$590 Million to Increase Speeds by 2.7 MPH

Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood proudly announced Saturday that the BNSF Railway has agreed to increase Portland-Seattle train speeds from their current average of 53.4 mph to 56.1 mph, saving just 10 minutes (3 hours 30 minutes reduced to 3 hours 20 minutes) over the 187-mile trip. This, said LaHood, is “part of the President’s long-term vision to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail in the next 25 years.”

Amtrak Cascades with Mt. Rainier in the background. Photo courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation.

And it is costing taxpayers a mere $590 million. But wait–there’s more! You not only get a speed boost of 2.7 mph, you get two new daily round trips, increasing the number from 5 to 7. How can you top this deal?

Amtrak’s Cascades trains, which go between Seattle and Portland and continue on to Eugene, carried 836,500 riders in 2010, or an average of 286 riders per train. (This doesn’t count the Coast Starlight, which goes from Seattle to Los Angeles.) If the two new trains attract a similar number of passengers, we can expect this $590 million investment to produce about 210,000 new round trips per year.

Operating the Cascades trains cost taxpayers $14.3 million in 2010, or an average of $17 per passenger. At that rate, the new trains will lose about $7.1 million per year. Amortizing the $590 million over 30 years at 7 percent interest results in an annualized capital cost of about $47 million. That means each new rider will cost taxpayers about $130 per round trip on top of the $38 round-trip fare charged by Amtrak.

For the record, during daytime hours Horizon Airlines has half-hourly service between Portland and Seattle at a one-way fare of $70 for a 50-minute flight. That’s more than the average fare-plus-subsidy for existing Amtrak trains (about $55 plus some unknown capital costs), but less than half the fare-plus-subsidy for the new riders of the so-called high-speed trains. Greyhound charges about $26 for a 4-hour and 5-minute bus ride. Both of these services are relatively unsubsidized.

The train might be faster than the bus, but absent congestion you can drive from Seattle to Portland in under three hours at a cost (at 35 cents a vehicle mile, which is the average amount Americans spend) of about $60. Divide that by the number of people in your car and you can save lots of money as well as time. Of course, the roads, particularly in Seattle, aren’t uncongested, but we would be a lot better off putting that $600 million into something that would reduce congestion instead of something that takes no more than a few hundreds cars off the road each day.

By the way, George Will opines that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” I strongly suspect that is true for many progressives, but others have their own reasons for supporting high-speed rail, such as overblown concerns about pollution or needless worries about urban sprawl.

Back to Washington state, BNSF had initially balked at agreeing to run these trains, saying it did not want to be subject to federal rules about on-time reliability. But BNSF also vowed it would not allow any passenger trains to exceed 90 mph on its tracks. The Department of Transportation persuaded BNSF to agree to the performance requirements, but these trains will clearly not go faster than 90 mph; their top speed will probably be just 79 mph.

This is what Obama proudly calls “high-speed trains.”

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19 thoughts on “$590 Million to Increase Speeds by 2.7 MPH

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    By the way, George Will opines that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” I strongly suspect that is true for many progressives, but others have their own reasons for supporting high-speed rail, such as overblown concerns about pollution or needless worries about urban sprawl.

    The above is an example of why I respect The Antiplanner much more than I respect Mr. Will.

    As regards pollution, it will simply not be possible to measure any of the purported air quality benefit of this increased and slightly faster train service.

  2. Andy Stahl

    The really cool thing about the Eugene-Seattle Cascades train is that bicycles travel with no box required, albeit for a $5 surcharge each way. If I fly to Seattle, I’m stuck with renting a car or taking taxis. If I drive to Seattle, I’m tired and cranky.

    The Cascades also just joined the 20th century a month ago by adding wifi. It’s slow DSL speed and prone to dropping out through the Wilapa Hills, but better than the lame movies the train used to show on their now unused televisions in each car.

    Thanks, taxpayers!

  3. Andrew

    George Will opines that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

    Atomization of travel by automobile is a much better recipe for collectivism than allowing people to socialize together on public transportation where they are inclined to talk amongst themselves and discuss the issues of the day.

    Socially isolated people are more easily brought under the control of government and kept there.

  4. FrancisKing

    By the way, George Will opines that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

    The reason why people support non-car modes of transport is because cars are too big for the number of people carried in them – hence the traffic jams. Of course, this only works if people go along with the new strategy, otherwise you get all of the traffic jams, plus a few new & empty trains / buses / pods.

    “How can you top this deal?”

    Easily. The UK government is the leader in high speed rail innovation. We have good intercity train services (could use improvement, but not bad) running at 125mph. We have low cost airlines from anywhere to anywhere else. But apparently, at a time when there is so little money that councils are having to close public toilets we just have to spend £33bn ($50bn) on a new high speed rail service. You’ve got to admit that the chief muppet in all of this, a man called Hammond, has a sense of humour.

  5. FrancisKing

    “Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood proudly announced Saturday that the BNSF Railway has agreed to increase Portland-Seattle train speeds from their current average of 53.4 mph to 56.1 mph, saving just 10 minutes (3 hours 30 minutes reduced to 3 hours 20 minutes) over the 187-mile trip. ”

    There’s a little bit more to his announcement than that, but…

    If the Greyhound bus can do the trip in 4 hours and 5 minutes, it would seem more sensible to see if the Greyhound bus can do the trip in 3 hours and 30 minutes, e.g. from 50mph to 58mph.

  6. Andrew

    Antiplanner:

    Its worth providing additional perspective on this service.

    In 1993 there was one train carrying 93,000 people. Today there are 4 trains to Portland and 2 to Vancouver and they carry 838,000 people. Increases in frequency have brought a 50% bonus in ridership (i.e. double the service and you triple ridership) – 6 times the trains, but 9 times the ridership. If the same relationship continues to hold, we could expect 278,000 new riders in addition to the continuing annual growth seen by these trains in years no service was added, which has been around 5%.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    Andrew wrote:

    In 1993 there was one train carrying 93,000 people. Today there are 4 trains to Portland and 2 to Vancouver and they carry 838,000 people. Increases in frequency have brought a 50% bonus in ridership (i.e. double the service and you triple ridership) – 6 times the trains, but 9 times the ridership.

    Let’s divide the patronage numbers above by 365 to come up with estimates of daily patronage. 93,000 annually becomes about 300 per day. 838,000 annually becomes about 2,300 per day.

    Now what’s the main “competing” mode (I use that term loosely) of transportation for this part of Amtrak’s network? Probably I-5. Just for fun, I used data from a point on I-5 south of Chehalis, Washington. WSDOT says annual average daily traffic there was about 42,000 in 2009. Let’s assume that 80% of that 42,000 is private automobiles. That gives us about 33,600. Let’s assume average auto occupancy of about 1.25. That means we are back to that number above, 42,000, this time in person trips. So I-5 carries about 18 times as many people as Amtrak does, and I have not included buses that use I-5.

    Now tell me again why we are pouring tax dollars into Amtrak?

    If the same relationship continues to hold, we could expect 278,000 new riders in addition to the continuing annual growth seen by these trains in years no service was added, which has been around 5%.

    According to The Antiplanner above, it will cost U.S. taxpayers $590 million for these improvements. To carry another 800 daily patrons on Amtrak?

  8. John Thacker

    My assumption would be that the FRA did a fair amount of blinking here, especially after the Florida money was rejected. They wanted to get something done with the money, and just as importantly obligate it so that the House can’t try to take it away.

  9. Borealis

    John Thacker hit the nail on the head. The worst thing that could possibly happen to a federal agency is that it doesn’t obligate millions of dollars and that pesky Congress takes it back.

  10. the highwayman

    CPZ not every one driving on I-5 is for similar reasons as the people taking the Amtrak train, just as in the Seattle area there are using the same tracks but with suburban trains.

  11. the highwayman

    Andrew wrote: Socially isolated people are more easily brought under the control of government and kept there.

    THWM: Though people can also be brought under control by corporations too, Koch Industries, News Corp & etc.

  12. Dan

    What Andrew said @3.

    Also, in a train, you can have productive time and do work. You can also choose to eschew the gasbags on AM radio and inform yourself.

    DS

  13. C. P. Zilliacus

    the highwayman wrote:

    CPZ not every one driving on I-5 is for similar reasons as the people taking the Amtrak train, just as in the Seattle area there are using the same tracks but with suburban trains.

    No, at least some of the users of I-5 are making trips that are shorter than those required for a trip on Amtrak.

    But I don’t get the reason for carrying passengers on the railroad tracks at all – if those people don’t have a personal motor vehicle, then Greyhound bus service using I-5 or for those in a hurry, Horizon Airlines, would seem like better (as in unsubsidized) alternatives.

    And both Greyhound and Horizon do something that Amtrak has never done – they pay taxes.

  14. Andrew

    CPZ: “Now tell me again why we are pouring tax dollars into Amtrak?”

    Because at the present cost of major highway interchanges of $300+ million each (see recent cost estimates for the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee, for example), this $600 million wouldn’t go very far in trying to provide highway capacity.

    “So I-5 carries about 18 times as many people as Amtrak does, and I have not included buses that use I-5.”

    An 18 to 1 ratio for a train line with 4 trains per day each way compared to a constantly available highway is pretty amazing, is it not? Another way of looking at it is that I5 presently has a little over 500 people per lane per hour during normal travel hours (6a-10p), so Amtrak is carrying the equivalent capacity of 4 lane hours of free-flowing traffic today, and will add an additional 1 or 2 lane hours by this project, and another 1 to 2 lane hours of traffic by the subsequent stage of this project.

    What do you suppose the cost would be to create 12.5% more capacity on I5 from downtown to downtown while keeping traffic free flowing? Avoiding that obviously massive cost is what you are accomplishing by providing Amtrak service.

  15. C. P. Zilliacus

    Andrew wrote:

    Because at the present cost of major highway interchanges of $300+ million each (see recent cost estimates for the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee, for example), this $600 million wouldn’t go very far in trying to provide highway capacity.

    Though the construction of those highway interchanges is funded by the users of those interchanges, the people and companies that pay federal and state motor fuel taxes.

    I am not familiar with the interchange in Milwaukee, but I know another mega-interchange upgrade project that has dramatically reduced crashes and improved traffic flow – that would be the Springfield, Virginia Interchange, where I-95, I-395, I-495 and Va. 644 come together.

    Added (small) benefit – most “snowbird” customers of Amtrak’s Auto Train service coming from the north have to pass through this interchange to reach the Auto Train’s northern terminal at Lorton, Virginia.

    Who funds Amtrak’s capital spending? Not the people that ride Amtrak.

    An 18 to 1 ratio for a train line with 4 trains per day each way compared to a constantly available highway is pretty amazing, is it not?

    Not really. As you admitted above, the highway is constantly available to travelers. If they want to take a train, they have to choose one of four departure times. Even the with the inconvenience of flying from Seattle to Portland, they still offer many more departure times, and it’s a lot faster than what Amtrak can offer.

    Another way of looking at it is that I5 presently has a little over 500 people per lane per hour during normal travel hours (6a-10p), so Amtrak is carrying the equivalent capacity of 4 lane hours of free-flowing traffic today, and will add an additional 1 or 2 lane hours by this project, and another 1 to 2 lane hours of traffic by the subsequent stage of this project.

    Shortening the travel day – to make an obsolete form of passenger rail look better than it should – reminds me of reporting annual (and not average daily) patronage.

    Speaking for myself, I prefer to drive late at night (when I am well-rested), because traffic volumes are often lower.

  16. Andrew

    CPZ:

    “Shortening the travel day – to make an obsolete form of passenger rail look better than it should – reminds me of reporting annual (and not average daily) patronage.”

    Don’t you have this backwards? If I used 24 hours, the average lane hour of traffic would be around 300 instead of 500, so Amtrak would already be close to 8 lane hours of traffic, and adding 800 more patrons on 2 new train would be almost 3 lane hours of traffic, and adding 1600+ on 4 new trains woudl be over 5 lane hours of traffic.

    The percentages would stay the same, but the incremental benefit of Amtrak service would be greater using the 24 hour period.

    “Though the construction of those highway interchanges is funded by the users of those interchanges, the people and companies that pay federal and state motor fuel taxes.”

    The users of specific highway interchanges are not truly identical with the people who pay fuel taxes. The one is a subset of the other. A person living in Havre, MT or Minot, ND is unlikely to ever see any true benefit from most of the fuel taxes they pay. Same goes for those whose primary highway options are toll roads – residents of Orlando, FL, New Jersey, Southeast PA, major parts of Kentucky and Oklahoma.

    “Who funds Amtrak’s capital spending? Not the people that ride Amtrak.”

    Its funded by American taxpayers, who in general, make up 95%+ of Amtrak’s ridership.

    Just like with highways, the users in any given year of the service are a mere subset of the total body of taxpayers, but if that is good enough for highway taxes, it should be good enough for funds put towards Amtrak.

  17. Borealis

    One important characteristic of the ideal urban nirvana, such as Manhatten or SF, is that no one has children, at least not if they don’t make more than $1M per year or less than $25K.

  18. the highwayman

    CPZ; But I don’t get the reason for carrying passengers on the railroad tracks at all – if those people don’t have a personal motor vehicle, then Greyhound bus service using I-5 or for those in a hurry, Horizon Airlines, would seem like better (as in unsubsidized) alternatives.

    THWM: How the hell does Horizon & Greyhound taking advantage of the public domain mean being unsubsidized?

  19. the highwayman

    CPZ: Though the construction of those highway interchanges is funded by the users of those interchanges, the people and companies that pay federal and state motor fuel taxes.

    I am not familiar with the interchange in Milwaukee, but I know another mega-interchange upgrade project that has dramatically reduced crashes and improved traffic flow – that would be the Springfield, Virginia Interchange, where I-95, I-395, I-495 and Va. 644 come together.

    Added (small) benefit – most “snowbird” customers of Amtrak’s Auto Train service coming from the north have to pass through this interchange to reach the Auto Train’s northern terminal at Lorton, Virginia.

    Who funds Amtrak’s capital spending? Not the people that ride Amtrak.

    An 18 to 1 ratio for a train line with 4 trains per day each way compared to a constantly available highway is pretty amazing, is it not?

    Not really. As you admitted above, the highway is constantly available to travelers. If they want to take a train, they have to choose one of four departure times. Even the with the inconvenience of flying from Seattle to Portland, they still offer many more departure times, and it’s a lot faster than what Amtrak can offer.

    Another way of looking at it is that I5 presently has a little over 500 people per lane per hour during normal travel hours (6a-10p), so Amtrak is carrying the equivalent capacity of 4 lane hours of free-flowing traffic today, and will add an additional 1 or 2 lane hours by this project, and another 1 to 2 lane hours of traffic by the subsequent stage of this project.

    Shortening the travel day – to make an obsolete form of passenger rail look better than it should – reminds me of reporting annual (and not average daily) patronage.

    Speaking for myself, I prefer to drive late at night (when I am well-rested), because traffic volumes are often lower.

    THWM: Amtrak clients pay both fares and pay property taxes.

    Just as you don’t have to drive or own a car, but you still have to pay for roads.

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