A number of articles in National Review last week supported the Antiplanner’s view that more infrastructure spending wouldn’t have prevented the May 12 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. Rich Lowry says Amtrak is a huge waste that carries so few passengers that it is “a rounding error of American transportation.”
John Fund shows that Congressional budget cutting wasn’t responsible for the crash. Ian Tuttle considers the “rush to blame the Amtrak crash on infrastructure” shortfalls to be “shameful.” And Charles Cooke points out that the ones who were quickest to jump on the infrastructure bandwagon were mainly from the left.
Of course, all of these writers are on the right and thus would be expected to decry Amtrak. (There are some conservatives who support Amtrak and rail transit, but they are social conservatives, not fiscal conservatives.) Similarly, Amtrak supporters generally come from the left.
An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.
At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling the Antiplanner that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add fuel to this fire.
But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on this train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 to 57 seats (and Megabus’s double-decker buses have 80 seats). The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or less than two Megabuses.
It appears that the Amtrak crash that killed seven people Tuesday resulted from speeding, but big-government advocates are already using this accident to make their case for more infrastructure spending. In fact, the problem is not too little money, but too much money going to the wrong places.
In 2008, President Bush signed a law mandating that most railroads, including Amtrak, install positive train control (PTC) by December of 2015. PTC would force trains to slow or stop if the operator ignored signals or speed limits.
In 2009 and 2010, President Obama asked a Democratic Congress to give him $10 billion to spend on high-speed trains, and Congress agreed. Not one cent of that money went to installing PTC in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
PTC would have prevented this accident. There was plenty of money available to install it, but the Obama administration, in its infinite wisdom, chose to spend it elsewhere. Two days ago, it would have been embarrassing to realize that the government-run Amtrak hadn’t yet completed installation of PTC on its highest-speed corridor. Today, it’s a tragedy. But how is it the fault of fiscal conservatives?
The Antiplanner is in Lafayette, Louisiana today to talk about urban planning. I’ll be speaking tomorrow about the city & parish’s current plans and proposed new development code.
In the meantime, Bloomberg reports that Millennials want to own and drive cars about as much as their parents’ did–it was just the poor economy holding them back. Of course, they’d rather drive “cool” cars such as Teslas or Priuses rather than Cadillac Escalades. But drive they will.
In other news, Amtrak’s accounting tricks are catching up to it, as illustrated by an escalator in Penn Station that went out of order in January and hasn’t been fixed yet. In order to make it appear that its trains are more profitable than they really are, Amtrak defined “maintenance” costs as capital improvements. It then went to Congress and bragged that its operating subsidies were smaller than ever–but it needed huge capital subsidies, which Congress failed to give it.
“Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”
Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.
For example, he notes that Amtrak “ridership has increased by roughly 50 percent in the past 15 years.” But he fails to note that the biggest driver of Amtrak ridership is gasoline prices, which 15 years ago were at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation). Now that prices are falling, so is Amtrak’s ridership.
The Antiplanner arrived at the Purple Line debate debate last night to find protesters who were apparently upset that anyone would consider not building a train whose projected costs have already risen by more than 40 percent and whose ridership projections are so outlandish that even the Federal Transit Administration uses a lower (though still unrealistically high) number. Some of the protesters recognized me and were nice enough to wish me well in the debate.
My opponent, Richard Parsons, seems to truly believe that a 15.5-mph, low-capacity rail line will spur enough development to increase county tax revenues by more than $10 billion. When I pointed out that this has not happened to any rail project in the last 40 years, and that at most all they have done is influenced where development takes place, he didn’t dispute it, but merely claimed that Montgomery County was unique. Those who wish to see my presentation can download the PowerPoint file here.
Meanwhile, in keeping with the fiscally conservative trend that swept much of the nation in the last election, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has proposed (see p. 3-32) to help close the state’s $6.8 billion budget gap by cutting state support for Amtrak from $46.2 million in 2015 to $28.8 million in 2016. Amtrak supporters are unsurprisingly outraged, claiming that a reduction in passenger train service will increase traffic congestion, air pollution, and wear and tear on the highways.
Last week, Portland’s city auditor discovered that the city had been overstating streetcar ridership by 19 percent. It turns out that the Portland Streetcar isn’t the only government-sponsored transportation enterprise that has problems with simple arithmetic.
The January issue of Trains magazine reports that Amtrak has been overcounting its riders for years (the story, “Ridership down, revenue up,” isn’t available on line). It had to reduce its F.Y. 2014 ridership numbers by 705,000 because it actually started counting the number of people who ride its trains using “uncollectible multi-ride tickets” rather than just estimating them. That’s only about 2.3 percent of total 2014 ridership, but it meant that it had to show a decline from 2013 instead of the expected increase. (This is also noted in a footnote on page A-3.5 of Amtrak’s September, 2014, performance report.)
This 2.3 percent isn’t as drastic an overcount as 19 percent, but it spurred me to look at Amtrak’s historic numbers. When counting the number of trips people take on Amtrak each year, the railroad’s business has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990. But when measured in passenger miles, the growth has been less than 10 percent. This means that the average length per trip has declined from 273 miles in 1990 (and a peak of 286 miles in 1993) to just 215 miles in 2014.
CNN breathlessly reports that, in a “surprising comeback” over the past 10 to 15 years, “passenger rail has seen a resurgence in ridership.” The article is accompanied by 14 beautiful photographs of passenger trains, nearly all either tourist trains or trains in other countries and none of Amtrak, the near-monopoly provider of intercity passenger rail in the country (rectified with the photo below).
In September, 2010, Amtrak’s Empire Builder crosses Two Medicine Bridge near Glacier National Park in Montana. Photo by the Antiplanner; click image for a larger view.
Among the few hard facts contained in the CNN article is that, in its 2013 fiscal year, Amtrak carried a record number of passengers, nearly 31.6 million. Let’s see what that really means.
After bomb threats twice forced the evacuation of Amtrak trains in Eugene, Oregon, a local television station asks, “If the airport has screeners and metal detectors, why don’t train stations?” The answer they got from Amtrak? Such measures “would slow down the entire system and reduce the travel flow for passengers” (listen to the video starting at 4:00).
Needless to say, worries about slowing down the air travel system certainly haven’t prevented the government from forcing an onerous screening system on airline travelers. The television reporter points out that trains have been bombed in London and Madrid and a train station has been bombed in Russia, so perhaps Amtrak needs to do more than just rely on passengers reporting suspicious activities.
The truth is that Amtrak is protected by what might be called the “Macintosh effect.” A few years ago, computer viruses attacked mainly Windows machines and Macintoshes seemed to be immune. But they weren’t; in fact, there were just too few Macintoshes around for hackers to bother with. In the same way, the fact that American airlines carry almost a hundred times as many passenger miles a year as Amtrak makes them a much more tempting target.
Amtrak has so many empty seats on its trains that it is creating a writers-in-residence program offering free long-distance train rides to writers provided that they tweet their journeys. Despite my skepticism for government subsidies to trains, I love trains and have always dreamed of living on one. So I’m ready to take up my residency.
For Amtrak, the rationale for this program might be that the marginal cost of carrying someone a train that is already going somewhere with empty seats is not a whole lot more than zero. (It’s much more than zero if they ride in a sleeping car, but presumably all Amtrak is offering is coach.) The potential downside is if the train is significantly late or has other problems, which are all-too-frequent on certain Amtrak routes, the negative publicity would outweigh the positive.
On the other hand, where does this end? Should Amtrak offer residencies to photographers? Painters? Model railroaders? On average, Amtrak trains only fill half their seats, so there is plenty of room for this program’s expansion.