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Re: [carfree_cities] Amtrak

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  • Robert James Madison, III
    ... I agree with the goal of levelling the playing field between the different modes of transportation. Automobiles are heavily subsidized, as are airplanes,
    Message 1 of 33 , Jan 6, 2005
      on 06-Jan-05 03:26 J.H. Crawford said the following:

      >>First, I am puzzled that an advocate of completely-subsidized ransit
      >>describes Amtrak as "heavily-subsidized."
      >My proposal for fare-free transit is for transit within cities only.
      >The main reason is that fare collection is too great an expense for
      >the operator and too big a hassle for the passenger. All long-haul
      >transit ought to have all subsidies removed, which would, in fact,
      >dramatically improve the competitive position of rail; car travel
      >would become hugely more expensive, whereas rail travel would not
      >increase so much in price.

      I agree with the goal of levelling the playing field between the
      different modes of transportation. Automobiles are heavily subsidized,
      as are airplanes, yet these subsidies are generally accepted whereas a
      much smaller subsidy for rail is viciously attacked. However, we must
      ask whether it's in our best interest as a nation to require that
      everyone pay 100% of the cost of their travels. Would it cut down
      greatly on travel? If so, would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
      Would we be hurt more economically if we raised the cost of travel or
      lowered it?

      >>By contrast:
      >>(a) the highway system receives over $30 billion each year from the
      >>Federal treasury.
      >and serving the lion's share of inter-city transport.

      And why do you suppose that is? (Chicken vs. egg)

      >>(b) most European passenger rail systems receive a multiple of this
      >>amount of tax funding to serve nations only a fraction of the size
      >>of the US. For example, the UK government plans to invest the Euro
      >>equivalent of $74 billion over 10 years in the national railways
      >>(admittedly, freight as well as passenger). That's $7.4 billion a
      >>year, compared with $1.2 billion here.
      >Yes, but European rail systems are actually USED. If Amtrak went
      >away, people would hardly notice. If the European passenger rail
      >systems went out of operation, the impacts would be huge.

      Again, why do you suppose that is? (Chicken vs. egg). The highway
      system serves the biggest part of intercity transport because it
      receives the largest subsidies. European rail systems received massive
      investments, and continue to do so, without which their rail systems
      wouldn't be used either. It's completely obvious that there's a link
      between funding levels (subsidy) and use. Completely obvious.

      >>Of particular importance in light of your advocacy of fareless
      >>transit is the fact that Amtrak's farebox recovery is much higher
      >>than most (if not all) North American transit agencies. To state
      >>that in layman's terms for other readers, a greater percentage of
      >>Amtrak's budget comes from passengers in the form of fares, and a
      >>smaller percentage from taxpayers, than almost any American urban or
      >>commuter transit system.
      >Yes, but that's comparing apples and oranges. And, IIRC, Amtrak's
      >subsidy is 50%. (And I don't have the facts on farebox recovery
      >in local transport; I don't think the 50% subsidy of Amtrak is
      >really all that much higher than the subsidy of local transit

      Actually, Amtrak's operating recovery ratio is around 65% (give or
      take). That's better than the nation's highway system (less than 60%).

      >>What really knocked my socks off was the following passage:
      >>"I suspect that a new operator will keep the more sensible parts of
      >>the system running, in particular the heavily-traveled Northeast
      >>Corridor route between Boston and Washington. Some of the long-haul
      >>service in the western part of the country simply makes no economic
      >>sense and is pulling down the whole system."
      >>With all due respect, it is an old canard that the NEC and other
      >>corridors are a success and the long-distance routes are a failure.
      >>It's a position routinely taken by the supporters of a car-and-plane-
      >>only intercity travel system that I wouldn't expect an intelligent
      >>advocate of carfree living to swallow.
      >>First and foremost, not even the NEC is profitable, if that's what
      >>you mean by "makes economic sense". Almost no nation on Earth
      >>operates intercity passenger trains at a profit, even high-speed
      >>trains like the French TGVs or the German ICEs.
      >I haven't seen the numbers on the NEC for years, but at the fare
      >levels being charged, it ought to be making money hand over fist.
      >That it isn't is due to the outrageous labor contracts still in
      >force. (I recall hearing years ago that a conductor taking a
      >train from NYC to DC got 5 days' wages for less than four hours'
      >work.) And I believe that the TGVs are covering 100% of operating
      >costs out of revenues (not sure about the capital cost situation).

      The NEC is marginally profitable, or operates at a slight loss,
      depending on the year. Part of the problem is that the largest users of
      the NEC are *TRANSIT* systems (such as New Jersey Transit), which don't
      quite pay their full share for access to the corridor.

      >>The "long-haul service in the western part of the country" you
      >>blithely condemn makes perfect sense because a long-distance route
      >>is essentially a series of corridor operations laid end to end. A
      >>Chicago-San Francisco train is not like a Chicago-San Francisco
      >>flight: by making stops at cities along the tracks, it is also a
      >>Chicago-Omaha, Omaha-Denver, Denver-Salt Lake City, etc. train. Long-
      >>distance trains also stop at the smaller communities inbetween the
      >>cities, where air travel is either ridiculously expensive or non-
      >>existent. Without rail service to these communities, most non-
      >>wealthy travelers from such communities would be forced to drive or
      >>take a bus, either of which add to the road congestion and pollution
      >>that you rightly condemn elsewhere on your website.
      >In this case, simply replacing the train with a bus is a better
      >option. The cost would be very much less, although the service
      >quality would admittedly be less also, as would the fares. The
      >pollution levels wouldn't be greatly affected, as the trains are
      >diesels, too. I don't have the figures, but I recall that the
      >per-passenger subsidy on these runs is hundreds of dollars a
      >ticket. Greyhound's sustainability is undermined by competition
      >from Amtrak, and the subsidy to Greyhound is nil in cash and
      >moderate in externalized costs. In the wide-open West, buses
      >probably make more sense and can operate more frequently than
      >once-a-day Amtrak. This makes them a real option for regional travel.

      Oh come on. Lots of these cities that Amtrak serves don't even have
      interstate highways close by. Greyhound recently cut service to
      hundreds of cities this past summer. Many of these cities didn't even
      *HAVE* Amtrak service to compete with. Done properly, Amtrak and
      Greyhound could partner with each other to offer joint connecting
      service. But, replace Amtrak trains with one or two buses, and
      ridership would plummet.

      >>Population density is not the prerequisite to effective rail service
      >>that it would first seem to be. For example, Amtrak's daily Empire
      >>Builder train is the only alternative to driving along much of its
      >>rural route through North Dakota and Montana. As a result, its
      >>ridership from many of these rural stations is actually higher than
      >>from cities along the route like Minneapolis or Spokane that have
      >>decent air and freeway service.
      >How many of these stops are seeing more than a dozen passengers
      >board or alight any given train?

      Whitefish, MT. Average daily boarding *per train*: 73 passengers in
      FY03 (FY04 data not available). That's more than one full bus load
      right there.
      Shelby and Havre, MT, each serve 18 passengers per train.
      East Glacier, MT: Approximately 25-30 passengers per train (service from
      April-October only).
      Minot, ND: 38 passengers per train.
      Williston, ND: 22 passengers per train.

      That's just along the Empire Builder route (the least populated route of
      any in the Amtrak system). The average Empire Builder trip will serve
      597 passengers. That's more passengers than *any* airline flight in the

      >>Nobody is advocating the same level of service for the long-distance
      >>routes as for the great corridors. Of course New York-Washington
      >>would have more ridership, and support more trains, than longer
      >>routes like New York-Chicago or Chicago-Los Angeles. But serving
      >>these longer routes with two or three round-trips a day (the service
      >>now, with the present stingy level of funding, is only one train a
      >>day on most long-distance routes) is both a viable and necessary
      >>alternative to forcing intercity travelers along these routes to
      >Again, if the train goes away, most of them will take the bus.
      >The train is so slow that it's a weak contender. If there is
      >enough demand, then a TGV line should be built (you can't run
      >fast trains on freight railroads).

      Actually, buses are poor substitutes for trains. If the train goes
      away, most of the passengers (where such alternatives are available)
      will fly or drive. Otherwise, they'd probably be just as likely to stay
      home as to take the bus.

      I don't know why there has to be the dichotomy of: no service vs. fast,
      frequent, hourly (or better) TGV-style service. There is *PLENTY* of
      demand out there for plain, simple, up-to-79 mph service on existing
      lines, running a couple of times a day, serving small, medium, and
      large-sized communities along the way. The very fact that Amtrak is
      still around 33 years after it was created (and, let's be honest, Amtrak
      was created to kill the passenger train, plain and simple; it wasn't
      supposed to last more than five years, at most), despite *unbelievable*
      hostility from EVERYONE (politicians, freight railroads, even so-called
      "car-free" pro-transit advocates) proves that there is still demand for
      passenger rail service throughout the country. Let's face it, if the
      airline industry had to face the hurdles that passenger rail does, there
      wouldn't *BE* an airline industry (maybe there would be a niche market
      for the super rich, but there'd only be a couple dozen airports, at most).

      >>"Amtrak's operations have often been so inept," as you say, because
      >>Amtrak is grossly underfunded and cannot afford either the equipment
      >>or the expert personnel that allow a commuter operation like
      >>Chicago's famously efficient Metra to run like clockwork.
      >No, actually, they're incompetent. I've been there and seen that.
      >It's not the cash (although that's an issue). Amtrak somehow
      >managed to accept delivery of 17 Acela trainsets. No two are
      >alike. How is THAT possible in a competent operation?

      I'm not going to say Amtrak is perfect. The Acela operation is one of
      the areas where the previous management really screwed things up.
      However, they were under tremendous pressure to get the trains in
      service, given the fanciful goal congess had set of "self-sufficiency,"
      and the old management thought Acela would help them meet that
      unattainable goal. Bombardier (the train's manufacturer) didn't help
      things, either.

      >>like Amtrak, has to operate many of its routes on the rails of
      >>freight railway companies, but because it is adequately funded, it
      >>can pay the freight railway a sufficient rent with sufficiently
      >>attractive on-time-based incentives and penalties for the host
      >>freight railway.
      >I don't know the circumstances, but this is probably commuter
      >rail that operates only during peak hours. They run freight
      >at other times. This strategy doesn't work with long-haul
      >service, especially now that many of the main lines have had
      >their second track removed.

      Well, if you'd bother to look it up (http://www.metrarail.com), you'd
      note that Metra trains run 20 hours a day on some lines.

      >>First and foremost, it is my understanding that the indemnification
      >>provisions were NOT secret but were readily-available knowledge.
      >>The mere fact that the Times publicizes something to the general
      >>public doesn't mean that it was **hidden** before they published.
      >If you read the Times article, it will become apparent that this
      >was difficult to uncover, and that they were ultimately unable
      >to get to the bottom of the whole thing; apparently, the numbers
      >for the period before 1985 or so just aren't available. I've been
      >in this business for years, and this is the first I had heard of
      >the indemnification.

      I don't see how this was so difficult to uncover. I knew about the
      indemnification provisions before the Times article revealed them. I'm
      hardly an industry insider. I'm just observant. It's funny how a
      newspaper can "reveal" the "shocking truth" about something that's been
      general knowledge for years.

      >>Secondly, Amtrak did not freely choose to put such admittedly
      >>onerous indemnification provisions in their contracts. As stated
      >>above, Amtrak doesn't have the money to negotiate toe-to-toe as
      >>equals with the freight railways for the use of their tracks.
      >It's not money, it's legal standing. Congress decreed the
      >indemnification, apparently. As long as we're talking about
      >the money, the freight railroads are getting a free ride from
      >Amtrak. When Amtrak wants to run its trains at speeds higher
      >than 25 MPH, they have to pay for the track upgrade. The freight
      >railroads then run at much higher speeds over the improved
      >track, with large savings in labor.

      That's ridiculous. When Amtrak wants to run faster than 79 mph, sure,
      they have to pay for track upgrades. However, many freight railroads
      will maintain their track and signals to standards for operation up to
      60 or 79 mph. It's in their own best interest to get freight moving
      quickly, to be able to compete with the heavily-subsidized trucking
      industry, and they realize this.

      >>The proof that Amtrak was dragooned into these provisions is that
      >>where Amtrak has had a real choice in its contracting -- where
      >>Amtrak was a potential bidder to operate commuter rail systems under
      >>contract to the local transit agency -- it has patently refused to
      >>include such provisions. The MBTA in Boston, and Metrolink in Los
      >>Angeles IIRC, insisted like the freights that the operator be liable
      >>and hold the agency harmless regardless of whether the operator was
      >>at fault, and Amtrak simply refused to enter a bid on those terms.
      >Fine, but they were never offered a choice on their own routes,
      >except the NEC, which they own and operate (to the dismay of
      >most of the commuter agencies that must share the tracks).
      >If Amtrak goes away, it does not mean the end of passenger rail
      >service in the USA, it only means the end of Amtrak. It seems
      >highly unlikely to me that a new operator could not be found for
      >the NEC. California is almost surely not going to allow long-haul
      >service to disappear. High-speed lines will be built where they
      >make sense. Huge subsidies for sleeper service across the plains
      >and the mountains will continue, but at prices that cover the cost
      >of providing this luxury-tour service.

      Sleeping car passengers pay the highest fares of any passengers in the
      system. And they are not on "luxury tours," but simply looking for
      comfortable transportation that operates on a reliable schedule.

      California probably doesn't give two hoots about long-haul service.
      Only their corridors would (probably) survive.

      >Amtrak was a fundamentally unsound creation. It was brought into
      >existence for political reasons and probably expected to quickly
      >wither away. It's lived long beyond the time its creators would
      >have expected (I think), and there is fundamentally no way that
      >it can go on in its current form (unless Congress wants to step
      >in and change the rules of the game, which I think is exceedingly
      >unlikely as long as John Snow is secretary of the treasury--he's
      >the former president of CSX).

      I already noted that Amtrak wasn't supposed to last more than a few
      years. That it did is a testament to the demand for long-distance
      service in this country.

      Robert Madison
      Milwaukee, WI

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    • Doug Salzmann
      OK, one more time -- then I m finished with this one. ... Well, that s two ;^) I have no problem with competitive rail service in the west. Indeed, I m a fan
      Message 33 of 33 , Jan 7, 2005
        OK, one more time -- then I'm finished with this one.

        On Fri, 7 Jan 2005, emccaughrin wrote:

        > > Yes, but we were talking about rail service in vast, unpopulated
        > > rural places.
        > Um, no. The discussion is about rail service to cities in the west,
        > not to some cattle ranch way out in the plains somewhere. There are
        > large metropolitan areas in the west -- Denver, Salt Lake City, to
        > name a few -- with populations large enough to justify rail service,
        > and not so far apart that rail cannot be competitive.

        Well, that's two ;^)

        I have no problem with competitive rail service in the west. Indeed, I'm a fan and have ridden many of the long-haul trains in the region. I'd simply rather spend the subsidy money in more productive ways (I have a list).

        Of course, if passenger service between those city pairs really is competitive, the railroads will be eager to provide it.

        > Norway has 300k km^2 and a population of 4.5 million. If one were to
        > go by a naive interpretation of its 15 persons/km^2 density, Norway
        > has no business running passenger rail because at it isn't "dense"
        > enough -- and yet it runs comprehensive, 140mph rail service that is
        > far better than anything you will find in even the most heavily
        > populated US metropolitan area.

        Come on, now. Norway's rail system is heavily concentrated in the more-populated southern part of the country. To the extent that it does serve the northern portions (does it extend beyond Bodo?), let's remember that we're talking about a long, very narrow corridor.

        To put things in perspective (again), the Norwegian national rail network totals about 2,500 miles of track -- just a little more than the route of our oft-cited, lonely American long-haul, the Empire Builder.

        Not to let this end without further (perhaps naive) reference to population density, the state of Montana, alone, is larger than Norway and, at 2.39 persons per square kilometer, is about *one-sixth* as densely populated.

        I just don't think the arguments for subsidizing rural passenger rail service in the US are persuasive, definitely not in a resource-constrained world. Certainly, there are many other subsidies on which I'd merrily pull the plug, also (autos, airlines, ranchers and loggers, warmongers and arms merchants...), but, if given the chance to divert the handout from Amtrak to a really useful urban project, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

        I suppose I should close by confessing that it would be fine with me if *all* long-distance travel was relatively difficult and (at least) moderately expensive. In a world of six-plus billion humans with an emerging permanent energy crunch, it is dangerous folly to encourage casual gallivanting around the globe.



        Doug Salzmann
        P.O. Box 307
        Corte Madera, CA
        94976-0307 USA

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