Wisconsin was the fourth-highest (after California, Florida, and Illinois) recipient of federal high-speed rail money, receiving $823 million to initiate Milwaukee-to-Madison service. The state’s application proposes to use this money to operate six trains a day between the two cities as a continuation of service from Chicago to Milwaukee.
The proposal does not call for high-speed (faster than 125 mph) or even moderate-speed (faster than 80 mph) rail. Instead, the top speeds will only be 79 mph until even more money is spent improving signaling to allow for “positive train control” (which insures trains will automatically stop when necessary even if the engineer fails to stop the train).
With three stops between Madison and Milwaukee, the average speed will be just 58 mph. That’s a bit higher than the current Badger Bus, which averages 42 to 52 mph depending on which bus you take. But the rail route is longer than the bus route, which means the train will take longer (1 hour 40 minutes) than the fastest bus (1 hour 30 minutes).
In addition, the bus stops in the middle of the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, while current plans call for the train to terminate at Dane County Airport on the edge of town, with transit connections to downtown and the university. This gives even the slower (1 hour 50 minute) buses a huge competitive advantage.
Badger Bus operates on the same frequencies — six round trips per day — as proposed for the rail line. The state’s application estimates that rail fares will range from $20 to $33 compared with current bus fares of $17.50. It appears the state is chasing the snob market, that is, people too proud to ride a bus.
Considering that this is an 81-mile rail route, the price tag of $823 million (a small portion of which will go for improving Chicago-Milwaukee service) is roughly $10 million per mile. This is nearly three times the amount estimated by the Antiplanner for improving service to 110 mph. The high cost is due to the fact that the tracks between Madison and Milwaukee haven’t seen passenger service in many decades and some of them are in very poor shape.
A 47-mile segment owned by the Canadian Pacific is currently used for freight trains going up to 60 mph and by Amtrak at 79 mph. The state estimated it would cost $274 million, or nearly $6 million per mile, to bring improve these tracks and add enough sidings for 6 more trains per day. A 34-mile segment owned by the state of Wisconsin is in such poor shape that freight trains are limited to 10 mph. The state estimates it will cost $317 million, or more than $9 million per mile, to improve these tracks to 79 mph standards. (This doesn’t include the costs of locomotives, stations, rail cars, a maintenance facility, or environmental mitigation, which bring the total cost to $773 million or just under $10 million per mile.)
The state estimates that, in the fifth full year of operation, the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison route will carry about 536,000 more passengers than the Chicago-Milwaukee route carried in 2008. Generously assuming that all of these new riders will be on the Milwaukee-Madison line, that’s an average of 734 trips each way per day, or about 122 people per train — roughly three bus loads (figuring two-thirds occupancy).
Amortizing the $773 million capital cost at 7 percent over 30 years results in an annualized cost of $61.7 million. The state also estimates it will need operating subsidies of $7.5 million for a total of $69.2 million in annual subsidies. That is a subsidy of nearly $130 per passenger trip.
The state estimates the rail line will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a little more than 7,000 tons per year. This represents a cost of $9,700 per ton of greenhouse gas emissions abated. Considering that the price of carbon offsets currently ranges from $6 to $28 per ton, something that costs $9,700 per ton is a huge waste.
Of course, the rail line is also expected to reduce some other pollutants, but so too would any other action that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The trains are actually projected to emit more particulates than the cars they take off the road, and if the state has overestimated ridership, the trains will probably produce more of other pollutants as well.
The state claims the trains will help relieve congestion, but they aren’t a very cost-effective way of doing that either. Out of 7.8 million annual auto trips in the corridor, the trains will take only about 208,000 off the highway, or about 2.6 percent. There are far better ways of relieving 2.6 percent of congestion at far lower costs.
The environmental assessment estimates that 19 percent of rail passengers would otherwise take the bus, which means Badger Bus will lose 23 passengers per trip. If you believe the state’s numbers, this will probably put Badger Bus out of the Madison-Milwaukee market, and at least will force it to reduce its service to two or three trips per day.
What if, instead of six trains per day, Wisconsin increased bus service to 24 round trips per day? That would be a bus every half hour during peak periods. Some buses might stop at intermediate towns while others would be express. I estimate this would require about a dozen new buses costing about $6 million, or less than 1 percent of the cost of the trains. Of course, the environmental assessment for the rail line did not consider a bus alternative; it just considered “no build” and alternative rail routes. But I suspect the far greater frequencies of the bus alternative would compensate for the snob factor and attract all or nearly all of the riders who would take the trains.
The National Transit Database reveals that privately operated buses cost an average of about $5 per vehicle mile to operate (see column AI). Running 18 round trips per day would therefore cost less than $5.5 million per year. Compared with the projected $7.5 million operating loss from the trains, the state would save money even if no one rode the buses.
Of course, eventually the state hopes to spend a few hundred million more to increase rail top speeds to 110 mph. This will result in trip times as short as 69 minutes, for an average speed of 73 mph. That’s still not enough to justify the cost, especially since buses can still be competitive when you consider the additional time required to get from the airport to any destination in Madison.
What is really going on is a very different kind of snob factor: Madison wants trains because trains are supposedly cool, not because anyone in Madison will ever really need to ride one. It especially wants trains if someone else will pay for them. When a unsubsidized bus ride costs $17.50 and a train ride (including amortized capital costs and operating subsidies) costs $150, it is hard to imagine that anyone really thinks the train makes sense.