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.”
The Antiplanner confesses to not be a bible expert, but I don’t think Jesus ever said, “Thou shalt steal from thy neighbors so thee can afford to take expensive train rides.” But that seems to be the goal of Isaiah, a faith-based group in Minnesota that demands that taxpayers subsidize commuter trains from St. Cloud to Minneapolis.
Taxpayers spent $317 million to start the Northstar commuter train, shown here near Big Lake. Flickr photo by Jerry Huddleston.
The Northstar commuter-rail line currently operates over the 40 miles from Minneapolis to Big Lake, about 28 miles short of St. Cloud. The line is a huge loser: it carried an average of around 1,250 round-trips a day in 2014, earning fare revenues of less than $2.4 million but spending $15.2 million on operations and $7.4 million on maintenance.
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).
When Orlando decided to fund and operate a commuter train, many residents probably thought they could take the train to major events. Orlando expects to attract 120,000 people to its fireworks show this July 4th, but none of them will take the train to the site.
We’ve all heard the claim that a rail line can move as many people as an eight- (or sometimes ten-) lane freeway. Not so much. Orlando’s billion-dollar commuter-rail line carries less than 2,000 people to work each weekday morning and home in the evenings. (Amortized over 30 years at 3 percent, it would have cost less to buy every single daily round-trip rider a new Prius every year for the next 30 years.)
The train doesn’t normally operate on weekends, though it has done so for smaller special events in the past. But this Fourth of July it won’t, says the city, because of “total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian wayfinding and transport operations between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability.”
Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is $9 billion in debt. It has at least a $3 billion maintenance backlog. It must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing, but its maintenance budget this year is just $100 million. So when Boston shoemaker New Balance said that it was willing to spend $16 million building a new commuter rail station next to its headquarters, and to pay to maintain that station for the next decade, Boston transit officials were overjoyed.
The Atlantic calls this a public-private partnership. While it might be considered appropriate that employers help pay for transit stops that serve their employees, there’s another question no one else seems to be asking: how much will the transit line to serve this stop cost taxpayers?
The station is on a transit line that recently has had poor commuter-rail service because the passenger trains conflict with freight trains. In 2011, the state had to pay CSX $100 million to move most of its freight trains elsewhere. Since then, the state has spent more than $40 million upgrading the line. While New Balance might pay to maintain the station, taxpayers will have to pay to operate trains on the route.
The average cost of light-rail construction has grown to nearly $200 million per mile, according to data in the Federal Transit Administration’s 2016 proposal for capital grants to transit agencies under the “New Starts/Small Starts” program. This is up from $176 million a mile in the 2015 plan.
San Diego, which started the light-rail craze when it built the nation’s first modern light-rail line in 1981 at an average cost of well under $10 million per mile–less than $18 million per mile in today’s dollars–wants to spend $194 million per mile on a new Mid-Coast line. Boston, which can’t afford to maintain its existing increasingly decrepit rail system, wants to spend $489 million per mile on a 4.7-mile extension of one of its light-rail lines. The least-expensive light-rail line in the budget is a 2.3-mile extension to an existing light-rail line in Denver costing a mere $98 million per mile, nearly twice as much as the least-expensive new light-rail line in the 2013 plan.
Streetcars, which were supposed to be cheap, are costing an average of $59 million a mile, up from $46 million a mile in last year’s plan. That’s less than a third the average cost of light rail today, but still more than three times as expensive as San Diego’s original light-rail line. (I’m counting the Tacoma rail line as a streetcar, as it uses equipment that is nearly identical to the Portland streetcar; Sound Transit and the FTA call it light rail mainly to justify taxing Tacoma residents to help pay for the outrageously expensive light-rail lines being built in Seattle.) The FTA proposes to fund another streetcar line in Charlotte, and streetcars in Sacramento and Fort Lauderdale are also in the plan though not recommended for immediate funding.