Friday, April 24, 2015

Passenger rail in the US: Only bicycles more insignificant

Always good to check in with Randal O'Toole for a reality-check on the country's transportation system:

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.

He also ignores the fact that Amtrak’s ridership is minuscule compared with flying or driving. Whereas highways moved around 87 percent of passenger travel and airlines around 12 percent in 2012, Amtrak’s share was just 0.14 percent. While that is an increase from 0.11 percent in 1999, it is a decrease from 0.15 to 0.16 percent in most of the years from 1975 through 1993, when gas prices were high.

Trains are great for moving large volumes of goods from point A to point B. America’s freight railroads are the envy of the world, but they make most of their money moving coal from mine to power plant; grain from elevator to port; and containers from port to inland distribution center. The railroads conceded less-than-carload shipments, the freight equivalent of passengers, to trucks and air freight back in 1975 when the Railway Express Agency went out of business...

Rob's comment:

That's why Warren Buffett invested in freight rail, not passenger rail.



At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely. The subsidized Caltrain and BART boondoggles should be shut down the rails sold off to BNSF.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You miss the point: BNSF wouldn't buy Caltrain and BART, since there's no money to be made in passenger rail.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warren Buffett could raise ticket prices to make money.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

No, he couldn't because higher prices would reduce your ridership, which in turn would reduce your income to operate and maintain the system. You can't make it work without taxpayers' subsidy. Trains are just too expensive to build and maintain. Better to go with buses, which are cheaper and more flexible.

At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Better to go with buses, which are cheaper and more flexible.

Absolutely - this is why MUNI is so reliable and underbudget.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The Muni system has 700,000 passengers every day, and all the different lines would be impossible if it was only a train system. More than half of Muni's $800 million budget, by the way, is devoted to its bloated payroll of 5,359 employees.

At 7:38 PM, Anonymous Gregski said...

Thank you for the welcome and valid comments about the North American freight rail system, Rob.

It's telling that we hear and read so little about this from our local greeniac oikophobes. They'd have to acknowledge that the U.S. and Canada built something better, and greener, than Europe (where the lion's share of freight moves by diesel trucks)and it's success in the 20th and 21st centuries is due to private capitalists.


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