Slate writer Jeremy Stahl wants everyone to know that he has a fantasy of riding high-speed trains that pay for themselves (at least their operating costs) and cut greenhouse gas emissions, and he doesn’t understand why other people don’t support that fantasy. He specifically mentions the Antiplanner, who he dismisses for being “conservative.”
Slate lists Stahl as its “social media editor,” and he probably does a great job at that. But he apparently isn’t a numbers guy. You don’t have to be “conservative” or totally innumerate to know that the real world, and not the fantasy he wants to live in, has a limited amount of money and resources. Making decisions about how to effectively spend those resources requires more than just fantasizing how you would like things to be.
For example, Stahl points to Amtrak’s Acela, saying that it “turned a profit of $178 million in 2011” and it could earn even more if Amtrak had more capacity. But that “profit” is itself a fantasy, since it doesn’t count the capital improvements needed to make the trains possible, nor does it count maintenance, which Amtrak–in violation of generally accepted accounting principles–counts as a capital cost so that it can minimize its operating losses.
Amtrak says that the cost of increasing capacity in the Northeast Corridor will be $151 billion, and there is no chance that the “profits” from running the Acela will ever be able to cover more than a tiny fraction of that cost. So where does that $151 billion come from? It will have to come from spending less on some other program that Stahl, in his fantasy world, no doubt thinks is critical.
For example, Stahl seems to want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When he discovers that nearly all of the electricity used to power the Acela comes from fossil fuels, he will no doubt argue that we should expand wind and other renewable energy programs. But “expand” really means “increase subsidies to,” as without subsidies, wind power could not compete with coal.
Given a choice between his fantasy of high-speed rail and a fantasy of wind power, which would he choose? The answer, of course, is that in a fantasy world you don’t have to make choices like that; and anyone in the real world who demands that you do must be a right-wing conservative who simply “hates trains.”
Speaking of fantasies, two members of the Oregon legislature want to run commuter trains from Salem, Oregon’s capital, to Beaverton, where they will connect with the light rail to downtown Portland. This would turn a 50-minute trip by bus or car to a comfortable trip by train that would easily take 90 to 120 minutes. After all, when you go by train, half the fun is getting there, so you might as well make it last as long as possible!
Such a commuter-rail line would build on the “success” of Portland’s Westside Express Service from Wilsonville to Beaverton. This line, which was built with a mere 60 percent cost overrun, attracted a whopping 724 round trips per average weekday in 2011 by zipping along at an average speed of 34 mph. The line collected a total of $386,000 in fares against operation and maintenance costs exceeding $6.6 million.
When the capital costs are annualized at 2 percent and added to the operation and maintenance subsidies, the total is enough to give every daily round-trip rider a brand-new Toyota Prius every fifteen months for the next 28 years! Even longer if Portland doesn’t scrap this boondoggle when it is worn out. So, obviously, the line should be extended from Wilsonville to Salem. At least, if you live in a fantasy world.