Monday, August 03, 2009

Rail updates: HSR, commuter, and airports

There's been a lot of rail buzz in the blogosphere lately, some sparked by the Obama administration's interest in supporting high-speed rail. Harvard professor Edward Glaseser has an op-ed in the Boston Globe expressing strong skepticism:

For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center. In Chicago, almost 70 percent of employment is more than 10 miles from the city center. Even in Greater Boston, 48 percent of jobs are over 10 miles from Beacon Hill.

There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.

The national high-speed rail agenda is being pushed with claims that these trains will jump-start economic growth. No serious evidence supports such claims. When new transportation does affect local economies, it generally does so by moving activity from one place to another, not by creating nationwide benefits.

The case for subsidizing urban mass transit, like the MBTA, is certainly debatable, but it is much stronger than the case for subsidizing rail links between non-coastal cities.

The MBTA’s core problem is that its operating expenses have always been double its operating costs. To function, the system needs about $900 million a year in subsidies from taxes and local assessments, which works out to slightly more than $2 a trip.

Amtrak also regularly faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenses, including depreciation, but since Amtrak carries only 29 million passengers each year, the per-trip subsidy tops $30. (and that's for slow rail on shared existing freight tracks - imagine expensive fast rail in its own grade-separated RoW)

While urban transit helps reduce the congestion that plagues our dense metropolitan areas, the highways between our heartland cities are famous for their open lanes. Subsidizing urban public transit is modestly progressive, since public-transit commuters are twice as likely to be poor as car commuters. By contrast, intercity rail travelers are wealthier than car travelers. The environmental benefits are larger for urban mass transit; Amtrak itself only claims to be 17 percent more fuel efficient than airlines.

The problem is that while common sense requires transportation modes and spending to be targeted to the local environment, politics demands that federal programs spend everywhere. A serious high-speed rail project would forget about Texas (agreed) and focus on saving hours in the Northeast Corridor. A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion. A smart transportation policy would recognize the wisdom of using our existing infrastructure more efficiently, with the help of congestion pricing, rather than building more roads. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever politicians start envisioning the shining splendor of fast trains.

He goes into more detailed analysis on an NYT blog here. Reason supports inter-city bus over high-speed rail (bottom), while the Urbanophile is critical of Glaeser. The Antiplanner covers the feeding frenzy of states applying to the feds for HSR funds here and here, asking for $102 billion out of an $8 billion budget. And the head of BNSF says more modest 110 mph rail on existing tracks will probably not work - the max would be 90 mph, with an average around 60 mph - not very compelling.

Tyler Cowen at the high-profile Marginal Revolution economics blog is also skeptical of high-speed rail in Texas. Many of the commentors are too, citing poor cost-for-benefit, anti-pedestrian/transit weather, and the last-few-miles problem in the dispersed metros of the Texas Triangle. Hat tip to AC, who has his own incredulous comments on the America 2050 HSR plan for the country.

Getting a little more local, Christof gives an update on commuter rail for Houston. Sounds like a disconnected mess so far, but if they can directly connect it up to major job centers and have a long-term plan for moderately high-speed rail from Galveston to College Station and Austin - and keep it all affordable (a big if) - then they might be on to something.

Finally, on the ongoing debate over rail to the airports, this USA Today post on LAX rail had an interesting excerpt that matches what I've been saying about Houston for a while:

"The discussion to extend the Green Line has been ongoing for more than a decade. Many LAX travelers prefer to use non-stop buses, LAX FlyAway, that drop them off at various locations in the city."

How come we don't have such a useful service? (other than the Metro express to downtown)

UPDATE: Glaeser analyzes the Houston-Dallas route and finds the costs far exceed the benefits (3 or 6 to 1). AC changes some benefit assumptions and disagrees, finding a rough 1-to-1 cost-benefit match. I think the costs are probably substantially underestimated, which would put both of their analyses even deeper in the red. Too much wiggle room in all of the numbers. Hat tip to Jessie.

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At 6:16 PM, August 03, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe I've commented on this blog somewhere else before, FlyAway is awesome to use in LA and it's really cheap (for the rider).


At 8:33 PM, August 03, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make many valid points, but fail to appreciate one concern that has been of increasing importance: The airlines have become the transportation of choice of the police state. Personal inspections are becoming increasingly intrusive, and the financial difficulties of the airlines are resulting in increasingly absurd revenue "opportunities". I no longer fly, I do what is required to drive to my destination.

The definition of a police state is one in which the needs of the police are treated as sacrosanct, above all others - including those of liberty. In regard to airlines, we now live in that police state. Give me trains! You can't drive them into the sides of buildings. I doubt they will ever be as bad as the airlines.

At 10:44 PM, August 03, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, similar things could be said about inter-city buses too. As far as security with trains, it's not stopping the bomb or hijackers (although those are a concern), but how do protect hundreds or thousands of miles of track from sabotage leading to catastrophic high-speed derailments? At least a plane, once it's off the ground, is pretty secure.

At 3:38 PM, August 04, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At current gas prices, high speed rail isn't justified. But before the world economy ran into trouble, oil prices were going up as significant numbers of people in China and India were getting wealthy enough to start buying cars. Assuming the world economy works itself out of its current problems, that issue will continue to put upward pressure on oil prices.

Additionally going forward it looks like there is going to be some sort of carbon tax (cap and trade program).

Between these two forces its quite possible that the effective real price of fuel is going to be much higher in the future.

In that situation, high speed rail might become much more cost effective vs jets for trips shorter than about 600 miles. Jets burn a lot of fuel whereas HSR uses electricity and that can be sourced by wind or nukes if oil based fuels are too expensive. Also security requirements at airports make HSR time competitive at these distances.

The issue is that these types of projects can't be built at the drop of hat. They require some advanced planning, securing rights of way, etc.

You can argue that security measures at airports are excessive and the cap and trade program may be pointless given that China and India have no such programs and no intention to create any. I am sympathetic to both arguments.

But there is also something to be said for planning flexibility to handle different possible scenarios.

If oil prices go up, Houston and Texas probably will be wealthy enough to easily afford to build out a HSR network. If oil prices stay low, its another plan that never quite got off the ground. Whatever rights of way that are purchased can be resold. So the effective cost of the program may not be that expensive.


At 7:16 AM, August 05, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Some reasonable arguments. It really comes down to cost-benefit. I think many of the energy issues could be addressed without trains. Inter-city buses could run on natural gas (abundant in this country), and Continental has shown that jets can run on biofuel. But maybe there are enough reasonable ridership scenarios based on growth and density, plus affordable enough construction in the TX countryside, that it could make sense over a long enough time frame.

The really tricky issue, in my mind, is security. Securing airports is easy compared to securing hundreds of miles of grade separated track (think about how well we secure our border). Minor sabotage to the rails can lead to catastrophic high-speed derailments.

At 8:29 AM, August 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I agree and disagree with you on some of your points. First off you are right that if I had a choice of where to spend the 8 billion for HSR over 2/3 would go to the North East and connecting areas, with the rest split between California and Midwest projects, not a dime would go to Texas, Florida, or the rest.

But the reason why Texas is not the best place for HSR has nothing to do with the percentage of jobs in Downtown. It has to do (and I think you will agree) with a lack of connectivity. A person going from Dallas to Houston would have a problem if he needed to get to the Energy Corridor. Not so for NYC if he needed to go to Long Island, Queens, or Northern Jersey.

That being said I would like to suggest a compromise, how about a Amtrak California or Empire like service for the Texas triangle? Trains going at 60-80 MPH connecting Houston-Dallas in 3.5-4 hours may not be futuristic, but it is practical (as long as they have the ROW). It would also be a good test bed for demand until we have the connectivity a HSR service would demand.

What are you're thoughts?


At 3:22 PM, August 05, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Agreed on the lack of final destination connectivity.

I think those sorts of speeds on existing tracks are realistic, and could be an (relatively) affordable. The question is their cost-benefit vs. the luxury express bus services like they have in the northeast. Those buses would go at the same speed and could connect all sorts of pick-up and drop-off points. And our inter-triangle freeways are not really that congested.

The issue is the "pot of federal money we must go after or lose out" problem. The feds should just block grant transportation funds to the states, and let them decide the best solutions for themselves (inc. multi-state rail coalitions as desired).

At 10:23 PM, August 05, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Allowing the states full and complete freedom on how to spend federal tax monies is not a good idea. If the country, as a whole, decides that this country should increasingly promote passenger rail (for various reasons - environmental, ease of use, whatever) and elects federal representatives to support this type of transportation, the federal government has every right to direct funds only for that type of transportation. If Texas doesn't want or feel the need to have a decent passenger rail, they certainly can reject the funding or simply never apply for it in the first place.

At 8:39 AM, August 06, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

And this is exactly why tons of boondoggle projects - LRT, HSR, bridges to nowhere, overbuilt roads, etc. - get built: because of narrow silos of federal funds that everybody feels they must go after so they don't "lose out". Texas will do the same for HSR funds, even if they make far more sense in the NE or maybe CA. Give them unrestricted funds (or funds with very broad restrictions), and they will make more intelligent choices for their given needs.

At 11:28 AM, August 06, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...


If your concern is boondoggle projects, I am not sure why your answer is that we should simply just give the money unrestricted. If there are boondoggles going on (and although I know there are, I feel their existence is exaggerated), then perhaps the problem is at the spigot itself.

If the country as a whole wants a national passenger rail system, why should that money be given to Texas (for example) to spend on more buses or highways? If Texas doesn't want passenger rail or doesn't have a rational need for such a system, then they should get the money in the first place.

At 12:57 PM, August 06, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...
Allowing the states full and complete freedom on how to spend federal tax monies is not a good idea. If the country, as a whole, decides that this country should increasingly promote passenger rail (for various reasons - environmental, ease of use, whatever) and elects federal representatives to support this type of transportation, the federal government has every right to direct funds only for that type of transportation. If Texas doesn't want or feel the need to have a decent passenger rail, they certainly can reject the funding or simply never apply for it in the first place."

I don't want more passenger rail, nor do the overwhelming majority of people. We want better and more efficient travel locally where we live and regionally where we travel.

And I don't care if in Florida, for instance, they spend this money on a decent rail project or a decent highway. I will only be able to tell the difference based on the level of hassle when traveling there (total travel time, ability to carry luggage, ability to reach my locations, ability to drink and return to my hotel without worrying about going to jail, etc.).

It must be the best project. Period.

I trust local and state transportation agencies to make that decision better than the feds.

At 1:52 PM, August 06, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Everybody agrees HSR only makes sense vs. planes over modest distances (a few hundred miles), so a national system doesn't make sense. It is inherently regional, and individual or small groups of states can certainly spend their money on it if it's important to them.

This "free money" thinking has got to stop. The feds should get out of the transportation business pretty much altogether (except for interconnectivity issues and standards), and let states raise their own revenues and choose their own investments. Baring that, a second best option is to give them block grants and let them choose what to do with it. Then it's no longer "free money!" - it's a pool of limited money where real tradeoff decisions have to be made on cost vs. benefit.

To illustrate: if a Washington state senator or Congressman gets a powerful transportation appropriations chairmanship, and decides to create a "national ferry fund" because his home state would benefit, he'd suddenly find states everywhere proposing ferries in their states, whether they make sense or not. It's free money - why not go for it? Let Washington get a block of money, and then decide whether ferries, rail, or roads make the most sense for their needs.

At 2:51 PM, August 06, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Couple of things:

First, even if transportation is regional, in many areas of the country “regional” travel is interstate and thus the federal government has primary power. The DC metro area comprises two states plus the District. The NYC Metro area is three states; so is Philly. St. Louis – two…anyway…you get my drift. Not only that, even medium range travel (which I agree is the best bet for high speed rail) involves interstate travel almost everywhere. So, this is definitely the federal government’s business.

Second, transportation policy effects so many other things that are definitely within the federal government’s power and they have every right to regulate and set policy in that regard. Transportation policy effects the environment and climate change which is definitely an interstate (and foreign policy) issue. Transportation policy also effects national security (oil – hello). Again, this is where the federal government plays the major role.

So, if the federal government wants to encourage the construction of a series of regional high-speed rail projects because, for example, they feel that this will reduce the stranglehold that oil has on our society, they are perfectly in their right to do that. If Texas gets mad because the money the fed’s are offering specifically requires that it be spent on such a system but they want to spend it on more highways, well…given the policy objectives the feds are perfectly within their right to tell Texas to go pound sand.

At 4:26 PM, August 06, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Nothing stops small groups of states from coordinating among themselves. The Port of NY/NJ is a prime example.

If the govt has environmental goals, price them (like carbon), and then let the best solutions win. Don't build boondoggle rail projects that don't help. Maybe TX can better achieve the environmental goals with electric cars or wind power. The problem is not that Texas will walk away and lose out on rail money - it's that it will fight to get as much as it can through the warped political process - despite it being an inefficient solution here. For the same reason, MA and NY/NYC go for all the federal highway dollars they can get even if it might be better off spent on transit there. It's extremely inefficient all the way around.

At 7:00 PM, August 06, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

I disagree that HSR is only competitive over a few hundred miles. I think it is competitive at ranges of anything less than 1000 miles with 200 mph HSR or 500 miles for 100 mph HSR.

>>This "free money" thinking has got to stop. The feds should get out of the transportation business pretty much altogether

That will never happen.

>>Nothing stops small groups of states from coordinating among themselves.

How about a small group of 50 states?


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