In response to criticisms about cramped planes, poor service, and hidden fees, commercial airline pilot and ask-a-pilot author Patrick Smith opines in the New York Times that there really was no golden age of air travel. “Yes, things were once a little more comfortable,” he says, but air travel costs only half as much today as it did 35 years ago. This is conservative: using the consumer price index, the average fare per passenger mile was 32.5 cents in 1980 compared with 14.2 cents in 2013, the latest year for which data are available.
Moreover, Smith says, more planes go more places with fewer stopovers shortening overall travel times. So even though there’s a little less legroom (“but only slightly”), travel times are shorter. He concludes by asking, “Do you really want to travel like people did in the 1960s? Are you sure?”
In the same way people nostalgically recall a golden age of air travel, many nostalgically think back to a supposed golden age of rail travel. Yet this was so long ago–roughly 1895 to 1925–that few people alive can really remember it. The nostalgia buffs remember that there were 9,000 intercity trains a day in 1920. What they forget is that those trains were expensive, slow, and uncomfortable. We can somewhat remedy the latter two problems today, but only by making them even more expensive. Continue reading
Over at KiwiReport, a writer named Serena Carsley-Mann asks a good question: “Why do trains in America function so different from trains in Europe?” Unfortunately, she mistakenly thinks the problem is that “trains in America function so badly.”
In fact, America has the most efficient rail system in the world. It is European trains that function badly. The Antiplanner has discussed this before, but since writers like Carsley-Mann continue to get it wrong, it is worth repeating.
According to a Pew study, freight shipped by truck uses about ten times as much energy, and emits far more greenhouse gases, per ton-mile than freight shipped by rail (see page 2). Because rail cars weigh more, per passenger, than automobiles, rail’s comparative advantages for passengers are much smaller, and unlike trucks it will be very easy for cars to close the gap: a Prius with a average of 1.67 occupants, for example, is more energy efficient than almost any Amtrak train. Thus, to save energy, it is better to dedicate rail lines to freight rather than to passengers.
Iowa Pacific says that it will cease operating the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State at the end of this month. The train was originated by Amtrak with support from the state of Indiana, but Indiana was dissatisfied with Amtrak’s service. It contracted with Iowa Pacific, the owner of several regional railroads and some deluxe passenger equipment, to operate the train instead.
The last dome dining in the world is found on the Hoosier State, but only until February 28. Wikipedia photo by Pecan314159.
Iowa Pacific offered many things that Amtrak did not, including a dome car, dining facilities, and free wifi. The improved service led ridership to grow faster than expected. But the company said that a quirk in the contract with the state of Indiana led it to get less revenue than it expected.
Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release that claimed a “new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever.” Noting that “ticket sales and other revenues” covered 94 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this “a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad.” The reality is quite a bit more dismal.
Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn’t really brag about having its “lowest loss ever.” The “world-class performance” claim is based on the assumption that trains elsewhere lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.
Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak’s positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.
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.
British trains are sometimes crowded, especially around London. The Antiplanner was lucky to leave London in a nearly empty train, but other trains have been standing room only. I stood for nearly two hours on a train from Westbury to Newport the other day.
According to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, overcrowding is evidence that the government should return the privatized trains to public operation. He rode a Virgin Rail train out of London and tweeted that he couldn’t find a seat.
In response, Richard Branson released videotapes showing that Corbyn had boarded the train and walked past empty seats. Corbyn’s staff later said he wanted two empty seats so he could sit next to his wife. Of course, he could have reserved two seats next to each other in advance, but he didn’t do that. Probably he would rather be mad.
Americans visiting Europe often come away feeling that Europe made some very different choices regarding transportation, with a wistful notion that life would be better in the United States if we followed their example. The reality is a lot grimmer, at least for Europeans.
The view from an English train in Cornwall.
The big thing people notice is all the passenger trains. Why did Europe decide to keep its passenger trains while American decided to drive instead? Before answering this question, it is worth taking a hard look at the data to see what really has happened. The Antiplanner’s data today mostly comes from the European Union itself: the Panorama of Transport 2000 has data from 1970 through 2000; Panorama of Transport 2009 has 2007 data but is mainly useful because it compares Europe with the US and Japan; and EU Transport Statistical Pocketbook has 2010 data plus population data for 1990 through 2010. I found 1970 and 1980 European population data on Geohive.
Lone Star Rail is basically two guys who somehow managed to get the Texas legislature to give them the authority to plan a train from Austin to San Antonio. They they persuaded several cities along the route to give them money to write the plan. However, the plan was to use Union Pacific tracks, and the railroad has notified Lone Star that it isn’t interested.
Running a train on 80 miles or so of existing tracks would be more expensive than a bus, but not expensive compared with building new tracks. However, Union Pacific’s line is too busy running freight trains to accommodate passenger trains too. So Lone Star’s plan was to spend $2 billion or so building an entirely new line for UP trains so it could have the existing line all to itself. However, UP says in its letter, this appears to be “unattainable,” so it is no longer interested in wasting time on it.
Lone Star’s plan was to call this a commuter train–which is a stretch as few commuters travel 80 miles to work–and get New Starts funds for the project. With the possible exception of the Downeaster, I don’t know of any intercity passenger train that has gotten federal transit funds under the claim that it was a commuter train. So Union Pacific is probably correct in its assessment.
Last week, the Antiplanner commented on a proposed passenger train between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Yesterday, The Advocate, a New Orleans weekly, published an op-ed on the same train.
The article calculates that the subsidy per ticket will average $44. Considering that the proposed fare is only $10 for the first few years, rising to $13 after ten years, this would be a horrendous subsidy, at least compared with other intercity trains. Subsidies to the average Amtrak train are about equal to the ticket price, not three to four times the ticket price. On the other hand, subsidies to urban transit average $3 for every dollar paid in fares.
In comments on the op-ed, one of the defenders of the proposed train says, “in the 1930s in the middle of a Depression we built a network of airports that served as foundation for a commercial airline industry we see today.” The two clear differences are that most airports pay for themselves with landing fees, and the airline industry in the 1930s was rapidly evolving and growing. By comparison, the technology for the proposed train hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and passenger train ridership is declining. It is a continual source of amazement that so many Americans consider subsidies to an obsolete forms of travel such as streetcars, light rail, and intercity rail to be normal and acceptable.
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.