Slow Speed Rail and the Infrastructure Deficit

by on July 2, 2012 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

High speed rail, especially California’s project, looks to me to be monorail economics, a costly boondoggle whose appeal lies not in rational calculation (also here) but in the desire of some politicians (and voters) to feel visionary and sexy. In theory, CA HSR  might work but the inevitable reviews, delays, lawsuits and special interest payoffs make the prospects of a beneficial project look dim, demosclerosis kills.

Slow speed rail, however, i.e. freight transport, isn’t sexy but Warren Buffett is investing in rail and maybe we should as well. In particular, there are basic infrastructure projects with potentially high payoffs. Congestion in Chicago, for example, is so bad that freight passing through Chicago often slows down to less than the pace of an electric wheel chair. Improvements are sometimes as simple as replacing 19th century technology with 20th century (not even 21st century!) technology. Even today, for example:

…engineers at some points have to get out of their cabins, walk the length of the train back to the switch — a mile or more — operate the switch, and then trudge back to their place at the head of the train before setting out again.

In a useful article Phillip Longman points out that there are choke points on the Eastern Seaboard which severely reduce the potential for rail:

…railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line. In 2007, it submitted a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a steel wheel interstate from Washington to Miami, but no federal funding has been forthcoming.

Longman points out that:

Railroads have gone from having too much track to having not enough. Today, the nation’s rail network is just 94,942 miles, less than half of what it was in 1970, yet it is hauling 137 percent more freight, making for extreme congestion and longer shipping times.

I believe that there are valuable infrastructure projects but I am dispirited by the fact that these projects have been valuable for a long time and progress is very slow. Why haven’t the gains from better infrastructure already been taken? Why haven’t the $500 bills been picked up? It’s worrying that the bullet boondoggles get all the attention while simple things like updating 19th century technology is ignored. And it’s not just rail, sewers and the water supply are another example. Consider:

The average D.C. water pipe is 77 years old, but a great many were laid in the 19th century. Sewers are even older. Most should have been replaced decades ago.

Does that sound like the infrastructure of an advanced nation?

We need better, more trustworthy, institutions for infrastructure investment. As I said in Launching:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build the system today. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

Hat tip: Mark at Observation Epidemiology.

dead serious July 2, 2012 at 7:59 am

HSR doesn’t work if there isn’t well-running, long-spanning, and well-adopted intracity rail or bus service in place.

I don’t know much about the CA rail infrastructure within LA, for example, but my impression is that it’s not widely used.

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

GiT July 2, 2012 at 11:10 am

Daily ridership is 300k. Not insignificant in the least. (BART in the SF Bay Area claims 380k)

dead serious July 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

True.

The main reason why HSR works well in Japan, for example, is that there are robust intercity transit systems.

It makes no sense to take mass transit between cities if you can’t get around without a car once in your destination city. I’m not sure that L.A.’s public transportation system is robust enough to support HSR.

Byomtov July 2, 2012 at 8:41 pm

It makes no sense to take mass transit between cities if you can’t get around without a car once in your destination city. I’m not sure that L.A.’s public transportation system is robust enough to support HSR.

I don’t understand. Don’t airplanes count as “mass transit?” The “flight plus rent-a-car” routine is a pretty common feature of life for lots of people.

Ricardo July 2, 2012 at 10:22 pm

What Byomtov said. HSR between LA and SF is a potential substitute for air travel. Whether it economically makes sense given the infrastructure costs, I don’t know. But those flights between LAX and SFO are not empty: clearly there is a demand for a fast form of transportation along the California coast where people have to rent a car, take public transport or get picked up by friends when they arrive at the destination.

Silas Barta July 3, 2012 at 1:11 am

Except you don’t really need a car if you’re landing in SF. Take BART, and use the rest of the public transportation system: buses, cable cars, Caltrain, ferries, oh my!

Sbard July 3, 2012 at 11:10 am

The other thing Japan has going for it is that all of its major cities lie more or less along a single axis and are fairly closely spaced together. The California HSR plan doesn’t have many destinations of consequence between LA and SF. The segment of the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka alone (shorter than the distance from LA to SF) has stops in places like Yokohama, Nagoya, and Kyoto.

Go Kings, Go! July 2, 2012 at 2:55 pm

300k ridership is insignificant if you compare to things. Things such as population, cost per-passenger, mileage, projections used to pass legislation and funding, promises made by editorials and politicians, etc. Scale is important.

GiT July 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm

7.5% of the population is pretty good. Probably gets even better if you cut out the large swathe of the city not served by the rail. (westside and parts of the valley).

Steve Sailer July 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm

The no-subway Westside of L.A., however, is where vistors to L.A. mostly want to go.

MaxUtility July 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm

@Steve Sailor – the westside is where they’re building the subway right now, two of them in the near future to be exact. But even so, why do you think visitors “mostly want to go” there? Most people don’t visit LA to go to the beach.

Major July 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Daily ridership is 300k. Not insignificant in the least.

In a metropolitan area of 15 million people, 300k rides a day is trivial. About 1 ride for every 50 people. And that ride isn’t even a roundtrip. Just a single boarding .

Oreg July 3, 2012 at 7:44 am

If underdeveloped local mass transit were a show stopper for long-distance passenger service then air travel wouldn’t work in the U.S. That is obviously not the case.

Of course there is a network effect between mass transit systems. The more there are and the better they are connected the more useful they are. Each network starts with a single link. I would think that the long-distance link is actually the more attractive proposition. Once that is in place it will create demand for local transport which might eventually lead to the political will to build it too. That’s how New York’s JFK eventually was linked to the city. But it was already a highly popular long-distance option without the local link.

Major July 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm

If underdeveloped local mass transit were a show stopper for long-distance passenger service then air travel wouldn’t work in the U.S. That is obviously not the case.

That doesn’t follow at all. Airports tend to be located well outside city centers and are easily accessible by car. Train stations tend to be located in city centers where roads are congested and parking is expensive. So a good mass transit system is much more important for access to train stations than to airports. But good mass transit is difficult to provide in the U.S., because our cities are so sprawly and decentralized. That’s one reason why long-distance travel in the U.S. is overwhelmingly dominated by planes and autos.

Oreg July 4, 2012 at 4:34 am

Nothing prevents HSR from stopping at airports. There are a number of such stations already (e.g., Paris, Frankfurt). In fact, the CA HSR plans include a stop at SFO. At LAX that will be difficult as, ironically, the airport is located in the middle of the city, bolstering my point.

Major July 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Nothing prevents HSR from stopping at airports.

It doesn’t make much sense for HSR to stop at airports unless the airport lies on the route between two cities. The supposed time advantage of HSR comes mainly from the fact that it can carry passengers directly between city centers. But with people and jobs increasingly located in the suburbs rather than in or close to the city center, the demand for downtown-to-downtown trips is getting weaker.

At LAX that will be difficult as, ironically, the airport is located in the middle of the city, bolstering my point.

Huh? LAX is 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. And Los Angeles is a large and a highly decentralized urban area. Jobs and people are spread out over a huge region. There’s no big downtown concentration of jobs and people comparable to New York or Washington. And no mass transit system comparable to the New York subway or the Washington Metro. That’s why HSR doesn’t make sense in LA, or virtually anywhere else in the U.S.

The California HSR project will never be built. They don’t have anything close to the enormous amount of money they need to build it ($33 billion. Sorry, I mean $43 billion. No, make that $98 billion. Oops, it’s now $68 billion for a slower train), and they don’t have any prospect of getting the money. They might manage to waste a few billion building a train to nowhere in the central valley before the wretched thing finally gets cancelled.

Oreg July 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm

You seem to argue that cities have no commercial center but that trains must go there anyway. That is not consistent. Either an airport is conveniently located. Then trains should go there too. Or the airport is too far away from passenger’s final destinations. Then trains have the advantage that they can be routed closer to commercial centers. They may even stop at both airport and commercial centers.

The time advantage of HSR comes from much higher speed than cars and much lower overhead (check-in, security etc.) compared to planes. And then there are all the positive externalities.

Who was talking of downtown L.A.? LAX is located in a densely populated part of the city, not in a suburb. And again, L.A. sprawl is no more an argument against HSR than against air travel. Both provide long-haul transportation without solving the last-mile problem.

Bill July 2, 2012 at 8:04 am

High speed rail and traditional rail are complements. Taking passenger traffic off of freight line rails reduces congestion.

Andrew' July 2, 2012 at 9:07 am

Drone-piloted flying cars and evacuated tube transport are the future of people moving.

Nicoli July 2, 2012 at 9:46 am

You would get a much better return on your investment if you took freight off the roads and diverted existing rail traffic from major population centers through improved rail. The low hanging fruit is with improvements to existing rail. Once their are major freight bypasses around every major choke-point in the United States, then we can start thinking about HSR etc.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 10:03 am

Is road-freight getting away with not picking up as much as a share of road costs as it ought to? I suspect so but what’s a rigorous economical way to analyse this?

A freight-only toll might move traffic to rail.

Alex B. July 2, 2012 at 10:34 am

Yes, it is.

Damage to the roadway scales to the 4th power of axle weight. So, a truck that is 10x as heavy as a car will do 10,000x the damage to the roadway as a car.

That’s why residential side streets that only see car and infrequent light truck traffic hold up much better than Interstate highways that see tons of truck traffic. And no, the combined taxes/fees on trucking do not come close to matching their impact on the roadways.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 10:35 am

You start by looking at the FHWA’s Highway Statistics publication series, the BTS report on Federal Subsidies to Passenger Transportation, and the BTS National Transportation Statistics series.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 10:37 am

OTOH, when it comes to air travel, we definitely subsidize both general aviation and smaller aircraft compared to larger aircraft, as the BTS reports I linked above will agree.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 10:43 am

There are the equivalents of freight-only taxes and tolls already. The expected reply, of course, is that they may be insufficient. Certainly increasing them might move traffic to rail.

Focusing on long distance train travel is probably a waste. Automobile occupancy is much higher on long distance trips. Replacing commuting has the biggest potential energy and emissions gains.

Michael Cain July 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm

“And no, the combined taxes/fees on trucking do not come close to matching their impact on the roadways.”

Absolutely. There are very long stretches of western interstate highways where more than 10% of the vehicles are long-haul big-rig trucking. Given the fourth-power law for road surface damage, such trucking is, for practical purposes, the cause of 100% of the surface damage. In addition, the roadways have to be thicker in order to withstand the heavier axle weights of the big rigs than otherwise.

From time to time this discussion comes up before state legislatures regarding state highways. The trucking firms testify that increases in their costs will simply show up in increased prices for the goods. What goes unsaid is that if the cost of shipping by truck goes up substantially, rail from the West Coast to at least the east side of the Great Plains looks *much* more attractive. Perhaps enough so that the railroads would restore scheduled freight service.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Someone should know this, but what’s the difference between parkway and expressway maintenance costs in New York? I vaguely remember it’s a factor of 2, i.e. about half the maintenance cost comes from just keeping the road open and in good shape, and the other half comes from road wear caused by trucks. But I have no reference on hand for this figure and my memory isn’t very good at these things.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 9:12 am

That’s if you build entirely new rail lines. However, it’s very, very expensive to do so, and also takes an extremely long time to get the planning and environmental impact studies done.

What we actually see (and even in the revised California plan) is higher speed rail using existing rail lines. In those cases, they aren’t complements, but substitutes. Trains of different speeds on the same line interfere with each other.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 9:20 am

For example, consider the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. That’s mostly an upgrade of existing lines, combined with acquiring an abandoned line and rebuilding it. The environmental and planning work along has taken decades. The corridor was designated in 1992. The Tier I Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was begun in 1999. That was completed in 2002, and received a Record of Decision. That cleared the way for the Tier II EIS, which began in 2003. The Draft Tier II EIS was finished in 2010 and signed then. That cleared the way for the Final Tier II EIS, which is expected to be finished by the states by the end of 2012, and then a Record of Decision from the FRA by the Fall of 2013.

Then work can finally begin.

It’s not clear how much this extensive process actually results in significant changes to plans. A lot of times there’s significant pressure to get the “right” answer when comparing recommendations. However, that kind of pressure may be the only way to do it quickly. If the process is taken seriously and all alternatives explored and stakeholder input valued, then it takes decades.

We can only fund and build projects that were mapped out decades ago. If our projections end up being wrong, then we can’t adapt.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 9:46 am

The part that boggles the mind is why a train track upgrade needs 10 years of Environmental Review. It’s not as if it will generate effluents or much wastewater etc.

And if it’s an upgrade that right of way already exists. The approvals process really needs de-bottle-necking.

TallDave July 2, 2012 at 10:14 am

It’s a jobs program for environmental science majors.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 10:40 am

It stems, fundamentally, from an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge tradeoffs, like in so many cases. That tendency is exacerbated when the costs paid are “off budget,” like a cost of time or regulatory burden.

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 10:59 am

When he said that they were creating shovel-ready infrastructure jobs, he didn’t mention that that shovel was taking soil samples.

James July 2, 2012 at 10:59 am

NEPA requirements are not particularly onerous, however, and many people conflate the fact that environmental review exists with its endlessness. RPA just released a report on streamlining, and most of it deals with improving coordination and ensuring that processes and protocols don’t waste time: http://www.rpa.org/library/pdf/RPA-Getting-Infrastructure-Going.pdf In essence, the 10-year review is a vestige of under-resourced transportation agencies at the state and federal level. Get your project to the top of the list, coordinate agencies and spend the time and money to adequately assess litigation that will come and you can get things done much quicker (v. I-35W completion).

derek July 2, 2012 at 11:01 am

That is why I don’t take seriously this ‘infrastructure’ push to rebuild the nation. Ok then, if that is what you want, rationalize the environmental review process. The question becomes who is more important as a base, the lawyers and environmental lobby, or the nation. We know who wins. And yes, the other side does the same thing.

The fight over these things isn’t whether it is done responsibly, but whether it is done at all.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 11:48 am

@James:

Your argument appears to be that NEPA reviews aren’t particularly onerous, they just require more time, effort, money, and people than agencies are willing to put into it, together with a strong effort to put your project at the top of the list.

I’m sorry, but that argument itself reinforces my belief that reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act are too onerous. Tradeoffs exist, and they have to be acknowledged.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 11:54 am

The other problem, James, is that entire new rail lines, like for true high speed rail, are never going to get a Categorical Exclusion. They’re never going to get a Finding of No Significant Impact. They’re never going to require only an Environmental Assessment.

Your report claims that “The Council on Environmental Quality maintains that the NEPA process should take less than 12 months to complete, even for large, complex projects, and no more than three months for less complicated projects. In fact, a survey of projects by the Federal Highway Administration found that the average time it took to complete an EIS in 2011 had grown to 8.1 years, compared with 2.2 years in the 1970s. A similar study found that it typically took 18 months to process a finding of no significant impact and six months to document a categorical exclusion.”

It would indeed be nice if they could be finished that quickly. I welcome attempts to streamline the process. However, again, all that report does is reinforce the idea that the process is broken.

mulp July 2, 2012 at 7:52 pm

“And if it’s an upgrade that right of way already exists. The approvals process really needs de-bottle-necking.”

If you cross the unused right of way several times a day at grade and it is restored to service with trains running frequently, then will the time you spend waiting for trains to pass have an environmental impact to your community?

If the railway authority decides the cheapest solution is to close that grade crossing because an overpass will be built which will add no more than a mile detour, will that plan have an environmental impact to your community?

If your quiet community will be exposed day and night to loud trains passing nearby on a long unused right of way that was considered abandoned when your community was built, will the noise have an environmental impact?

If the plan calls for building a wooden barrier along the rails to limit noise which you consider ugly, will that have an environmental impact on your community?

Merely owning land does not automatically allow you to use the land anyway you want without regard to the impact on the environment around you, which includes the people in the community.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 11:19 pm

@mulp:

That’s all fine, if you think that the process is appropriate. But we didn’t have that process before 1970. I can be sympathetic to an argument that because of abuses and externalities, NEPA and its process is appropriate. But that still doesn’t make it not the answer to the question, “Why don’t we build as much infrastructure as we used to?”

We raised the on-budget cost of infrastructure in 1970. Maybe that was justified, maybe not, maybe it should have been raised some but not as much. No matter what, though, the inevitable response was going to be less infrastructure, as a higher cost meant shifting resources towards other things. I can’t imagine how else the political equilibrium would respond.

James July 3, 2012 at 8:53 am

@John Thacker:

Your response illustrates exactly what I am trying to say. NEPA itself is merely an overarching requirement to engage minority interests before a project can move forward. The exact ways in which that must happen are not stipulated. If state and federal agencies were able to improve their processes for implementing NEPA requirements, you could see a drop in the average duration of review processes. NEPA itself is not the onerous part.

As a sort of side note, but perhaps more to the point, NEPA cannot truly be streamlined without losing the essential reason for environmental review. We need to make sure that relevant social actors are engaged in infrastructure projects to avoid damage to ecosystems both natural and societal. Whereas this allows for insipid NIMBYism, it also helps ensure that legitimate issues are brought to the fore. Doing otherwise would severely endanger people’s rights, not to mention allow infrastructure to be completed without consideration of many important unforeseen considerations.

Lastly, I do not argue that the environmental review process is adequate – it takes too long and costs too much, but you cannot blame NEPA for this. Many projects get done in short order, many do not. Finding ways to diminish average review time is an extremely important idea, but dismantling NEPA would seemingly weaken society and enable significant damage to ecosystems.

Frank Eggers July 9, 2012 at 12:11 am

Why does it take so much longer to build a rail line now than it did in the 19th century? Perhaps if we understand why, we can do something about it.

mark July 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Numbers? Sources? How much does it reduce congestion? What is the value gained thereby?

Orange14 July 2, 2012 at 8:05 am

Freight rail by and large is doing fine in the US. Most of the companies have invested a lot of money in upgrading their track beds and the Baltimore issue is really more the exception than the rule. Rail still is the most energy efficient way to transport large volumes and will continue to be so. Passenger rail on the other hand is really a solution in search of a problem. With the exception of Northeast Corridor Amtrack service, it just cannot compete and the other Amtrack lines are pretty much for rail buffs, though some are incredibly scenic.

The government could make strategic infrastructure spends as noted and in fact a lot of what was done in 2009-10 was such spending. It was hard not to see signs up on road construction noting this. Unfortunately, there is little appetite for doing so since this requires tax dollars and look how long it took to get the highway bill passed (which should have been a slam dunk).

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Freight rail by and large is doing fine in the US.

My gut feeling says you are wrong. But I wish I could offer evidence; not sure how one proves a freight rail system is or isn’t doing fine.

mark July 2, 2012 at 12:08 pm

The companies are making a profit, and there are few reports of complaints from either the shippers or recipients of goods.

Boonton July 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm

That might be a bad sign. If rail *should* be dramatically expanded but it can’t due to market imperfections (like endless environmental difficulty creating new lines or bringing old ones back online), then the few companies that happen to own viable lines will enjoy monopoly profits. Their financial health demonstrates not that the industry is doing fine but the opposite.

Consider the internet. How many internet firms are struggling? But the Internet itself has never been as healthy.

Michael Cain July 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm

If one looks at the map showing tonnage over various routes, freight rail is doing well largely because of moving western coal (primarily from Wyoming) east. One suspects that Warren Buffett bought into BNSF in anticipation of moving Wyoming and Montana coal to the West Coast for shipping to Asia.

http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/freight/freight_analysis/nat_freight_stats/docs/07factsfigures/fig3_13.htm

steve July 2, 2012 at 8:31 am

Are the rail companies able to do this w/o government aid? What is holding them back? Is it possible to build through older, central city areas w/o a private/public partnership?

As a practical matter, why not just declare a War on Old Infrastructure? That always gets spending going as we do love our wars.

Steve

Andrew' July 2, 2012 at 9:05 am

Warren Buffett reportedly bought into rail in part because the return on invested capital had been increasing.

Orange14 July 2, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Absolutely, and I’ve been a shareholder in NSC for the past 5 years and done extremely well.

Tangurena July 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm

The costs of land acquisition to expand rail right-of-ways are horrendous in urban environments.

Building freight lines in rural area, where the land acquisition costs are trivial, runs about $1-5 million/mile of track. This should give you an idea of the cost of rail and the bed it lays on.

Building light rail lines in urban cities, where land acquisition is high and politically expensive, runs about $40 million/mile of track. Light rail is a lot smoother than freight lines, but the land and electrification costs drive the price tag way up.

Building high speed rail lines through urban areas, which includes not only the costs of the light rail, but making every crossing over/under passes, ran about $120 million/mile of track in 1990s. Since then, copper, steel and cement prices have skyrocketed.

The problem with high speed rail is that it cannot have any grade crossings. Partly because too many idiots drive and are unwilling to wait for the train to pass. But also because when you consider the distance it takes to stop a train going 120-150 miles per hour, and the height of the train driver’s eyes above the ground, the visible horizon is closer than the distance to stop.

Steven Kopits July 2, 2012 at 8:54 am

If politicians’ incentives were aligned, investments would be made. If not, social spending will crowd out capex. We saw this time and again in Hungary.

As for sewers, Budapest had a similar problem–and I actually did a consulting project for the city in the early 1990s. (I believe the residents can thank me for tripling their sewer bills.)

One problem faced by sewer management was that the collapse of sewer pipes was unpredictable. Often, 100 year old sewer lines would hold up, 25 year oil pipe would collapse. So it was very difficult to be proactive using a conditional rule. This left the sewer folks to use simple scheduling (age of pipe, for example) as a metric to drive replacement. But this yields a pretty high capex ratio, because you don’t know if you’re replacing the appropriate length of pipe.

john personna July 2, 2012 at 9:32 am

Bravo. I feel like I’ve been too alone explaining the benefits of low speed rail (and bidirectional rail lines) over sexy high speed rail. Sadly, the politics seems driven by people’s fuzzy idea that they might take a high speed ride, once, sometime in the future.

Graeme July 2, 2012 at 9:44 am

A proposal to bail out profitable corporations? Well, I guess freedom isn’t free…

Nicoli July 2, 2012 at 9:52 am

I’m going to guess that improved rail runs up against a lot of roadblocks from the trucking lobby. Also, though I’m in favor of making significant improvements, I wonder what the net effect would be on jobs especially if rail improvements made it easier to ship goods made in China throughout the United States.

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 10:07 am

“I wonder what the net effect would be on jobs especially if rail improvements made it easier to ship goods made in China throughout the United States.”

Cheaper goods for all involved, leaving more disposable income for food, utilities, and other necessities?

Nicoli July 2, 2012 at 10:23 am

I’m thinking net impact to truckers and domestic manufacturers. It might be positive (more commerce, more shipping) but it might also throw certain constituencies under the bus, well train.

Dan Weber July 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm

The trucking lobby uses rail significantly. Rail is awesome for what it is, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t deal with the last mile (or even the last 100 miles).

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm

The ground reality in the US though, is that trucking is often handling all of the miles.

Dan Weber July 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Measured in ton-miles, the US is the biggest user of cargo freight in the world. (China has been threatening to take the lead and may have done so since I last checked.)

Our people usually don’t travel by train, but our goods do.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Ton-miles are a tricky metric. How much of that is coal and ores? The value-miles share of trains must be much lower.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm

The share of value, as opposed to ton-miles, is 4%. 75% is carried by trucks.

http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/air_quality/publications/effects_of_freight_movement/chapter02.cfm

On the other hand, if what you care about is environmental impact, it makes all the sense in the world to maximize rail’s share of ton-miles. Your lungs don’t care if they’re breathing in pollution from iron ore freight or from express mail freight.

On the third hand, any reasonable attempt to price or regulate pollution and carbon emissions would end the use of coal and that would change the equation for rail dramatically. In fact the majority of the difference between US and EU freight rail mode share comes from features unrelated to transportation policy, including America’s higher amount of coal freight.

celestus July 2, 2012 at 9:54 am

I suppose from the point of view of someone on the left if the government builds a new tunnel for CSX it is “corporate welfare” but if it builds a high speed line operated by Amtrak it is a public service. And frankly I wonder why they can’t get private funding if the potential gains are so high. How low do they need interest rates to be before it just spits out a positive NPV?

As for moving passengers, take a bus, which we kind of already have the infrastructure for. If what you’re really after is “intercity transportation exclusively for Mac users” then charge $100 for a bus ticket just as you would for rail, problem solved.

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 10:11 am

“intercity transportation exclusively for Mac users”

I was about to post about how none of the people I know here in sunny California who support HSR (the “Browndoggle”) have ever actually taken a train before, while those who have enjoyed the services of Amtrak and Greyhound remain firmly attached to their cars, but you nailed it for me.

Finch July 2, 2012 at 10:49 am

> And frankly I wonder why they can’t get private funding if the potential gains are so high.

I wonder if the CEOs of railroads are thinking “I might be able to wrangle a big subsidy for this… Why should I spend our own money?” Then you get into a sort of game of chicken over investment timing.

Finch July 2, 2012 at 10:50 am

I find it odd when I get “you are posting comments too quickly” when it’s my first comment in four days…

Mark Thorson July 2, 2012 at 11:38 am

If Tyler’s logged in, it amuses him to read the comments in real-time and hit the reject button just to mess with you.

Alex Godofsky July 2, 2012 at 9:55 am

The average D.C. water pipe is 77 years old, but a great many were laid in the 19th century. Sewers are even older. Most should have been replaced decades ago.

The funny thing is, somehow my sinks work and my toilets work. I’m pretty confident that they will continue to do so. Do we tons of examples of this not being true in the rest of the US?

Dan Hill July 3, 2012 at 5:54 am

@alex – “The funny thing is, somehow my sinks work and my toilets work”

Catastrophic failures in water and sewer infrastructure tend to get fixed in double time. Meanwhile your water authority loses 20% of the water to leaks and sewer leaks from old pipes pollute groundwater and rivers. But that’s all out of sight out of mind…

TheAJ July 2, 2012 at 10:05 am

Infrastructure Projects cost a lot of money and when there is a B instead of an M constituents lose interest and clamor for a tax cut instead.

RPLong July 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

It’s disheartening to me how so many conversations about infrastructure become conversations about institutions. Railway lines were not public infrastructure until they were socialized. Rather than government investment in 19th Century shipping methods, we need entrepreneurial innovation in that space. We’ll never get it, though, if we’re always running to our “institutions” to solve our problems for us. Unless someone is profit-driven enough to solve this problem, it will never get solved.

TallDave July 2, 2012 at 10:14 am

What about the well-known success of monorails in Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook?

Stuart July 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

FTW!

Think July 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Fun fact: Conan O’Brien wrote that episode. His crowning glory at the Simpsons (only spent ~2 years there)

Allan July 2, 2012 at 10:16 am

I truly do not understand why we cannot get both done. We should have the government get a right of way wide enough for both HSR and freight down the eastern shore, from, say, Portland to Miami. The main rail lines could skirt major cities by 30 or 40 miles and use existing lines to get passengers to the city centers, while building freight hubs in the boondocks. Perhaps the passenger trains could have cars for specific cities that are dropped off and picked up at the hubs, enabling those going longer distances to avoid the inevitable delays of traveling through cities.

Eventually, this type of system might result in existing (low efficient) tracks to be abandoned and put to more productive use.

Would it cost a fortune? Yes. Would it be used? Yes. Would it be economically beneficial? I don’t know.

mark July 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm

To get from Portland to Miami, we have an existing rail network, air traffic, and I-95. As well, depending on what you want to send from one to the other, there is a telecom infrastructure that is fastest of all. And last there is the Atlantic Ocean for maritime shipping.

I would think it is impossible for any additional mode to justify its costs against that competition, or against the alternative policy of upgrading the existing modalities.

Barbara Alexander July 2, 2012 at 10:16 am

Alex, does your electricity work this week? I gather the DC area suffering through the same poor-country mess New England faced recently when Hurricane Irene hit. My pet peeve wrt infrastructure is the mess of overhead power lines. Can anyone answer this – didn’t a bunch of internet cable get put in ditches in recent years? Why no coordination to put electric underground at the same time?

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 11:04 am

Internet cable is hardly a good analog for power transmission. High Voltage implies expensive insulation and waterproofing. Underground power transmission is at least 4-6 times as expensive (on a distance basis) as overhead and sometimes much more especially in developed areas.

Also you trade one set of disasters for another (maybe a bit less frequent ones). Repairs are way more difficult and time consuming too.

Overall the cost-benefit rarely justifies under-grounding.

Alex Godofsky July 2, 2012 at 1:42 pm

My power works just fine (and yes I’m in the DC area). It seems to me that if we really have a terrible electrical infrastructure we can easily recognize that locally with “oh, hm, we have an unacceptably high # of days without power given the weather over the past few years” and from that decide to invest more in power lines and such. What we don’t need is some silly national conversation about our “crumbling infrastructure”.

MaxUtility July 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Repair costs on infrastructure typically go up exponentially as things age. So regular maintenance of 10 bridges costs the same as major repair of one that you let fail. It’s not that somehow the entire nation will grind to a halt. But we will increasingly see massive expenditures on emergency bridge, pipe, powerline construction when there is a major failure when we could have spent far less to maintain what we have. BTW, the earstern seaboard has had a couple major, multistate power outages in the last few years that were caused by minor failures that spread due to old, out of date infrastructure. So I’m not sure exactly when “unacceptable” kicks in.

Ed July 2, 2012 at 10:28 am

This is an excellent post and points to exactly the argument that should be happening about infrastructure.

The equivalent for passenger rail is commuter rail. Most trips are within metropolitan areas, so if you want to get people out of their cars more often -I realize this isn’t a goal of many here- this has the most bang for the buck.

And yes, the electrical grid is not in good shape.

Corey July 2, 2012 at 10:38 am

How many times does the pattern of rail project announced –> libertarians and conservatives call it a boondoggle –> it gets built and people use and love it have to repeat itself before you guys finally figure it out?

That’s not to say that every rail project ever conceived, from here until the end of time, is good. But generally, when these things are announced – especially commuter and light rail – the usual suspects go wild with fever dreams of the intruding state and nearly always the project ends up succeeding well beyond even the planners’ expectations.

Yancey Ward July 2, 2012 at 11:02 am

We are going to need an example of one built in the last 40 years that is “succeeding well beyond even the planners’ expectations.”

TallDave July 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm

North Haverbrook. It put them on the map!

Colin July 2, 2012 at 11:35 am

it gets built and people use and love it

Dispersed costs, concentrated benefits. That some people love it is not evidence that something is useful or makes economic sense.

mark July 2, 2012 at 12:23 pm

It’s pretty well proven that there is not a single instance of passenger rail in the US that covers its costs from revenues. Randal O’Toole at Cato did a massive quantitative nalysis of every one of them about 2 years ago. As well, he makes a strong case that the net environmental impact is nil, because an enormous amount of hydrocarbons get spent building the infrastructure and equipment, and they operate inefficiently (traffic is largely one way at peak hours but the train has to run two ways, and at nonpeak hours both ways are inefficient, so only one out of four trips is saving energy).

MaximusNYC July 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Why is “covering its cost from revenues” the relevant metric? Do interstate highways cover their costs from revenues? Certainly not. The benefits of transportation systems are distributed across society, among numerous individuals and organizations. That’s why they’re publicly funded.

TallDave July 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Yes, but no one uses rail for free, either.

Major July 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm

The benefits of transportation systems are distributed across society, among numerous individuals and organizations. That’s why they’re publicly funded.

The benefits of passenger rail are concentrated among the tiny subset of the population that uses it on a regular basis, but the costs are borne by the general population. Passenger rail subsidies are an enormous transfer of wealth by the government from the many to the few.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Q: how do you know Randall O’Toole is wrong?

A: he opens his mouth.

http://www.railvolution.org/rv2008_pdfs/rv2008_230e.pdf

MaxUtility July 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm

How do you know something isn’t true? Randall O’Toole proved it…with data!

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Err, the document you have linked to is about mass transit (since it’s from the FTA, no wonder). I believe that the comment you’re replying to is about intercity passenger rail. (But he may be lumping in commuter rail.)

The case for intercity passenger rail is much weaker, largely because the average occupancy in long distance car trips is much greater. The latter is over 2; the average occupancy for work commutes is 1.1, and the worst of any usage (see the documents I linked above from the BTS and other agencies.)

As the presentation you linked acknowledges, occupancy is the big deal. Amtrak’s low occupancy long-distance trains may actually be bad for the environment on an operating basis, they’re so inefficient. That’s not the case for the Northeast Corridor.

I suspect from the data that transit and replacing single passenger work trips is a much better way to approach greenhouse gas reductions than intercity rail.

Unfortunately, the two different situations get conflated a lot.

Alon Levy July 3, 2012 at 8:10 am

For intercity rail, there are other studies out there. The main one that’s being used nowadays to argue against HSR turned out to make a unit conversion error (more precisely, it quoted another report that made a unit conversion error) that ended up overstating HSR energy consumption by a factor of 4. That’s by Chester and Horvath. (The FTA presentation quotes a separate study of Chester.) Do it right and HSR looks better.

American intercity trains are inefficient, but it’s not an occupancy issue. It’s a trains-weigh-a-gazillion-tons issue, and probably also an Amtrak-has-operating-practices-from-the-1930s issue. The Acelas are something like 50% heavier per unit of train length than TGVs and Shinkansen trains. Since they also have fewer seats, they end up nearly three times as heavy per seat as bilevel TGVs and more than three and half times as heavy per seat as Shinkansen trains.

Major July 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm

The main one that’s being used nowadays to argue against HSR turned out to make a unit conversion error (more precisely, it quoted another report that made a unit conversion error) that ended up overstating HSR energy consumption by a factor of 4. That’s by Chester and Horvath

No, a blog commenter claimed it made a unit conversion error. The claim has not been substantiated.

Alon Levy July 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Mixner, the numbers used in the study are 4 times higher than used anywhere else, and if you trace the references, you see the error. I don’t think you do science for a living, and so you don’t understand that sometimes mistakes get past peer review.

I don’t need to substantiate claims like 2+2 = 4. It’s the same here.

Major July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Todd, no they’re not. I looked at the references and they don’t say what you think they say.

Alon Levy July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm

In case anyone cares, here is the explanation for the unit conversion error business.

Major July 3, 2012 at 7:32 pm

The claim of error rests on an appeal to a number that appears in a photocopied image of a single page of an unknown document. No evidence is provided that this number is actually relevant to the claim at issue. If you believe you have found a real and serious error in Chester & Horvath’s analysis, why don’t you contact them and ask them about it?

Major July 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Alon Levy,

Here’s your blunder: The 46 kWh/VKT figure you cite includes only “traction” energy and “comfort” energy. It does not include the energy required for electricity generation, transmission and conversion losses. The CAHSR states that including this additional energy multiplies the kWh to BTU conversion factor by 3.65. 46 * 3.65 = 168. Almost exactly the 170 kWh/VKT figure that Chester & Horvath cite and that you incorrectly attribute to a conversion error.

Major July 2, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Gee, a report written by the Federal Transit Administration arguing for….more transit. There’s a shocker. Their “analysis” is painfully dishonest. They compare buses and trains at average occupancy to automobiles at minimum occupancy. Apples to oranges.

What the FTA also isn’t telling you is that transit’s share of the transportation market is so tiny that shifting from autos to transit offers virtually no real-world potential for meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. You’d need an order of magnitude increase in transit ridership just to achieve a very modest reduction in combined emissions. The only way we’re going to achieve large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from passenger transportation over the next 50 years or so is through cleaner cars. Everything else is just noise.

Corey July 3, 2012 at 11:29 am

“Average occupancy” and “minimum occupancy”, in cars, are two pretty similar numbers.

Major July 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm

“Average occupancy” and “minimum occupancy”, in cars, are two pretty similar numbers.

No, average occupancy is about 60% higher than minimum occupancy, 1.6 vs. 1. The difference has a huge effect on calculations of emissions per passenger-mile.

Allan July 2, 2012 at 10:40 am

If memory serves, people thought that the Erie and Panama canals and the interstate highway system were also boondoggles.

Urso July 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm

The Panama Canal was unquestionably a boondoggle. Thousands dead, millions of dollars (inflation adjusted, surely billions), major corporations bankrupted. Hell they dug like half a canal, taking decades to do so, realized it wasn’t in a good spot, and had to start over again.

Now was it worth it in the long term? Sure. But that’s surely cold comfort to those who died of yellow fever digging a half canal that they never even used.

Point is, if the EV of something is $10 billion, and there are two ways of achieving it – (a) spend $1 billion, (b) spend $9 billion – you can’t say that (b) is a good choice because you end up $1 billion in the black.

Ray Lopez July 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Panama Canal not a boondoggle if people signed up to do the work. Risk/reward. Yellow fever was part of the reason they paid you higher wages. Erie canal paid for itself several times over. 19th century style RR (not a bullet train) the most energy efficient way of hauling goods, but only if train is full, which implies you must have a high density corridor.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm

They are on another multi-billion dollar project to widen and deepen the canal right now.

Another boondoggle? I think not.

Alex July 2, 2012 at 10:45 am

I agree with the point I believe you’re making, but I’m not sure your closing comparison to the initiatives of our ancestors supports it. Forgive me if I misread, but it seems you’re arguing that rather than make an expensive investment in cutting edge technology (high speed rail) that is doomed to fail if only because it’s too big for our prodigiously red-taped system, we should instead repair and incrementally upgrade our legacy infrastructure. But that legacy infrastructure was cutting edge and enormously expensive at the time of it’s construction – our ancestors were building the equivalent of a high speed rail system. Think about the interstate system leveling hundreds of square miles of densely developed cities – that’s no incremental task. Neither were the railroads, and they were supported with state bonding that I’d guess is the equivalent of billions of dollars today. It’s certainly valid to question the insatiable growth of our byzantine planning and review process, but it seems to me that if Eisenhower or Vanderbilt (or the men they represent at least) were alive today there would be high speed trains operating already.

Mike July 2, 2012 at 10:54 am

What is the other option to high speed passenger rail? Driving? Flying? These have their own high costs and negative attributes (environmental, traffic congestion, efficiency, delays, inability to expand airport capacity). And god forbid anyone presenting Amtrak from SFO to LAX as an option — it’s costly and time consuming.

It’s important to consider the costs to building the line itself, but direct comparisons with other options would be more helpful to determine if the cost is worthwhile.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 11:29 am

If you find pre-existing Amtrak (with much of its CAPEX already paid for) already costly why would a new higher speed rail be any cheaper? Unless the assumption is that people will pay a large premium for the time saving.

I actually have nothing against passenger rail but the economics have to be compelling.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm

If you find pre-existing Amtrak (with much of its CAPEX already paid for) already costly why would a new higher speed rail be any cheaper?

Because Amtrak is run with all the efficiency of a steam railroad from 1930, and I mean this very literally. On top of that, the Acela, which is what pundits who don’t take the train regularly think of when they think of the Northeast Corridor, is priced as a premium product.

The cheaper high-speed lines out there, e.g. in France and South Korea, charge roughly the same fare per unit of distance traveled as the cheaper Northeast Regional tickets. They are also profitable, and very successful; express buses have a minority share of the market, because they’re much slower. I believe, but do not know, that a system built around low costs from the start would be able to keep fares even lower. For example, both France and South Korea use trains with low seating capacity (as does the Acela), since 20% of the train’s length is locomotives, and a relatively small proportion of the rest is used for seats; although its seat pitch is longer, Japan has twice the seating capacity of a single-level TGV and 20% more than that of a bilevel TGV. Japanese Shinkansen fares are actually higher than TGV fares, but that’s because of capacity constraints and lack of competition rather than high operating costs (and as a result, the Shinkansen is less competitive with airlines at long distances, say 5 hours of travel time).

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

express buses have a minority share of the market, because they’re much slower.

In Germany at least, buses on most routes were expressly forbidden by law (until recently). So the market shares may not reveal much. Rail monopolies were propped up by decree.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 5:54 pm

In France, I don’t think such regulations exist; there are express buses from Paris to Lyon.

Ditto Korea. There are express buses, but their niche isn’t “cheaper than rail” but rather “service to destinations that don’t have train stations yet,” like the airport.

Major July 3, 2012 at 1:39 am

In France, I don’t think such regulations exist

According to this report, you’re wrong.

There are essentially no long-distance express coach services in France. The regulation of public transport is allocated to the State for interregional passenger transport services, and these are the monopoly of the national railway company SNCF. … As a result of this, and although some competition exists between SNCF‟s train services – in particular its TGV high-speed train services – and the airline business, there is no such competition between rail and road.

Joe in Morgantown July 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm

The alternative is low cost bus service.

For example: Megabus does the almost as long Chicago to Cleveland (345 mile) run in 5.5 hours for $19. High speed rail would not, in practice, be faster.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm

What I’d like to know is how much of toll and other direct surcharges Megabus pays for road access. This probably is a strong argument in favor of finding ways to make freight and bus operators pay for their road use privileges.

Ben W July 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm

The important point for Megabus is that they can easily increase or decrease the number of buses running based on demand. Fewer wasted seats, greater efficiency. It’s a big f***ing deal.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I’ve often wondered if there might be a market for smaller, self-propelled train-sets. That’d give you the best of both worlds.

On a technical front, how much of the efficiency advantages of rail over road derives from lower rolling friction versus the economy of scale of a single large prime mover? Are there substantial drag reduction advantages from a coupled configuration to trailing cars of a train-set?

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Rahul, it’s common on low-traffic branch lines in Germany, Japan, and other countries with large passenger rail networks to run single-car or two-car trains. In fact pretty much everywhere in the world of passenger rail they either are transitioning or already have transitioned to self-propelled cars (they’re called multiple-units – EMUs if they’re electric, DMUs if they’re not), and longer trains are just many of those coupled together for extra capacity – maybe only half the units are powered, but it’s still small motors under many cars rather than large prime movers. Every subway system runs EMUs. Even in the US they use mainline EMUs on SEPTA, the LIRR, Metro-North, and Metra Electric. (The DMU market in the US is hobbled by regulations that make off-the-shelf German DMUs illegal.)

The fuel economy of a single-car DMU in Germany is roughly comparable to that of a bus – about 4-5 mpg. Coupling multiple-units together to form a train barely gives you any efficiency gain – you’ll still get about 4-5 car-mpg. You gain more if you run with regular locomotives, but that’s because those locomotives are optimized for long freight trains.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm

@Alon

I’m aware of EMU’s but yet the smallest unit capacity is many times larger than a bus. I am wondering whether there’s any room to go smaller.

A road-rail hybrid bus might be interesting too; but perhaps there are fundamental technical problems that’d prevent this.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm

The answer is yes, but those lower-capacity models tend to be less comfortable. See, for example, here. (And read everything on that site from page 43 to page 45, too, while we’re at it.)

That said, German DMUs are built for low-traffic situations, often for state agencies that mainly operate buses. So they try to make the operating cost the same as that of a bus, and the spare parts as compatible as possible.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm

High-speed rail would do Chicago-Cleveland in 2 hours.

What wouldn’t be any faster is what the FRA and Amtrak call high-speed rail, which runs at a top speed of 90-110 mph, uses slow diesel locomotives, and is an attempt at branding “Amtrak, but slightly faster.” The California HSR project under discussion is not like that, but would instead offer average speeds that roads do not match.

Rahul July 2, 2012 at 5:46 pm

The now-scrapped Chicago-Madison line was similar. Barely 110 mph, and with halts and feeder route times shaved maybe 30 minutes off the 3 hour bus ride.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Yep. Of all the lines that were funded by the stimulus, the only two that were actual HSR were California and Florida. This is part of what Mica was complaining about.

John Thacker July 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Although the California project would look a little better if they didn’t totally lie about the achievable average speeds. They tried to claim something like 2 hours and 40 minutes between LA and SF, with an average speed of 198 mph (including stops).

I have assumed all along that they were lying to try to sell the project, but also have assumed that this was going to bite them in the end.

Alon Levy July 3, 2012 at 8:18 am

First, the average speed they were targeting was more like 162 mph for nonstop trains, which is about what the fastest Chinese HSR trains achieve today with a lower top speed. It passes a smell test.

…and then they made sure that this would be impossible to achieve because of little slowdowns everywhere on the line. See, for example, this. 30 seconds here, 60 there, and suddenly you’re looking at 3:00.

Major July 2, 2012 at 11:35 pm

What is the other option to high speed passenger rail? Driving? Flying? These have their own high costs and negative attributes

For almost all intercity travel, the cost-benefit ratio of driving and flying is greatly superior to that of high-speed rail. Especially in the United States, where intercity distances are so large and cities are so sprawly and decentralized. The only area in the United States where the benefits of HSR might justify its enormous costs is the northeast corridor. And it’s doubtful even there.

Lyle Lanley July 2, 2012 at 11:03 am

Rubbish.

Another Andrew July 2, 2012 at 11:10 am

The Longman article is chock full of errors as to be unreliable. The railroad industry has been accepting government handouts and infrastructure funding for years, really since before the first rails were laid. Yes, railroads did come back starting in the ’80’s, but more due to the Staggers Act deregulating pricing and a rationalization of capacity than just intermodal traffic. Don’t forget the money load of hauling Powder RIver Basin coal for what is now BNSF & UP. The decrease in total rail mileage is largely due to abandonment of the smaller branch lines that were no longer needed. The 2004 UP meltdown was not due to UPS, but to corporate direction that led to some savings but at the expense of the company (what happens when executive incentives are improperly structured). EMD hasn’t been the dominant locomotive builder either in the U.S. or the world for years. Finally, the author seems to have done absolutely no background research on why the postal service canceled the mail contracts forty years ago. Those were hugely profitable to the railroads (and conversely, excessively expensive to the postal service) and served to subsidize passenger service. Once the contracts vanished, so did passenger service on many routes.

YC July 2, 2012 at 11:55 am

I definitely do agree with Tabarrok’s last point, “…we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.” This statement is true. Railroads need to expand in order to make our economy more efficient. Whether the trains are transporting passengers or transporting goods, the outcome will asssist with lessening the traffic congestion on the roads, airplanes, etc. The only other means for transportation for people are driving, flying and sometimes trains if it’s to a praticular large city which isn’t always convienent. Giving the population more options when they travel will take away some congestition from other highly popular means of transpotation. More transportation wouldn’t have delays in relation to traffic since more transportation options would be utilized.

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Of course, HSR is sexy. Who doesn’t want to live in the future?

On the other hand, for the price of California’s high-speed rail line, you could buy a brand-new Prius for every man, woman, and child in Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Palmdale. How much do you want to pay for the ability to maybe take the train someday?

Boonton July 2, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Important difference, in five to ten years a Prius will be almost entirely depreciated down to very cheap used car status. In contrast rail lines built 50, 75, 100 or more years ago are still transporting thousands of people and millions of tons of freight. Would we have been better off if people back then had said something like ‘lets buy everyone a Model T instead’?

TallDave July 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Rail lines and engines depreciate too, though not as fast as roads and cars.

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm

The most expensive part of construction is the civil infrastructure – bridges, right-of-way grading, tunnels – basically doesn’t depreciate. Structures over a hundred years old are frequently usable, for example 1835’s Canton Viaduct. The quantity of interest is the return on investment on building the infrastructure.

Something similar is also true of roads – the Pennsylvania Turnpike uses tunnels from the late 19th century – but the civil infrastructure is a smaller proportion of the costs, while ongoing operating costs like gas and car maintenance and also buying the cars is a higher proportion.

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 9:49 pm

“the civil infrastructure – bridges, right-of-way grading, tunnels – basically doesn’t depreciate”

Can you tell this to the other guys (on this thread, some of them) who are always telling me about the deplorable state of the infrastructure in the US?

(On a less flip note, I never have managed to make the ‘US doesn’t fund its crumbling infrastructure’ rhetoric fit with my everyday experience. They would have much more credibility with that public whose dollars they are seeking if they toned it down a little bit.)

Alon Levy July 3, 2012 at 8:25 am

For all I know, the infrastructure could be crumbling. But with a few well-publicized exceptions, it’s not the bridges and the tunnels. Most of those are structurally sound. It’s the pavement, the drainage, and other things that are cheaper but require more maintenance over time.

The problem is that sometimes interest groups spread FUD about crumbling infrastructure to push for more money. For two prominent examples:

1. In 2005, Amtrak fired David Gunn for emphasizing maintenance over on-paper profitability. In the subsequent few years, it tried to make its financials look stronger. Then the stimulus came and it discovered it had a maintenance backlog, which must be undertaken NOW NOW NOW even before relatively trivial trip time improvements.

2. The Tappan Zee Bridge is structurally sound. However, the state wants to replace it with a wider bridge. It then says that it is functionally obsolete (because to squeeze an extra lane it narrowed all the lanes), lets people confuse that with lack of structural soundness, and is helpfully proposing to replace it with a pair of bridges each as wide as the current one. Projected cost: $8 billion.

mark July 2, 2012 at 3:33 pm

“Who doesn’t want to live in the future?”

I know your remark was sarcastic so don’t take this personally: we all hope to live in the future but I’d like it to be one resulting from optimal decisions.

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm

We are both agreed on that!

The Anonymouse July 2, 2012 at 9:51 pm

… the only problem is, I don’t know what optimum you are solving for. And it is not likely to be identical to mine.

Brandon July 4, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Everyone can take the train — only people who can drive can make full use of those free Priuses.

rj sigmund July 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm

couple more: gulf coast ports wont handle the largest ships passing thru panama, & ohio river barge traffic is about as fast as chicage rail…

Urso July 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Hell it’s an ongoing battle just to get the funding to keep the ports dredged, much less to expand them to the extent necessary to take in the big ships.

JSIS July 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm

You should read more of Atrios.

TallDave July 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm

There is no context in which this is a valid claim.

Ray Lopez July 2, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Re old DC pipes: DC water authority uses a chemical to take Pb (lead) out of the water, despite the fact DC area has the best natural water supply. Enjoy your next cup of water from the tap. Re trains, autos: This author argues buses are cheaper than trains: http://www.jeffersonpolicyjournal.com/?p=2512 On July 3rd Loudoun County’s supervisors are to decide whether to spend taxpayers’ money supporting Phase 2 of the $2.8 billion rail extension to Dulles Airport and beyond.

Boonton July 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm

We need better, more trustworthy, institutions for infrastructure investment

What evidence is there that the previous ‘golden age’ of infrastructure investments were done by espeically trustworthy institutions? The US rail system was built by a network of financial fraud and political bribes. The 100+ yr old water and subway systems of many great cities like NY date from the ages of political bosses. The internet and cell phone networks today were built pretty quickly relatively speaking.

I suppose you can cite the interstate highway system as an infrastructure investement built at a time when trust in gov’t was higher than it is today but I think you can make a case that was pulled by the market as much as pushed by gov’t as people left the cities to homes in the suburbs.

hanmeng July 2, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Yes, Alex argues the appeal of California’s high speed rail lies in the desire of some politicians to feel visionary and sexy. But I’m wondering if there isn’t also some other appeal; I suspect there are groups (other than potential riders) that expect to profit at taxpayer expense.

Alon Levy July 3, 2012 at 8:25 am

Google “Richard Mlynarik.”

Alon Levy July 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Low-speed rail doesn’t mean freight rail. There’s a huge amount of pent-up demand for local transit that could be met by low-speed passenger rail making frequent stops, if there weren’t a horde of federal and state regulations as well as railroad cultural traditions on the parts of both unions and management making it impossible.

The importance of this is that thirty years ago, freight rail looked like a basket case. Companies were closing, transcontinental lines were being abandoned, surviving railroads reduced their mainlines from 4 to 2 tracks or from 2 tracks to 1 to avoid having to pay property taxes on their infrastructure. Passenger rail is in a similar situation today – hobbled by antiquated regulations that nobody talks about, run by people who have no idea that things are done Pareto-better in most other developed countries, inching for a reform that could lead to the same growth that freight has seen in the last few decades.

This is where the investment should be directed. Not at the Howard Street Tunnel – CSX expressly told Maryland and the FRA it’s happy with its present infrastructure and is not interested in a replacement tunnel – but at various lines that could have high ridership potential, coupled with a reform that says, more or less, “if it’s legal on mainline tracks in Europe or Japan, it’s legal here.” Some of those lines are high-speed, such as the Northeast Corridor and, if they can control costs, California. Most aren’t, for example the North-South Rail Link that Boston is obligated to build as a mitigation for the Big Dig but refuses to advance.

Oreg July 3, 2012 at 8:27 am

The reason HSR may not make a profit and is still a good investment for the public is the amount of positive externalities when shifting air and road traffic to rail, most of which cannot be internalized: reduced pollution, reduced energy consumption, congestion relief on parallel modes of transport, reduced land use, fewer accidents, passenger productivity etc. Some of the factors are weaker in the U.S. than elsewhere due to onerous over-regulation of rail—but that can be fixed.

For the state / society / the people the investment will pay off because of the much higher efficiency and much lower external costs of HSR compared to planes and cars. For passengers it is a very fast, convenient and productive way of traveling. That’s why HSR is a success pretty much everywhere it has been tried.

Kirk T. Hartley July 3, 2012 at 9:33 am

Your trust essay is both important and naive. The naive part is proceeding as if infrastructure investment and trust is a new problem in general or as to freight rail in particular- in fact, both are old problems that long predate our current malaise. Both government and the rail industry in Chicago have been dithering through freight train rail improvements for well over 20 years, with very slow but incremental success. As others have pointed out, CSX and other rail lines frequently wait for government funded fixes. In Chicago, government funding arrives only sporadically because of desires for re-election, and related fear of fair increases. In Chicago, we also have seen (and still do) decades of a broad disparity between high infrastructure investment to serve our mainly white, professional northern and western suburbs, and low infrastructure investment in our far more blue collar and diverse suburbs on the south and southwest sides. The good news is that over decades, the decision making process has improved with more regional “authorities” that cut across balkanized decision-making. So, there are past examples available for study as to how to build better decision-makers, and to do so more quickly.

A brief story to highlight the point that the problems are old. Chicago does indeed have massive freight train delays at the rail yards located south and southwest of the city. Indeed, during yesterday afternoon’s rush hour in Chicago, a few hundred other mass transit passengers and I sat at a CSX rail switching site for 50+ minutes because a CSX train was sitting dead on the tracks and blocking Metra’s Southwest service commuter train even though Metra bought, paid for and owns the right to clear passage during rush hours. Was this an oddity ? No, I can personally attest that these far too frequent and long delays caused by freights have been going on since I (reluctantly) became a commuter in 1994.

Brett July 3, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Has long-distance passenger rail in the US ever paid for itself and then some? I thought that even back in the late 19th century, when it was literally rail, boat, or animal/human transport, the long distance passenger rail services were usually paid for by much more profitable long-distance freight rail.

Brett July 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Of course, it’s probably unfair to pick on passenger rail for that. Passenger Air Travel has been net negative in profitability over the past few decades, with one company having sustained profitability year-after-year (Southwest) and the rest of the US airlines going through feast-or-famine cycles (and eventually bankruptcy and restructuring).

Oreg July 4, 2012 at 4:13 am

See my post two up (July 3, 8:27 am).

Brandon July 4, 2012 at 10:58 am

Speaking from the perspective of someone with impaired eyesight, and is thus forever forbidden from ever operating an automobile, America’s car-centrism disappoints me profoundly. Low-speed intra-city rail (I wish I were old enough to remember all those streetcars) is what America really needs.

As it is, the great network of airports is useless without the ability to get where you’re going once you reach your destination city. Today, this is basically only possible if you can drive a car (which you rent) or are so rich that you can hire a taxi to take you around.

It is a national tragedy that visually-impaired people could get anywhere on buses and streetcars back in 1910 but are today practically invalids. And no one seems to care about this at all. I’m hoping that as the Baby Boomers age and begin to lose their eyesight, people might begin to remember that not everyone can use an automobile to get around.

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