Yesterday was not a proud day for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The agency spent close to $800 million of federal funds on a so-called high-speed rail project between Seattle and Portland–only “so-called” because top speeds would be just 79 mph, which is conventional rail. Much of the money was spent upgrading existing tracks to give passenger trains a shorter (but less scenic) route through and around Tacoma.
As you probably know, the very first train to use this route derailed on an overpass over Interstate 5, blocking half the freeway and killing at least three, and probably more, passengers. It so happens that Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington–about 10 miles north of the crash–warned WSDOT on December 5 that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he declared.
To be fair, Mayor Anderson was worried that grade crossings in Lakewood were inadequately protected for 79-mph trains. But his comments more generally suggest that WSDOT was putting the goal of saving Seattle-Portland passengers ten minutes of time–increasing average speeds by just 2.7 mph–ahead of safety. Continue reading
The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.
Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.
Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years. Continue reading
Democratic Party hopes to retake Congress soon have been buoyed by this week’s election. Whether it is in 2018, 2020, or later, whenever they eventually regain control, federal funding for high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects will likely be back on the table. Since the sole criterion for funding such projects in 2009 was whether they had completed an environmental impact statement, numerous states are currently working on or have recently completed such statements.
An example of the Texas Department of Transportation, which just announced that its final environmental impact statement showed that a high-speed rail line from Dallas to San Antonio was “feasible.” A conventional rail line from Oklahoma City to Dallas and a higher-speed line from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico were also considered feasible. This is good news for rail buffs, as it means Texas is eligible for federal funding to do more detailed studies.
Before you buy your tickets for a high-speed ride from Dallas to San Antonio, it is worth asking what the state means by “feasible.” According to table 3-4 of the alternatives analysis, the Oklahoma City-Dallas segment would cost $650 million to start up, none of which would ever be recovered from fares. In fact, fares would only cover 27 percent of operating costs. That’s feasible? Continue reading
Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico is acquiring Florida East Coast Railway for $2.1 billion. This raises questions about the future of Brightline, FEC’s planned moderate-speed rail line that was previously called All Aboard Florida. Brightline is scheduled to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in July, and extending to Miami in August.
Phase two of Brightline is to be an extension to Orlando, which would require construction of about 40 miles of new rail line that would be used almost exclusively for passengers. FEC estimates this will cost more than $1.0 billion.
Brightline claims its trains will operate at 80 to 125 miles per hour. But it is promising to deliver people the 65 rail miles from Miami to West Palm Beach in 60 minutes. That’s an average speed of–let me see–65 miles in 60 minutes (counts on fingers) works out to just 65 miles per hour. That’s certainly faster than existing commuter trains, which require about 100 minutes for the same trip (making many more intermediate stops). But it’s not significantly faster than driving, which Google says takes about 70 minutes.
Jerry Brown’s brilliant plan to fund the California high-speed rail line out of greenhouse gas emissions allowances appears to be coming to a screeching halt. California’s most-recent sale of such allowances was expected to bring in at least $600 million; instead, it earned just $8.2 million. At the projected average cost of $200 million per mile, that’s enough to build about 200 feet of rail line.
The problem is that there is a “glut of emission allowances on the market” because so many entities, including various European nations and, in California, various public utilities, are trying to earn money selling them. On the other hand, potential buyers are unsure about whether the program will continue; if it is cancelled, the allowances they buy will be worthless. The California law is supposed to sunset at the end of 2020, and if revenues remain so law the legislature is not likely to renew it.
The other problem is that Brown was counting on emissions sales to fund projects the state can’t really afford. While the efficiency benefits of cap-and-trade are proven, it is far from efficient to use permit revenues to fund boondoggles. Even the Pope questions the morality of selling the right to pollute.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner reviewed the proposed Texas Central high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston and concluded it was not viable. Last week, the Reason Foundation released a much-more detailed review that reaches the same conclusion.
Reason’s report notes that Texas Central officials claim they won’t need any subsidies, but still plan to ask the federal government for government-guaranteed low-interest loans. While Reason joins with the Antiplanner in supporting private rail projects, the desire for government-backed loans, says Reason, makes it “critical to assess the viability of this project.”
Reason’s assessment concludes that Texas Central officials have overestimated ridership and underestimated costs. As a result, ticket revenues are likely to fall almost $100 million per year short of operations & maintenance costs. Of course, that means there would be nothing left over to repay the government-guaranteed loans, so lenders would be out about $18 billion. That’s based on a construction cost of at least $20 million per mile based on the fact that the only high-speed rail lines that have been built for less had cheap or free right of way. Since the line in Texas would go over mostly private land, the right of way isn’t likely to be cheap.
One of the projects on the supposed Trump infrastructure priority list (which, I am 90 percent convinced, is not an official Trump administration list) was a Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line. When the Antiplanner called this project a boondoggle, I received an email from a supporter saying it will be entirely privately financed. While that would alleviate my objections, I remain skeptical that it could work.
The Texas Central project is backed by the Central Japan Railway and proposes to use Japanese high-speed rail technology in the 240-mile corridor from Dallas to Houston. Trains would make only one stop between those two cities, making the journey in 90 minutes at top speeds of around 200 miles per hour.
Here’s a rare example of a headline asking a question whose answer is “yes”: “Did bullet train officials ignore warning about need for taxpayer money?” Although the headline would have been more accurate if it had stated, “Bullet train officials cover up warning about need for taxpayer money.”
When the California High-Speed Rail Authority put the 2008 measure on the ballot for the state to build the line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, they claimed that the line would earn more than a billion dollars a year in operating profits (compare tables on pages 21 and 22), and that private investors would gladly invest around $7 billion in the project in order to get a share of those profits (figure 26).
As recently as two months ago, when asked at a legislative hearing if other high-speed rail operations earned “a substantial profit,” rail authority chair Dan Richard replied, “all of them, virtually all of them, make operating profit.” But Richard had to know that was a lie.
Socialists “always run out of other people’s money,” said Margaret Thatcher. “It’s quite a characteristic of them.” Some of the best examples can be found in the field of passenger rail transportation.
California’s plan to pay for high-speed rail with revenues from sales of greenhouse gas cap & trade permits has hit a speed bump. The first sale, which was expected to bring in $150 million, only brought in $10 million. At that rate, it will be centuries, instead of the planned decades, before the line is built.
When Atlanta opened its streetcar line, it offered the service for free for a year. As soon as it began charging a dollar a ride, ridership dropped by nearly 50 percent. Now the state of Georgia is threatening to shut the line down because of inept management resulting from a lack of funds.
Progressive Railroading, which has never met a passenger train subsidy it didn’t like, claims that, after six years and $1.3 billion, work on moderate-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Louis is “nearing the finish line.” Since the trains will go a maximum of 110 miles per hour, it isn’t true high-speed rail; Progressive Railroading calls it “higher-speed rail” while the Antiplanner prefers the term “moderate-speed rail.”
It turns out that Illinois is also approaching “the finish line” at moderate speeds. After nearly six years of work, Illinois has trains running at 110 mph on only one 15-mile segment of the 284-mile trip. The “final phases” of the project will be completed “within the next few years,” the magazine says vaguely.
When it is done, trains that currently take 5 hours 20 minutes will finish the trip in “about” 4 hours 30 minutes, for an average speed of 63 mph. Google maps says people can drive the distance in 4 hours 20 minutes, so the train will still take more time than driving. Plus, of course, the train probably won’t go where most people want to go as there just aren’t that many businesses or residences within walking distance of either Chicago Union Station or St. Louis’ Amtrak station. If you are driving alone, the $27 cost of an Amtrak ticket is enough to pay the marginal costs of driving; if you have some passengers, you’ll save money even counting all the costs of driving.