Why Rail?

After nearly 50 percent cost overruns, eighteen months of delays, and a scandal that cost top transit agency officials their jobs, Norfolk, Virginia plans to open its first light-rail line for business in August, 2011. This fabulous 7.4-mil line expected to carry an average of 2,900 riders per day in its first year, increasing to 7,200 riders per day by 2030.

Test train. Wikipedia commons photo by XShadow.

How’s that again? They spent $338 million ($46 million per mile) on a rail line that is expected to carry only about 7,000 people a day? Because a bus couldn’t possibly carry that many people, right?

Vancouver, BC, claims to operate the busiest bus route in North America, which carries more than 50,000 riders per day. New York’s MTA has at least two bus routes that carried more than 50,000 riders per day in 2009, and very few that carry less than 2,900. So why did Norfolk need a light-rail line?

Oh, that’s right: economic development. According to proponents, Norfolk’s light rail stimulated new development before a spade of earth was turned on rail construction. But a close reading of the news article reveals that developers say light rail influenced their choice of sites, not whether to do a development at all. Light rail “was a key part of why we selected that site,” said one developer. Norfolk-Virginia Beach is a growing region and so new developments are going to take place with or without an expensive rail line.

No doubt the line will carry a few more than 2,900 people a day in its first year, leading proponents to claim it a great success. The truth is that any rail route that can’t carry more than 50,000 people a day is nothing more than an egotrain that should be a bus route.

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27 thoughts on “Why Rail?

  1. Aarne H. Frobom

    We’re present at the creation of a fun neologism: “egotrain.”

    I can’t wait to use it, although I’m not sure it’s superior to my favorite phrase for this kind of thing: “civic jewelry.”

  2. LazyReader

    We are lucky it’s not color coordinated like a “red” line cause’ then it would be called the Red Tide line. I’ve seen news stories regarding the new light rail line for a while and they’ve said they wish to replicate the success of the Baltimore light rail. Baltimore has only one light rail line and one subway (most of which is above ground) completed in 94′ at the cost of 1.3 billion, going from Owings Mills to John Hopkins Hospital. They wanted to extend it beyond that but there was less federal money available for transit projects than had been in the past and the plan heavily was trimmed down to a single line due to extensive cost overruns. The southern half of the remaining line was never built because of crime concerns from residents of Anne Arundel County.

    The demise of the Baltimore streetcar took place between the years of 1947 and 1963, as operators found buses to be low maintenance and more cost-efficient. As rails were demolished, Baltimore was no longer a streetcar city. Baltimore’s buses carry more people and carry lots of people outside the city and even receive passengers from other counties like Prince Georges, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Baltimore county. We have Quickbus, Express bus, and commuter buses and 46 local bus routes.

  3. Sandy Teal

    It would be interesting to know how the light rail was sold to the local public. Often the local public know the light rail is not worth its price, but the project is sold to them as having huge federal subsidies and would generate local jobs. Local people vote to support it because they might ride it a few times a year, and heck, it is practically free.

    Why should the federal government subsidize local transit? There is nothing interstate about it. If it were worth the cost, then locals would be willing to pay for it. Instead we have a system where everyone is paying for someone else’s light rail system, and even then people are balking at paying for only 20% of the cost of a local system.

  4. Frank

    Wow. Norfolk is approximately half as dense as Seattle, but yet Seattle can only wrangle up 1,800 riders a day for its South Lake Union Trolley. Seattle’s light rail hauls roughly 20k a day, so the estimated 7,200 seems in line for Norfolk. What’s the total cost per passenger per ride for the Norfolk light rail?

    “The truth is that any rail route that can’t carry more than 50,000 people a day is nothing more than an egotrain that should be a bus route.”

    Is this true for Portland’s MAX? While it has several lines, total ridership is over 100k.

  5. LazyReader

    Portland has 4, count it 4 (with another soon on the way)!!! light rail lines and it carries roughly 100 thousand a day. Which means 2 of the lines are probably carrying less than 50 thousand a year. They have 81 bus routes that have to zip along the light rail stations to pick up passengers along the park and ride stations. People are going along on buses trying to catch their train on time, why don’t they just keep using the bus.

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    Aarne H. Frobom posted:

    I can’t wait to use it, although I’m not sure it’s superior to my favorite phrase for this kind of thing: “civic jewelry.”

    Civic jewelry?

    Good one, Aarne! I will retain that one for future reference.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    LazyReader wrote:

    The southern half of the remaining line was never built because of crime concerns from residents of Anne Arundel County.

    But both of the southern branches of the Maryland Transit Administration’s Central Light Rail line do terminate in Anne Arundel County.

    And there have been efforts by Anne Arundel citizens living near the Linthicum light rail stop to partly or entirely shut it down (some of the recent media coverage is here).

  8. Craigh

    It would be interesting to know how the light rail was sold to the local public.

    Oh, probably something along the lines of “the federal government will pay for it — won’t cost us more than a cent of sales tax. And the tourists will pay most of that!”

    Just guessing.

  9. LazyReader

    @ Zilliacus: I was talking about the Metro Subway. When the subway idea was first introduced in 1966. At the time they envisioned that 6 rapid transit lines would radiate out from the city center in different directions. When construction costs grew to huge levels, they scaled the plans down. The original Northwest line went on to become the Subway. And the North-South line they thought of originally as a subway eventually became the light rail in 1992.

    Now the city proposes a new Red Line, already meeting with significant opposition from neighborhood residents. Not to mention an idea to build a new trolley across Charles Street, apparently to attract tourists.

    Norfolk is 1/3 the size of Baltimore and the Tide line is only 7 miles long, yet millions of dollars are being obtained from other areas of Virginia to pay for the rail and account for cost overruns.

  10. Andrew

    Randall:

    Vancouver, BC, claims to operate the busiest bus route in North America, which carries more than 50,000 riders per day. New York’s MTA has at least two bus routes that carried more than 50,000 riders per day in 2009

    I suppose these are the only examples in all of North America, or surely you would have cited others. So we’ve got a BRT line in Vancouver with a stop spacing of 3/4 mile and most of its riders students on passes going to the University of british Columbia on dedicated express buses and connecting off a subway line, and a couple of NYCT routes in New York City such as the M15 on First and Second Aves. (i.e. not near a subway line), the B44 Nostrand Ave. and B46 on Utica Ave. in Brooklyn (i.e. not near a subway line), and the Bx12 crosstown in the Bronx on Fordham Rd. (i.e. not near a subway line). Notice a trend? Except for the BX12, these heavy bus lines were supposed to be replaced by subways in the 1968 NYC subway plan.

    Because I’m quite certain there isn’t a bus route over 25,000 daily riders anywhere else in the US outside NYC.

    The truth is that any rail route that can’t carry more than 50,000 people a day is nothing more than an egotrain that should be a bus route.

    The truth is, no one beyond the desperately poor wants to ride or live near busy dirty smelly bus lines on very busy streets. That is why its rare to find a bus line with more than 10,000 riders per day. Outside of NYC, most cities have just a handful of busy bus routes like that. Its also rare to find a street or highway with more than 25,000 vehicles day on it. In most regions, just a couple of major expressways have more than that many cars. So what is your point? You want impossible standards for transit that you would never dream of requiring for roads? Is a 4 lane highway with 10,000 cars just an “egoroad”?

  11. metrosucks

    Andrew, is there any rail project you consider a failure? Any at all? Even though your personal preference may be to ride by rail, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to invest billions on it. Actually, it’s often a terrible idea.

  12. Andrew

    metrosucks:

    Certainly there are failed rail routes. They are typically slow and very lightly ridden and go nowhere and lose gobs of money in operation. The San Jose VTA is a pretty good example of this. The Detroit Woodward Line sounds like another possible candidate should it unfortunately be built.

    But in general, I view rail lines like Randall views roads – they should be there no matter what. They are far preferrable to buses, and they are preferrable to cars for many trips when they are remotely time and money competitive thanks to good design. We would be much better off as a country if more people could transition to being single vehicle families because at least one worker could use rail transit to get to work.

    As to the Tide, lets see how it does once it actually opens. 2900 riders is a very, very modest goal which will undoubtedly be met. I’m honestly surprised it got funded with such low expectations.

  13. LazyReader

    The Great Streetcar conspiracy….. Which consisted of allegations of, and convictions from, a program by General Motors (among others)purchase and dismantle streetcars and replace them with bus services. GM and other companies were convicted in 1949 of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and other products through a complex network of holding companies. From 1936 and 1950 over 100 systems in 45 cities were converted to buses.

    Supporters of rail point out only a few US cities have surviving effective urban rail systems; notable survivors include New York City, Newark, New Jersey,Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C. and Chicago. What they don’t talk about is the immense cost these systems place on the cities budget. Of the 15 largest rapid transit systems in America by ridership; the first of course being New York’s subway (also add on to that the PATH and the Staten Island rail) those 12 other systems account for 42 percent of the NYC’s ridership. Even if the cities didn’t lose their streetcars back then, I have no doubt some of them would have been dismantled anyway. The post-war years brought with it a general enthusiasm for the automobile.

    At one time, nearly every city in the U.S. with population over 10,000 had at least one streetcar company and nearly all of which were privately owned and were later dismantled. One estimate states, in 1920 90% of all trips were by rail using 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000 employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income. But how many of them could afford to ride the rails? Most people couldn’t afford to ride on a daily basis. By 1929 more than half of all American households owned an automobile. The shift to buses was brought on due to the inefficiencies of streetcars. You can move a bus practically anywhere and theres not much rail can do that a bus can do just as easily and cheaply.

  14. prk166

    “Though Andrew, keep in mind that Woodward had streetcars until General Motors forced the city to shut them down in the mid 1950?s.” – Highwayman

    You’re ignorance regarding the history of railroads, both freight and passenger, in this country is appalling.

  15. metrosucks

    No surprises here. The double standard, wherein highways are maligned for a very small subsidy (despite their enormous utility which benefits every member of society), and passenger rail is celebrated (despite a huge, almost 100% subsidy to a very small segment of society) is also appalling.

  16. Andrew

    highwayman:

    Detroit has been a catastrophe since the 1943 race riots. When the government has to quell civil disturbance in urban areas with Army tanks, the city is obviously already in a hopeless state of advanced decay and conflict (like, say, present day Syria or Libya). Everything after that, including its 65%+ population loss is a mere coda.

    I’m aware of Detroit’s rail past. The problem is its disastrous auto-centric present, which will not be cured by trying to bring back past glories of a single rail line. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything as depressing as Detroit and its simply bombed out gutted shell, with blocks upon blocks simply raised to the ground, and I’ve been in some really rough urban areas in New York, Newark, Camden, Philly, DC, Baltimore, and Chicago. And that was in 1993 and its gotten much worse since then! Is Woodward Ave. really the prime transportation corridor in Detroit? Has Detroit fixed enough of its problems to make people want to invest inside the city limits? I really doubt it.

    I have to be agnostic here until the city reaches terminal collapse and true reconstruction can occur.

  17. Andrew

    metrosucks:

    GM hates streetcars blah blah blah killed them all off

    Well, GM owned National City Lines, and NCL converted wholesale hundreds of streetcar routes around the country to buses while retaining almost nothing.

  18. Andrew

    LazyReader:

    What they don’t talk about is the immense cost these systems place on the cities budget.

    Really? Philadelphia pays around $60M for SEPTA ($40 per resident), and its total city budget is around $3.5 billion ($2300 per resident).

    15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income

    At a time when GDP was not yet even $70 billion! And railroads were earning another $1 billion in income. What kind of profit have the roads earned for us again???? Do we get a $500 billion profit from the road system and roadway transport companies today????

    But how many of them could afford to ride the rails? Most people couldn’t afford to ride on a daily basis.

    Well, 15 billion trips and US population of 100 million means that the typical person took 300 trips per year on the streetcar/interurban system. Considering many people walked to work and school, or were stay-at-home mom’s, that actually suggests most people who needed to travel could afford the nickel fare each way, which was roughly 1% of a days wage @ $10 per day in earnings, and 2% @ $5 per day in earnings. A ~14 mile each way commute for me in a car today would be around 3% of my wages all-in, and I am very highly paid (top 5-10% in personal income). Back then, the same trip was 14 cents on the trolley and subway, and 20 cents on the train, round trip.

    The shift to buses was brought on due to the inefficiencies of streetcars. You can move a bus practically anywhere and theres not much rail can do that a bus can do just as easily and cheaply.

    Or rather, the move was because streetcar companies (except for those that were owned by the city, like San Francisco Muni) were expected to maintain their tracks AND the surface of the roads they traveled on, while buses were expected to mooch off auto users and property owners and get “free” infrastructure. Also, electric utilities were forcibly dismembered from their electric traction transit companies out of a faux concern for the consumers choice. That the consumer a scant few year later had no choice whatsoever due to auto companies buying up streetcar lines and selling their infrastructure for scrap was apparently not a concern. Finally, highway construction itself was allowed to blatantly disrupt and discontinue rail service on certain heavily used and hard to discontinue rail lines, such as the West Chester Pike Line of the Red Arrow lines outside Philadelphia, or the Congress Expressway and the Chicago Aurora and Elgin trunk line. Can you imagine an interstate highway in an urban area being shut down for years at a time so a rail line could be built in its right of way?

  19. the highwayman

    Though LazyReader, Prk166 & Metrosucks. You guys don’t want rail lines to exist at all, you want roads & only roads. You’re no different than the KKK when it comes to Jews & black people!

  20. metrosucks

    We know that’s not true, because roads pay almost 100% of their way, and rail pays almost none of its way. Unless you are advocating $100 tickets for the light rail, of course.

  21. the highwayman

    Now you’re just bald faced lying Metrosucks. Even if one doesn’t own a car, you’re still paying for the streets in your municipality!

    Roads have been around for thousands of years & they don’t need to “make money” to exist!

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