“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.
A group called Citizens Against Government Waste gave Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer the “Porker of the Month award” for wanting to raise gas taxes in order to fund bike paths. Bike paths? They’re complaining about bike paths?
The group points out that taxpayers (they don’t say if this means all taxpayers or just federal taxpayers) have spent $9.5 billion on bicycle and pedestrian facilities over the last 22 years. It neglects to mention that this is only about 1 percent of federal highway spending and about a quarter of a percent of all highway spending. Maybe I’m biased, as (like Blumenauer) I’m an active cyclist, but I find it hard to complain about this.
MIT Press recently published Fighting Traffic, by University of Virginia researcher Peter Norton, who argues that streets used to be for pedestrians, but some vast conspiracy akin to the Great Streetcar Conspiracy stole the streets and gave them to automobiles. I don’t buy Norton’s extreme view, but I do see the need to provide safe facilities for all forms of transport. If roadways were once safe for cyclists and pedestrians but now are not because they are dedicated to cars and trucks, I don’t have serious problems with spending a tiny percentage of highway user fees on safe bicycle and pedestrian ways.
Trains magazine columnist Don Phillips is an unabashed enthusiast for passenger trains. Yet his latest column lashes out at Amtrak for repeatedly misrepresenting the Acela–the closest thing Amtrak has to a high-speed train–as profitable.
Amtrak Acela train entering the Washington, DC station. Flickr photo by Steve Wilson.
“Seldom in my life have I seen such a mass of misinformation spread about any one subject as is being spread now about the American passenger train,” Phillips begins. “The misinformation is spread by confused and shallow politicians, young reporters who have no idea what they are talking about, and by Amtrak officials who have learned that they can count on the first two groups to not understand their technical jargon.”
“Combined, Amtrak’s short-distance corridors generated a positive operating balance in 2011,” says the Brookings Institution’s new report on Amtrak. This suggests that the United States should “invest” more in such short-distance routes.
The problem with this is that just one short-distance route, the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor, dominates all the other routes. That one route carries as many passenger miles of travel as all the 27 other short-distance routes put together. Of those 27 routes, only three–the Carolinian and trains from Washington to Lynchburg and Washington to Newport News, Virginia–had a “positive operating balance,” to use Brookings’ term, in 2012. But all of those routes actually start in either New York or Boston, so really they are Northeast Corridor trains too.
In using the term “positive operating balance,” Brookings–with the help of Amtrak’s non-standard accounting methods–is being highly misleading. First, both Brookings and Amtrak count state subsidies as “revenues,” so Brookings doesn’t count a train’s operating loss that is offset by such subsidies against that train’s “operating balance.” Since only short-distance trains receive state subsidies, this leads to a strange recommendation from Brookings that Congress should encourage state subsidies of long-distance trains, as if that would make the subsidies go away. As someone told USA Today, “A subsidy is a subsidy whether it’s coming from federal, state or local taxpayers.”
Intercity passenger trains are experiencing a “renaissance” with Amtrak ridership growing “faster than other major travel modes,” says a new report from the Brookings Institution. Unfortunately, the authors of the report are guilty of selectively using data to make their case.
“Amtrak ridership grew by 55 percent since 1997,” says the report. Why 1997? Fifteen years is a strange time period to use unless there were no data before then; but annual passenger travel data go back many decades before 1997 so that’s no excuse. As it happens, in 1997 Amtrak was nearing bottom: gas prices were low and few people felt the need to resort to government-subsidized travel. Ridership actually bottomed out in 1996 at 5.1 billion passenger miles, but grew to just 5.2 billion in 1997. This makes the growth since 1997 look especially impressive.
Another problem with Brookings data is that it is based on trips rather than passenger miles. A journey of 1,000 miles potentially accesses four times as many destinations as a journey of 500 miles, so measurements based on passenger miles are a much better indication of value than measurements based on trips.