What is wrong with Amtrak?

Megan McArdle tells us:

…why is America’s high-speed rail so dreadful? The Acela delivers
you, at enormous added expense, to Boston one hour ahead of the
regional. On the DC-to-NY run, the added benefit is 10-15 minutes. The
answer is that the Acela uses existing track, which is twisty, the
better to serve every congressional district between here and Boston.
Real high speed rail needs to be fairly straight, for the same reason
you don’t take hairpin turns at 120 mph in your car.

I had never heard the Congressional district argument before.  I’ve also heard that freight railways crowd the lines and Amtrak doesn’t pay a high enough prices for access; the freight services had, way back when, pledged to the government to give Amtrak trains priority but of course that kind of cheap talk is not enough to get the job done; here is some relevant background, and more here.  Here is a good summary of Amtrak critiques.  It comes from a whole blog devoted to criticizing Amtrak.


I had never heard the Congressional district argument before.

Maybe that's because the claim on which it's based is not true.

Efficiency of what, odograph? Certainly not my time. For very similar reasons, I drive an automobile for distances less than about 300 miles and fly for greater distances. The lost time in travel to and from the collation points of mass transit, early arrival to avoid the costs of missed connection, and submission to security screening are significant. Further, the marginal cost of a second traveller in the automobile is low (and perhaps the third and beyond).

BTW, I hope it was obvious that for trains to be "efficient" it is not necessary to prove them "universally" so. It is only necessary that there be routes for which they are the best solution.

I second Yomtov. Too many of her statements seem to emanate from the wrong end of her GI tract.

I've often wondered why McArdle and Passey get so much mention here, given the unrelenting shallowness of their commentary.

Where are you going to build a straight-ish track on the Boston to Washington corridor? It's only most the most densely populated area in the country, and probably the most expensive 600 mile stretch of real estate in the world. I guess Megan McArdle doesn't think anybody lives between Boston and NYC. Or between NYC and Philly, or DC? I can't wait until she starts writing David Brooks-type essays about how "liberuls" don't understand anything beyond their provincial towns.

The work of David Lawyer illustrates the fuel inefficiency of passenger rail. By comparison, my Toyota Corolla easily obtains well in excess of 75 gallons (gasoline) per passenger mile with two passengers on a run from Alliance, OH to D.C. (actual measurement -- multiple times). Lawyer points out that post 1970 fuel efficiency gains in automobiles skew the relationship in favor of autos.

(BTW, that's a sub 5 hour trip door to door via auto and a super 10 hour trip station to station under present conditions)

Potential passenger density is certainly the problem. The huge capital outlay for additional track across the Appalachians (or anywhere) is a cost that is hard to justify in such sparsely populated land. Yet between here and D.C. (or the East Coast generally), given the paucity of crossing points (6) for that obstacle and the ability of trains to carry extremely massive, durable loads, does it not make sense to allocate that resource to that task? Let the fragile, time-sensitive humans use some other resource.

"I've often wondered why McArdle and Passey get so much mention here, given the unrelenting shallowness of their commentary."


I think we all know the real-world numbers Randall, but for those that don't there are two main sources, 48 mpg at the (119,329,560 mile) Green Hybrid database, and 47.x mpg at the EPA's share mileage database. You can compare to other make and models, and their 'real world' numbers as well.

That's a bit below the British Rail's 841 mpg on "British Rail Class 321" (whatever that is).

Some much more recent data. Your links used 10 year old data. The most recent energy usage figures from ORNL, Transportation Energy Data Book, Edition 26, Chapter 2, 2004 data.

Cars: 5,489 BTU/vehicle-mi, 3,496 BTU/passenger-mi
Personal Trucks: 7,447 BTU/V-mi, 4,329/p-mi
Amtrak: 51,948 BTU/V-mi, 2,760 BTU/p-mi
Aviation: 357,750 BTU/V-mi, 3,959 BTU/p-mi

Note that load factor matters immensely. The current figures are slightly lower because everyone is making changes to reduce fuel consumption. Also, these numbers are based on gross consumption, so they include idling, taxiing, etc. Most of the political data cherry pickers look at something like the cruising fuel consumption of a packed A380, or the laughably inaccurate EPA mileage estimates for automobiles.

Also, the actual usages are immensely variable and these gross aggregates can be very misleading for individual situations. ORNL did not break out Acela from the total system numbers. Acela has substantially higher typical load factor per car. Acela is also regenerative electric power (brakes feed back into the grid). Electric power allows lots of fuel alternatives, but is less BTU efficient. The automobile figures include both long distance and commuting, which can be very misleading. Slow steady driving is much more efficient than high speed, but sitting in traffic is much less efficient. Cars are also immensely more sensitive to load factor. One driver versus driver with passenger makes a huge difference. I have no idea what should be the assumed load factor when comparing cars with Amtrak.

Her discussion is more a collection of political talking points than a serious effort to comprehend or analyze the situation.

An Acela market indicator: the NYC to DC market share for Amtrak was 45% when Acela was introduced. It is now 54%. All sorts of considerations go into deciding how to travel, but the passengers are switching to Acela, primarily off airplanes. This growth is closing in on some capacity limits. The track, bridges, and tunnels between NYC and DC need major overhauls. Most are 1930's construction. They are shared with local commuter lines. The tunnel under the Hudson is at capacity during the morning and evening rush hours. NY Penn Station is near capacity for tracks and passenger loading. The East River tunnels are also at capacity. Only the East River has construction under way to build another tunnel for LIRR traffic to Grand Central, which will improve both the Penn Station and East River congestion.

I don't know why the hatred of trains, but it has been bipartisan and goes back to the 1930's. I'm sure some of it is based on the abusive relationship between the original railroad companies and the farmers. But you find all sorts of hostilities:

1930's - Creation of the ICC, and outlawing of railroad containers. The early containerization of railroad freight was a major threat to the fledgling trucking industry, which had union and bi-partisan sponsorship.

1950's - ICC regulations set aggregate pricing below the re-investment level needed to sustain long term operations.

1970's - railroads were going bankrupt, and there was a real consideration of their complete failure.

1980's - Staggers act deregulates freight. The world changes dramatically. Container traffic becomes legal. Amtrak is created to manage the elimination of passenger rail gradually, and to absorb the massive layoffs of railroad staff as part of deregulation. $300 million per year of the Amtrak subsidy is still to pay the cost of railroad pensions. The US government absorbed most of the layoff/ retirement costs as part of deregulation. (Basically, Congress contemplated a world without railroads and decided that it would be a national disaster. Freight rail was needed. Passenger rail was not.)

Amtrak has gone through all sorts of political colors during its lifespan, but for some reason it is deeply hated by the Republicans, treated with indifference by the Democrats, and kept alive by its local constituencies. I don't know why the hatred.

odograph, As Peter explains, even the most densely parts of the United States are pretty low density as compared to places like Paris or Seoul.

rjh, Cars let you go from where you are to where you want to go and when you want to go. Trains don't. People aren't being irrational or mean spirited. They turned to cars because they found cars more convenient.

I personally do use Amtrak up and down the NEC for a few reasons:


There is actually room for your legs.

You can get up and walk around if you like.

You can get something to eat or drink when you feel like it.

It doesn't take an hour of security hassles and check-in procedures. Show up a few minutes before the train leaves and you're fine.

You start and end in the middle of town.

I travel between Boston and NY fairly often, and flying strikes me as irrational. Driving is OK, if there is more than one traveller, but generally takes longer than the Acela and comes with hassles of its own.

"why is America's high-speed rail so dreadful?" One must ask Ms. McArdle, "compared to what?" Those fantastic, state managed, and near totally government-subsidized, systems in France or Japan?

Can anyone tell me what the Fountainhead wrote regarding externalities?

I'm not going to rehash everybody's arguments about Amtrak, although one thing that I don't think anybody's mentioned, and that isn't mentioned in those links, is that the deal that Amtrak has with the freight carriers, as I understand it, is that Amtrak has priority until it's late. Once an Amtrak train is a little late, then it immediately becomes very late, because it keeps getting shoved behind more and more freight trains. Also, the interstates, and in fact pretty much all roads in the US, are free and useful why? Because we pay lots of taxes to provide them to everyone as a public service. We do this for the same reason that we allow the post office, another victim of this blog's criticisms, to be a monopoly: because there's a public good in inefficiency. If we left the mail to UPS, it might cost a bit more than 41 cents for some guy in Alaska to send a letter to Hawaii. It's a method of national integration. I'm not so hot on nationalism, but the national post office is definitely serving a purpose, and not just oppressing the poor deprived capitalists who could do it better and more efficiently.

Nobody likes to read long comments on blogs, so I'll artificially break this into two pieces to fool people into reading both parts of my comment, which happen to be reasonably unrelated to each other. More TK.

rjh, There's a fair amount of irrationality among train supporters. Look, you just dismissed my population density argument without showing why it is wrong. This irrationality engenders anger among more market-supporting folks who are found here in large numbers.

Train hating? No. Socialism hating perhaps.

I happen to think trains are cool. I road across the US in a train for fun. But I don't see the business case for them. Look at Acela. Given a choice I'd take it over an airplane even though it takes more time. I want to see the world go by. But if the Acela was incredibly compelling to others and if the economic case for Acela over airplanes was strong then Amtrak would get enough revenue from it to pay for higher priority on train tracks.

Shorter run trains face a much bigger problem with with population densities. Heading from a city to a suburb is a move to a lower population density area. If the city is away from the coast then suburbs stretch in all directions and so population density drops pretty quickly. There are too many destinations to go to.

Then there's the question of energy efficiency. Light rail's advantage is far from clear. Does, for example, the Portland Oregon light rail system move people with more energy efficiency than a Prius?

You never made the complete "population density" argument Randall. You never proved there are no routes, in the US, for which trains would be a useful addition to the transportation mix.

Density is lower in some places than other places ... does anyone know the magic, absolute, final number for density below which trains can never be used?

(Assuming of course that this planner would also know population growth curves, energy price curves, future restrictions on fossil fuels, etc.)

Again, doesn't it strike you as a red flag that you are making a universal argument (trains are never good in the US) and we are making a more moderate, partial argument (there might be some good places for trains).

I reread Ms. McArdle's comment and noticed that she also appears to dislike load management. This is just Amtrak learning from the airlines. Amtrak routinely sells out their peak time trains, both Acela and regional. They adjust the prices to maximize their revenues. The slightly superior Acela costs much more than the regional because that is the price that generates the most revenue. They occasionally adjust prices to react to customer demand shifts. The customers are willing to pay the large difference. Ms. McArdle disagrees with the customer choices. Which basically means she would be one of the people who saves money and travels the slightly inferior regional.

Amtrak also encourages time shifting very strongly. The pricing differential between peak and minimum load times is almost a factor of two for Acela, and between peak time Acela business and cheapest regional is almost a factor of seven. This helps fill the trains. Some passengers are time sensitive, others are price sensitive.

This is no different than what happens constantly in the air travel business. It is much more visible because Amtrak has simple pricing and only changes it every few months. Airlines and travel companies are in a constant dance of pricing adjustments every minute for every flight. They have banks of computers trying to maximize airline revenue or maximize passenger value. To the traveler the cheap flight versus expensive flight is well known, but the details of the mechanisms are opaque. Passenger rail and air travel are similar in that the incremental cost of selling an empty seat is very small, so pricing is chosen to maximize revenue rather than reflect per seat cost.

There is one political difference. Since Amtrak started using load management the Republicans have proposed amendments to outlaw the practice (only for Amtrak, not for airlines). These have all been defeated.

re: not true (that federally funded activities pay attention to Congressional representation).

Wish that it were so. How did military facilities and contracts end up in every powerful life-member of congress' district? Why are there still concierge lounges at Regan National? Why do airlines fly both planes and more routes to certain less-than-profitable cities?

Take the market and merit out of the equation and you find government at its reactionary best ("please don't change, someone will be hurt.." like my incumbency..)

"Trains don't work for the bulk of American commuting and they don't work for long distances. There might be intermediate distances in highly dense areas where trains work. But we are then down to a fairly small percentage of all travel."

Does that explain the hatred? Does that explain the binding some people have in their heads ("Train hating? No. Socialism hating perhaps.")?

The rational, engineering, perspective would seem to be to use them where they are appropriate, to endorse them where they are appropriate, and no more than that. That would seem to be the dispassionate answer.

I love claims that train-hating is all about socialism-hating. I mean, I drive on toll-roads all the time, myself. I never drive on those federally funded superhighways conveniently connecting every major urban center in the country. And I certainly never drive on those locals roads connecting each and every possible destination (including my own home) in the state.

Arguments about the economic efficiency of trains based on the current state of affairs in the US are obviously absurd. An accurate comparison would require actual research. One thing's for certain: either way (trains or cars), you are looking at an example of central planning.

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