Commuter rail on existing tracks sounds seductively attractive at first glance. You don’t have to buy right of way or build new rail lines; you merely have to make a few upgrades and buy some used commuter cars and locomotives and–voila!–you have a hip new rail transit line to attract Millennials to your urban area.
If politicians ever did more than take a first glance at these projects, they would realize that it never works out that way in practice. Costs are a lot higher than expected, and even if you only run a handful of commuter trains a day going a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the feds have added to your costs by requiring you to install the same positive train control systems designed to handle the hundreds of 110-mph trains per day that use the Northeast Corridor.
Worse, existing freight lines rarely go where people want to go, so ridership is often low and fares sometimes cover less than 10 percent of operating costs, and of course zero percent of capital costs. Orlando’s SunRail fares aren’t even enough to pay for the ticket machines, much less any of the costs of operating the trains themselves. Continue reading
Pity Capital Metro, Austin’s transit agency. It has an opportunity to include bus-rapid transit stops on a freeway that is now under construction–but it doesn’t have the funds to pay for them.
The Texas Department of Transportation, which is building the freeway, needs $18 million from Capital Metro now to buy the extra land needed for the bus stops. But Capital Metro doesn’t have it. Nor does it have the $105 million more needed to actually build the bus stops.
Where could it get the money? The best way would be to shutter the agency’s pathetic, 32-mile commuter-rail line. In 2015, Capital Metro spent more than $20 million operating and maintaining this line, but received less than $2.5 million in fares. The trains carried fewer than 1,500 round trips per day, which means each daily round-trip rider cost taxpayers nearly $12,000.
A single-year’s worth of savings on the operating costs would be nearly enough to buy the land needed to make the bus-rapid transit work. A little over five years would be enough to pay the rest of the costs. Of course, if Capital Metro hadn’t built the rail line in the first place, it would have plenty of money for bus-rapid transit. The rail line was supposed to cost $60 million, and actually cost $140 million, sending the agency’s reserve fund from $200 million to $5 million. Continue reading
A bill in the California legislature would give Caltrain, the commuter trains that connect San Jose with San Francisco, “permanent financial stability.” That’s good news if you think you will be riding Caltrains one thousand years from now, but it’s bad news for the taxpayers who will have to “permanently”–however long that is–pay for running empty trains.
Many transit agencies already have dedicated funds, by which they mean taxes that go straight into their coffers, but those that don’t whine and moan endlessly about how they would be much better off if only they had a dedicated fund. They even love to make fine distinctions: Atlanta’s MARTA complains that it has no dedicated funds from the state, but it does get a 1 percent sales tax, half of which has to be spent on capital improvements.
Transit advocates also like to point out that highways were built with a dedicated fund. Yet the gas taxes that go into that fund are highway user fees. In that sense, every transit agency has a dedicated fund because it gets to keep its user fees. Continue reading
Thanks to bad planning on the part of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, a handful of commuters are getting free rides on commuter trains for the rest of the year. In 2012, the state opened new commuter rail stations and started service between Wickford Junction and Providence, with trains going on to Boston, at a cost of $50 million (half of which came from the federal New Starts program).
Wickford Junction’s $25 million train station and parking garage. RIDOT photo.
A large chunk of the money went to build an 1,100-space, four-story parking garage in Wickford Junction. The state was counting on the claims made by so many other cities that rail transit (with a little help to developers such as parking garages) would stimulate new development. Continue reading
Since it opened a little more than a year ago, Denver’s airport rail lines, known as the A Line, has had a serious safety problem: the crossing gates aren’t reliable. Now Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) claims it has solved the problem, which is transit-speak for they haven’t solved the problem; they’ve just given up.
According to Denver Transit Partners, the private consortium that built and operates the line, “the problem with the crossing technology is impossible to fix.” Instead of fixing it, they’ve gotten a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to allow them to run the trains anyway–provided they have human flaggers at every crossing, which costs about $6 million a year.
Supposedly the crossing gate system is incompatible with the positive train control that the federal government also requires. The Antiplanner doesn’t claim to be an expert on railroad signal technology, but the basic principles behind positive train control were developed more than 100 years ago by Frank Sprague, the electrical genius who also developed the first workable electric streetcar, the first electric rapid transit system, and the first high-speed electric elevators. Continue reading
The proposed electrification of the San Jose-to-San Francisco commuter-rail line, which the Antiplanner briefly mentioned last week, looks to become a bellwether for Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao. On one side are California Republicans who don’t want to see dollars going to the high-speed rail boondoggle. On the other side are rail proponents who think that any money spent on trains is a good thing.
Currently, the rail line is powered by “aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives,” the New York Times objectively reports. Are those similar to the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power most Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor? Or the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power America’s freight trains that, rail supporters love to report, are hundreds of times more energy efficient than trucks?
The Times tries to make it appear ironic that cutting-edge Silicon Valley engineers are forced to rely on primitive technologies. Yet electric trains are actually older than diesel. Electrification dates back to the nineteenth century and the Pennsylvania Railroad first electrified some of its lines more than 100 years ago. The first Diesel locomotive was made just over 90 years ago and the first really important Diesel, the FT–the one that convinced the railroads to switch from steam–was made less than 80 years ago.
According to its supporters, Orlando’s commuter-rail line, Sunrail, is a great success. They don’t really say what it is successful at, except that it offers inexpensive rides to students. So inexpensive, in fact, that the fares don’t even cover the cost of the ticket machines. Of course, that leads people to wonder why they even charge for tickets.
The answer, according to Sunrail officials, is that if the rides were free, it would be “wildly or even possibly too popular.” But just how popular is it, anyway? Answer: not hardly at all.
In 2015, according to the National Transit Database, the average number of weekday rides was 3,647. That means fewer than 1,825 round trips. On average, just 22 seats out of the 98 seats per railcar are filled, so I suspect they have room for a few more people if the rides were free.
The National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t made any final determinations, but it’s looking more like the September 29 New Jersey train crash could have been prevented by positive train control (PTC) systems that Congress has mandated but the railroads have failed to install. This is going to lead to a spate of articles accusing New Jersey Transit and other railroads and transit agencies of dragging their feet in installing PTC. Yet the Antiplanner isn’t positive that positive train control is the best way to make rail lines safer.
According to National Transportation Statistics table 2-39, since 1990 an average of 8 passengers and 26 railroad employees have been killed per year in accidents, many of which could have been prevented by positive train control. Meanwhile, an average of 416 people per year have been killed when struck by trains at grade crossings and another 354 have been killed when struck by trains because they were trespassing on tracks. None of those deaths could have been prevented by positive train control.
That suggests that positive train control, which the Association of American Railroads says is likely to cost $10 billion, may not be the most cost-effective way of making railroads safer. Every death is tragic, but if the $10 billion the railroads have to spend to save 34 lives a year could have been spent improving grade crossings and fencing off railroad rights of way, it might be able to save hundreds of lives per year instead.
The July issue of Trains magazine has a cover story and series of articles with lots of positive things to say about commuter rail and hardly a mention of the incredible amount of money some cities are spending to move a relative handful of people. “Commuter railroads shape urban life,” says one headline. “Utah’s FrontRunner is a Salt Lake City success story,” says another.
This is baloney. Consider Salt Lake City. Why is it a success? Because it “provides an alternative to Interstate 15 traffic jams.” Simply providing an alternative doesn’t mean anyone is actually using it.
Utah Transit spent $1.5 billion (in 2014 dollars) starting its commuter rail service between Provo, 44 miles to the south, and Ogden, 44 miles to the north. For all that money, it is carrying fewer than 9,000 round trips per weekday, and the Census Bureau says just one-half percent of commuters take commuter trains to work. Fares cover less than 15 percent of its operating costs, and an even smaller share of operations and maintenance costs. Instead of “providing an alternative” that fewer than 9,000 people will use, Utah should have spent the money improving traffic flows for everyone using I-15 and other area highways.
Denver opened its rail line to the airport a few weeks ago, but it seems to have been rushed into operation. The Antiplanner took the train to Union Station on Wednesday and back on Thursday and fortunately allowed plenty of time because it was not very reliable.
The train is formally known as the University of Colorado A-Line, which is deceptive because it doesn’t actually go to the University of Colorado. Instead, the university paid $5 million for naming rights, which seems a strange thing for a public institution to do.
But then, deception is the name of the game for RTD’s new train. When I was on the airport subway to the terminal I heard a recorded announcement by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, inviting people to take the A Line, which he said took “about 35 minutes to get to Union Station.” I happened to know that the train was scheduled to take 38 minutes, and mathematically, 38 is closer to “about 40” than “about 35.”