Predictably, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, some people are saying that Florida would have been better off trying to evacuate people with passenger trains than over the highways. No one knows exactly how many people did evacuate south Florida, but after the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes, photos of bumper-to-bumper cars on Interstates 75 and 95 became a staple of hurricane reporting.
Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transit evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
Certainly, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. As near as I can tell, the most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lane on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic.
A typical four-lane freeway has wide shoulders on both left and right sides of each of the two pairs of lanes. The opposing lanes are often separated by concrete barriers called Jersey Barriers that are designed to be easy to move. The state could have moved a few dozen of those barriers in strategic locations to give northbound traffic access to the southbound lanes. The state could also have put up plastic pylons to separate the north- and southbound traffic in what are normally the south-bound lanes. States do this all the time for road construction.
In the case of a four-lane freeway, opening one southbound lane and both center shoulders to northbound traffic would turn two northbound lanes into five. For six-lane freeways, this would turn three northbound lanes into seven. In both cases, there would still be one lane for southbound traffic and the outside shoulders for emergency vehicles. The leaders of every state highway bureau that doesn’t have an evacuation plan reversing some lanes to the prevailing direction of travel should be ashamed of themselves.
Most successful private businesses respond rapidly and flexibly to changes in the market. Only the government would say, “Look: travel demand is changing dramatically. Let’s do absolutely nothing about it.”
Aside from congestion and gasoline shortages, rail advocates argue that trains are more egalitarian because not everyone can afford to own a car. In particular, Florida’s older population supposedly meant that more than the average number of households lacked cars. In fact, data from the 2016 American Community Survey indicates that Florida households are less likely to not have cars than the national average: just 6.6 Florida households have no cars compared with 8.7 percent nationwide. The truth is that passenger trains, which are far more expensive to operate per passenger mile than cars, are the elitist form of travel while cars are more egalitarian.
In actual practice, Tri-Rail, south Florida’s commuter-rail line, shut down 60 hours before Irma hit so trains and facilities could be tied down for the storm. Amtrak cancelled its Florida trains at the same time as Tri-Rail.
After the storm, it took Tri-Rail almost five days to clear the tracks of fallen trees and restore power to its electric trains. One part of the rail line was so damaged that the agency bused people around that part of the line. As of this writing, Amtrak is still not running trains south of Jacksonville.
Using trains to evacuate people after a natural disaster is even more problematic than before. Vehicles on pavement are far more resilient than trains on inflexible tracks since pavement doesn’t have to be as smooth as tracks and vehicles can avoid obstacles that are partly blocking roads and by-pass roads that are completely blocked. What America needs is not more trains but more creative and flexible highway management.