Many people use mass transportation there, but most don't.

I agree that the feds have subsidized highway construction for many years. But the highways serve many funtions. They allow me to get to work quickly, to drive to Ikea, to transport food from distributors in the West End to restaurants throughout the area, to get schoolkids to their field trips, to carry goods from Kroger distribution hubs to cities throughout the area, and to move goods from rail hubs to their destinations. The highways aren't single-purpose, as the high-speed rail lines would be.

Jim Uber said...

Kid-Cincy said,
"The 5 year old Suburban required no maintenance costs beyond oil changes last year, so we'll say that cost 120.00 for the year. We drove about 12000 miles last year, so my per mile cost would be about .01 per mile. So that added a whopping 6.00 to my trip to Chicago."

Honestly I don't know what to say. I hope you could appreciate if I would point out the significant errors in your analysis, which are matters of fact and not opinion or ideology. You do not compute the cost of ownership of anything based on any single time period. One way to do a better economic analysis, is to take all of the outgoing/incoming payments over the life of the vehicle - purchase price, fuel, maintenance, insurance, resale - and convert those back to an equivalent present value. You might take the result and divide by the total miles driven over the vehicle lifetime, to come up with a personal $/mile figure that is realistic.

Again, this is tedious, and the GSA has done its own analysis and came up with $0.55/mile.

But I am not certain that you want to both educate and be educated. If you are open to both, then you'll realize that I'm not pushing an ideology here, but rather insisting that our arguments be based on facts, wherever they are available. There are enough other fuzzy things to argue about; we should at least get the numbers right where we can.

kid-cincy said...

Perhaps you can educate me. Unless we are considering the possibility that people will give up their cars solely on the basis of a high-speed or cost-efficient rail line being established in the Midwest, it would not be correct to include the cost of something that people were already going to pay for (i.e. the car that 99.9% of the traveling public already have). Would you agree?

Like it or not, cars are a cost that most everyone has already decided to accept, like phone and utility bills. They could have built the Metro Moves initiative a few years back, and we'd still have the same number of cars.

But really, a big part of what my argument concerns is the convenience of automobile use. We want to be able to go where we want, when we want, regardless of whether we actually face situations that require that convenience.

Jim Uber said...

"it would not be correct to include the cost of something that people were already going to pay for (i.e. the car that 99.9% of the traveling public already have). Would you agree?"

Kid-cincy, I don't think I would, or should. It can not be correct to assign all of your costs of automobile ownership to your local home-work and family trips, and then assume that your automobile trip to Chicago is free. The fact is that your automobile would be worth more at resale, and would require less costs to maintain and insure, if you decided to only use it locally, and always fly (or take a train, in another universe) whenever you went to Chicago or any other out of town trip. The reasons are as various as: your son or daughter didn't actually spill that soft drink all over the back seat on I-65 to Chicago, leaving a nasty sticky stain; you avoided getting that speeding ticket from those annoying highway cops in Indiana, or getting rear-ended at that stop light on Michigan avenue; or you managed to sell your car just 500 miles before it blew a head gasket, instead of having it happen on your way home from Chicago. Like I said, these are examples of the _various_ real experiences that all have a cost that are directly a result of driving, and should properly be reflected in the cost per mile. They are not fabrications. I have been involved in hitting a deer on I-74 coming back from a Chicago trip, which not only frightened the hell out of me and caused about $4K in damages, but could have taken away my life had the angles been a little different.

"We want to be able to go where we want, when we want, regardless of whether we actually face situations that require that convenience."

Now there's something worth arguing about, Kid-cincy. I think that many people would argue that we need multiple modes of transportation (noone is saying that we should replace cars with trains -- they serve different purposes), but anyway the individualist versus the altruist may indeed underlie this debate.

But, regardless, when we talk about costs -- and I'd argue they are one important item to talk about, even if it's a dry subject -- we should do it with as much accuracy as possible.

Unknown said...

I believe that there are certain trips that will never be captured by rail - e.g. kid-cincy's example of the family of 6 that has easy access to a car.

But how many flights per day run between Cincy and Chicago? If half of those have only those cities as their origin and destination (i.e. not connecting to other flights), that's still a lot of people. Having flown back and forth to Chicago about 12-15 times last year for business, I know that the flight costs between $800-$1200 when bought less than a week ahead. Ignoring the travel time to and from CVG (I would still have to drive to the train station), a 3.5 hour travel time would be pretty comparable to the air travel time (1 hour early arrival, 1 hour air travel time, 1 hour from O'Hare to downtown via CTA). Even if the train ticket were a couple hundred dollars, I think you'd attract a pretty fair number of passengers.

The big question would be frequency. Between Delta and United, you can get a flight to Chicago nearly every hour.

ekalb said...

As someone that travels to Chicago on weekends for leisure. Train service would be a better option than taking a car that will be parked for the weekend. I know plenty of people that hated the idea of riding a bus, now use Megabus regularly. Driving is a pain in the ass on American highways. Everyone knows it. Anyone wanna trade traffic horrors in Chicago? If I can have a leisurely ride on a train that shows up on a convenient set schedule. I am on it.