Amtrak’s plan to use most of the $2.45 billion “loan” it received from the Department of Transportation to buy new high-speed trains for the Northeast Corridor has come under fire from, of all people, a high-speed rail advocate named Alon Levy. The new trains will cost about $9 million per car, which Levy points out is nearly twice as much as France is paying for Eurostar train cars. The reason for the high cost is that the new trains can go more than 200 mph and tilt on curves more than any previous trains.
Levy is a transportation writer who takes a highly mathematical approach to reviewing proposals and who says he is for “good transit” but against boondoggles. He says the problem with the expensive new trains is that Amtrak tracks can’t support trains that are as fast as they can go, and in order to support such fast trains, they would have to reduce curvature so much that they wouldn’t need to tilt as much as the new trains. Levy argues that Amtrak should have spent less on the trains and more on the infrastructure needed to boost speeds. As another high-speed rail advocate put it, “They need to speed up the slow bits first, which isn’t something you do by blowing money on trains.”
Amtrak hopes that Democrats will sweep Congress this November and give it the $290 billion it wants to rebuild the Northeast Corridor to higher speeds. But, as Levy points out in other articles, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor plans are far more expensive than they need to be.
Amtrak has selected former Norfolk Southern CEO Charles Moorman to be its new president and CEO. Moorman will take the reigns from career bureaucrat Joseph Boardman this week.
Rail industry insiders were surprised when Boardman decided to step down in the middle of his contract. But, according to Trains magazine’s Don Philips (no link available), Boardman had alienated other officials in the organization with angry tirades and poor management.
Boardman leaves the organization with one victory: Amtrak has successfully negotiated a $2.45 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. The funds will be used to buy new trains and upgrade the Northeast Corridor to operate at top speeds of 160 mph instead of the current 135 mph. Amtrak claims it will repay the loan out of revenues earned from the additional riders attracted to the new trains and higher speeds.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin–whose urban area barely has more than 100,000 people–is located on Interstate 94. United Airlines offers residents two daily flights to Chicago. Greyhound has buses to Chicago and Minneapolis, while Jefferson Lines has buses to Green Bay and Minneapolis.
But that’s not enough for members of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, who want train service from Eau Claire to Minneapolis and Chicago. Why? Because millennials don’t want to drive; everybody wants to take the train; only cities with trains will grow in the future; blah, blah, blah.
People who believe this line of drivel probably don’t want to know the real data. In FY 2015, Amtrak carried 6.60 billion passenger miles, down from 6.65 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, in the 12 months ending in November, 2015, Americans drove 3.14 trillion vehicle miles, up 3.6 percent from the previous 12 months.
A recent draft environmental impact statement published by the Federal Railroad Administration estimates that it would well over a quarter trillion dollars in capital improvements to make Amtrak “a dominant mode for Intercity travelers and commuters” in the Boston-Washington corridor. Even that is optimistic as the data in the report suggest that Amtrak would be far from dominant even aver spending that much money.
Click image to go to the download page for the draft environmental impact statement, which is downloadable in more than 30 parts totaling well over 30 megabytes.
The statement considers four alternatives:
- No action would keep train service at current levels. This would nevertheless cost $19.9 billion in maintenance and improvements over the next 25 years.
- Alternative 1 would increase service at a rate equal to the region’s population growth. This would cost around $65 billion (the average of a range given in the DEIS), or $45 billion more than No Action.
- Alternative 2 would increase service faster than population growth at a cost of around $133.5 billion, or more than double Alternative 1.
- Alternative 3 would supposedly make rail “a dominant mode” in the region at a cost of around $287.3 billion, more than double Alternative 2.
The Antiplanner spent part of yesterday in Washington DC stuck on a train while Metro was suffering yet another service disruption. I eventually got off and took a taxi, and soon after reaching daylight I received a call from a New Jersey reporter asking what I thought about a revised plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River to supplement the North River Tunnels Amtrak and New Jersey Transit use today.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the tunnel project in 2010 because he didn’t want New Jersey taxpayers to have to pay most of the cost including the inevitable cost overruns. Christie is perfectly happy to have the tunnel built so long as New York pays more of the cost. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the federal government to pay the vast majority of the cost (it was already going to pay 51 percent) because, after all, this is interstate commerce. Now Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a grand plan to create a quasi-governmental corporation to build it, as we didn’t already have enough of those. The two governors claim to love this plan even though Schumer still doesn’t say where the money is going to come from.
The justification for building the project is completely unrealistic. As the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, noted when Christie first cancelled the project, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit predicted that Midtown Manhattan would soon gain 500,000 new jobs. That as many jobs as are inside the Chicago Loop and far more than any other downtown in America, and there is little evidence that Manhattan job numbers are growing that fast (and little reason why taxpayers outside of New York or New Jersey should subsidize that growth).
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.