Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

So far, Amtrak is living up to my expectations. The trains are late, not just the one I’m on the the ones we’ve met going in the other direction. The food in the dining car is both expensive and tasteless. And business turns out to be a first-class rip-off.

On Friday, a landslide north of Portland shut down rail service between Portland and Seattle. That meant the train I was taking would have arrived in Portland and be ready to go with no chance of delays on the Seattle-Portland leg. Sure enough, we left on time to the nearest three seconds.

Before going 50 miles, however, we got stuck on a siding waiting for a freight train. That’s routine, but this particular wait must have been at least 20 minutes. By the time we got to Eugene, 123 miles from Portland, we were 40 minutes late. I didn’t really care as I have a four-hour layover in Sacramento, but it could be annoying if I were planning to go to a meeting in San Francisco. (As it turned out, we were on time into Sacramento thanks to “pad” in the schedule.)

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Back on the Rails Again

The Antiplanner is enjoying Amtrak’s California Zephyr through the Colorado Rockies today. Assuming all went well, I boarded the Coast Starlight in Portland on Saturday, then changed trains to the Zephyr Sunday morning, and will arrive in Chicago on Tuesday. From there I’ll take the Capital Limited to Washington, DC, all part of my research on the viability of passenger rail transportation in today’s America.

The California Zephyr near Granby, Colorado. Detail of photo taken by William Kratville for Amtrak in 2000.

I love passenger trains, but I planned this trip with some trepidation. I took Amtrak across the country many times in the 1970s, but since then Amtrak has succeeded in making its trains boring at best. My experience during the 1980s was that the seats were less comfortable, the overnight accommodations were prohibitively expensive, and the food was mediocre, leading me to switch to air travel for most long trips. Now I’m taking this trip to see if things have improved or are as bad as I remember them.

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A Cornerstone of Rational Urban Planning

One of the bright spots amid the overall decline in 2016 transit ridership was Southwest Transit, a small transit agency connecting Eden Prairie and other communities with downtown Minneapolis. The agency carried 77,000 more bus riders in 2016 than 2015, a 7 percent increase.

Many of its bus routes would be replaced by, or at least have to compete with, the region’s Southwest light-rail line, which is currently projected to cost $1.9 billion. This would be a part of the same light-rail system that lost 40,000 riders in 2016. If built, it is clear that the Southwest light rail would take many of its riders from Southwest Transit, which costs far less to operate.

Metro Transit, which runs Twin Cities light rail and many of its buses (but not Southwest Transit buses) is responding to the decline in ridership by raising fares, which is a sure-fire way to cause ridership to decline even further. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton has proposed to spend $4 million on a “demonstration project” extending the Northstar commuter-rail line to St. Cloud. That’s the commuter-rail line that spent more than $17 million on operations and maintenance in 2015 to collect less than $2.5 million in fares from just 1,274 daily round-trip riders. It carried 11,000 fewer riders in 2016, so daily round-trip riders fell to about 1,250.

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“Something Is Wrong & It’s Holding Us Back”

“The United States of America is truly an exceptional country,” says controversial JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, “but it is clear that something is wrong — and it’s holding us back.” Dimon’s annual letter to shareholders identifies some of the things that are wrong and suggests ways to fix them.

Dimon is controversial simply because he headed one of the nation’s leading banks at the time of the 2008 mortgage crisis, yet to the Antiplanner he was one of the heroes of that crisis. The mortgage bond market was invented by JPMorgan, but when Dimon became CEO he recognized the market wasn’t viable and ordered the bank to stop trading such bonds. When Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual went broke because of their heavy involvement in such bonds, it could have precipitated a major financial crisis, and Dimon agreed to take over those banks to avoid that crisis

Such takeovers are the standard way the U.S. government has dealt with failing banks, and they are not a gift to the banks doing the takeovers. The banks agree to accept the defunct banks’ assets and (much larger) liabilities in order to keep the monetary system going as well as to save the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation billions of dollars it would have to spend paying off insured depositers.

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NHTSA Should Say No to V2V

Comments on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration‘s proposed vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandate are due one week from today on April 12. If approved, this will be one of the most expensive vehicle safety rules ever, adding around $300 dollars to the price of every car, or (at recent car sales rates) well over $5 billion per year.

Despite the high cost, the NHTSA predicts the rule will save only about 25 to 31 lives in 2025, mainly because it will do no good until most cars have it. Yet even by 2060, when virtually all cars would have it, NHTSA predicts it will save only about 1,000 to 1,365 lives per year.

The real danger is not that it will cost too much per life saved but that mandating one technology will inhibit the development and use of better technologies that could save even more lives at a lower cost. The technology the NHTSA wants to mandate is known as dedicated short-range communications, a form of radio. Yet advancements in cell phones, wifi, and other technologies could do the same thing better for less money.

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The Future of Brightline

Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico is acquiring Florida East Coast Railway for $2.1 billion. This raises questions about the future of Brightline, FEC’s planned moderate-speed rail line that was previously called All Aboard Florida. Brightline is scheduled to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in July, and extending to Miami in August.

Phase two of Brightline is to be an extension to Orlando, which would require construction of about 40 miles of new rail line that would be used almost exclusively for passengers. FEC estimates this will cost more than $1.0 billion.

Brightline claims its trains will operate at 80 to 125 miles per hour. But it is promising to deliver people the 65 rail miles from Miami to West Palm Beach in 60 minutes. That’s an average speed of–let me see–65 miles in 60 minutes (counts on fingers) works out to just 65 miles per hour. That’s certainly faster than existing commuter trains, which require about 100 minutes for the same trip (making many more intermediate stops). But it’s not significantly faster than driving, which Google says takes about 70 minutes.

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Trump to Congress: Eliminate New Starts

When Elaine Chao was confirmed as Secretary of Transportation, rail advocacy groups were optimistic that she and the administration would look favorably towards more funding for rail “infrastructure.” So when Trump’s budget came out, they were shocked, or pretended to be shocked, that Trump proposed cuts to transit, Amtrak, and TIGER grants carried over from the 2009 stimulus program.

Transit cuts were part of Trump’s “attack on cities,” said urbanist Yonah Freemark. No, it was more like part of Trump’s hostility to pouring money down a rathole that produces no benefits.

As the Antiplanner explains in this op-ed in the Morning Consult, New Starts funding is worse than trying to create jobs by digging holes and filling them up. At least the holes, once filled, don’t impose any further obligations on society, but cities that build New Starts projects are legally obligated to continue operating and maintaining the projects for decades. Most of these projects have high costs and negligible benefits.

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He Never Said Good Bye

The Antiplanner has met many people who are smarter than I am, and one of them was my father, Robert O’Toole, who died last week at the age of 91. In fact, I sometimes suspected that he was too smart for his own good.

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1925, Bob was the second of three sons. His father died of tuberculosis when Bob was 5 or 6 years old, and though his mother remarried, times were hard. One year, he received a bicycle for Christmas–but his mother and step-father had just made a $1 downpayment on the bike and he had to earn the rest.

He retreated into his books. “He read all the time,” one of his brothers told me. “He was so much smarter than the rest of us,” his other brother added. Bob graduated from Roosevelt High School at or near the top of his class in 1943. He was what people today would call a geek: a skinny guy into math and science but with few to no people skills.

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History vs. Density in Portland

Portland’s urban-growth boundary has made housing less affordable, which is “pushing minorities out of their traditional neighborhoods to the edges of the region.” It is also leading some people to leapfrog to the next city: the two fastest-growing cities in Oregon are small cities about 10 miles away from Portland’s growth boundary.

Portland’s solution has been to increase density and the city has adopted numerous plans to squeeze more people into the city. But this is only going to make housing even more expensive.

One reason for that is that some neighborhoods have the political muscle to opt out of the city’s plans to impose infill development everywhere. Residents of the upper-middle-class Eastmoreland neighborhood, for example, have asked the National Park Service to list the neighborhood on a National Register of Historic Places. This will limit the amount of density that can be added to the area.

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Should Transit Fares Cover Operating Costs?

Maryland has long had a state law requiring transit systems to collect enough fares to cover at least 35 percent of their operating costs. While it is admirable to set a target, this particular target is disheartening for two reasons.

First, 35 percent is a pretty low goal. The 2015 National Transit Database lists 48 transit operations that cover between 100 and 200 percent of their costs, including New York ferries, the Hampton Jitney, several other bus lines, and a bunch of van pooling systems. No rail lines cover 100 percent of their operating costs, but BART covers 80 percent, Caltrains covers 72 percent, New York and DC subways cover 64 percent, and New York commuter trains cover 60 percent. On average, commuter bus and commuter rail systems earn half their operating costs. So 35 percent lacks ambition.

Even worse, most Maryland transit operations don’t come close to meeting the target. Maryland commuter trains cover 45 percent of their costs. But Baltimore’s light rail only covers 17 percent, and its heavy rail covers a pathetic 13 percent. Standard bus service also covers just 13 percent of its costs, though commuter buses come closer to the target, reaching 28 percent.

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