As the Antiplanner noted in an earlier post, transit planners of the 1960s claimed — and may even have believed — that fares collected for new rail transit projects would cover all of their operating costs and most of their capital costs. Such claims are commonly made today for high-speed rail, but most transit advocates admit that transit will never cover its costs and argue that it shouldn’t have to.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has even thrown out cost-efficiency tests imposed by his predecessor, Mary Peters, that the FTA used for judging whether it should fund a rail transit project. Instead, he wants to judge projects for their impact on livability, whatever that means.
Can your rail line top this?
But there must be some test that a reasonable transit advocate (such as many of the Antiplanner’s readers) would accept for judging whether a rail transit system is successful. For those who don’t believe transit should be profitable, I propose the Cable-Car Test.
The first cable car operation began in San Francisco in 1873. WIthin a few years, 30 American cities were served by cable car lines. But when the electric streetcar was developed around 1888, electricity quickly replaced cables in most of those cities.
Cable cars have several disadvantages compared with more modern technologies, including high costs, low capacities, and slow speeds. The Antiplanner’s summary of the National Transit Database indicates that the San Francisco cable cars cost $107 per vehicle-revenue mile to operate in 2008. This compares with $17 for streetcars, $15 for light rail, $14 for commuter rail, and $9 for buses and heavy rail (see cells AI1483:AI1497).
San Francisco cable cars have a top speed of just 9 mph, compared with 55 to 80 miles per hour for commuter, heavy, and light rail. Cable cars and hold just 30 to 34 seated passengers plus around 20 standees, compared with 70 seats on light and heavy rail and often well over a hundred on commuter-rail cars. Moreover, the three cable-car routes are a total of just 4.4 miles long, while most modern rail lines are much longer and therefore can offer riders more destinations.
Given these disadvantages, any rail line that cannot perform as well as the cable cars should be considered a miserable failure. In particular, I propose three parts to the Cable-Car Test.
First, rail lines should collect enough fares to cover the same percentage of their operating costs as cable cars. Considering that cable cars cost so much more to operate, any truly successful rail line should be able to pass this part of the test. Rail lines that can’t even attract enough passengers to cover the same share of operating costs as cable cars are simply too expensive to continue.
Second, rail cars should carry, on average, at least as many passengers as the average cable car. Given the much smaller capacity of cable cars, any successful rail line should easily pass this part of the test.
Finally, rail lines should be able to attract as many passengers on a typical weekday as the San Francisco cable cars. Given that most rail lines are much longer and travel much faster than cable cars, and thus offer their potential customers much more utility, they should be able to pass this part of the test. Rail lines that can’t meet the occupancy or weekday riders parts of the test should be replaced with buses.
To be not considered a total failure in 2008, rail systems must collect enough fares to cover 47.2 percent of their operating costs; their rail cars must carry an average of at least 19.2 passengers (i.e., passenger miles divided by vehicle revenue miles); and they must attract at least 20,530 rides per typical weekday. All of these data are summarized for rail lines in this spreadsheet. For your convenience, I’ve bold-faced the columns showing the three parts of the test and the rail lines that passed all three.
In addition to the San Francisco cable cars, the 2008 National Transit Database has data for 69 rail lines in about 30 urban areas. I also have some of these data for the New Mexico Rail Runner, which isn’t in the database. Of these 70 lines, 53 fail the first part of the test: their fares cover less than 47.2 percent of operating costs. Of the 17 that pass, Denver light rail fails the occupancy test, Northeastern Indiana commuter trains fail the weekday riders test, and Philadelphia commuter trains fail both.
The 14 rail systems that pass all three parts of the test include 10 systems in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia that all existed before World War II. Most of these are commuter or heavy rail, but the Boston light rail also passes. The 4 post-war rail systems that pass are Los Angeles commuter trains, San Diego light rail, San Francisco BART, and Washington Metro. This doesn’t mean that the Antiplanner thinks these lines are successful — that would take some more analysis comparing capita costs and social benefits — only that the other 56 are unquestionably failures.
Some might say that the Cable-Car Test is unfair because San Francisco cable cars are mainly a tourist attraction. But many cities have built vintage streetcar lines as tourist attractions, and none of them passed the Cable-Car Test, suggesting that merely being a tourist attraction is not enough to succeed.
Rail advocates might also argue that cable cars do well because they serve one of the most densely populated areas in the United States. But that is exactly the point: transportation systems work when they go where people want to go, not where planners would like people to go. Until rail planners figure that out, we will see many more miserably wasteful rail systems built around the country.