Of Trains and Automobiles
Earlier this week, George Will published an opinion piece in which he argued that the reason the liberal wing of our democracy is in love with mass transit is…well…because they see it as a means of imposing a collective social order on Americans. Now, I normally like George, even if he can be a bit long-winded and leave me scrambling for a dictionary. I happen to think that most people who live in our urban metropolises understand the need for mass transit systems, regardless of political bent. I find it hard to believe that anyone who lives in New York or the immediate suburbs can imagine the city without the subway and extensive commuter rail systems. The same holds true for the citizens of Washington DC or Portland or Chicago or any of the other two dozen or so metro areas served by decent mass transit. It’s also hard to imagine that residents of densely crowded metro areas wouldn’t like alternatives (think Los Angeles and Atlanta). So, George probably is just a little off base with his premise. But I can understand where George (and frankly, many conservatives) get his premise: for too long, the discussions of trains and cars has been framed as an either/or proposition. But as any of us who live with both can tell you, the discussion needs to be far more nuanced than that.
The President, in announcing his high-speed rail initiative, failed miserably in seizing the chance to reframe the debate, succumbing to the decades-old “either/or” arguments. What’s more, he missed the opportunity to focus rail projects where they’re vitally needed. And he failed to propose a viable means of funding them.
First, the President envisions a country in which high-speed rail is an inter-city solution, rather than an intra-city one. That flies directly in competition with airlines (for long distances) or autos (for shorter distances). In terms of consumer cost, trains can’t compete. For instance, I can fly from New York to Boston for less than it costs to take the Acela. Round trip on the Acela, without 30 day advance booking, is approximately $290. Flying on a regional carrier costs about $250. Take away the federal subsidies for Amtrak, and rail becomes even less competitive. As for autos, I can drive to Philadelphia in about two hours. Total cost, including tolls and even the currently insane price of gas: around $35. Acela to Philadelphia, one-way: $118.
The second issue with this proposal is convenience. The President said something to the effect that he imagines being able to board a train in one place, and then debark at another within steps of your final destination. This is obviously the sign of somebody who doesn’t understand the way rail systems are designed. If I fly, 9 times of 10 I’ll need to rent a car in order to get to my final destination. That other 10% of the time, I’ll need to hire a taxi. If I take the train, 9 times of 10 I’ll need to rent a car to get to my final destination. That other 10%? I’ll need to hire a taxi. If I drive, I don’t need to worry about hiring a vehicle (and the additional costs that incurs). Once you take into account the time it takes to either find a cab or rent the car, driving my own vehicle often takes less time than taking either a train or plane. Another similarity between the rails and the skies is that you’re limited as the number and size of bags you’re allowed to carry-on, which in both cases is insanely inconvenient if taking a prolonged trip, or even a short trip with the whole family. When driving, of course, the only limitation I face is amount of luggage I can put in my car. One other note on the subject of convenience: the President’s vision also includes not having to pass through TSA checkpoints when boarding these high-speed rail cars. I’ll take that one with a grain of salt, as the TSA is already working on plans for “securing” the nation’s passenger rails.
Finally, the matter of funding comes into question. Building and maintaining railways is an expensive proposition. The reason there aren’t any private passenger rail companies today is they aren’t profitable – not even close. Amtrak lost $1.3 billion in 2010 and the American public will end up paying that from our taxes. The Acela service, which is the high-speed line between Washington and Boston, carried roughly 1/5 of Amtrak’s total passenger load of 27.2 million, yet it also lost money. The total ticket revenue from those 27+ million people was $1.6 billion, yet that barely covered ½ of the total operating expenses. That means we subsidized every passenger riding Amtrak to the tune of around $48 each. (If you’re interested, you can look all of this up on Amtrak’s financial statements.) The only hope that a high-speed rail system has for financial health is dramatically higher ridership than we’re currently seeing. The question is, will Americans prefer to travel by train? Over the last 70 years, the answer has been a resounding “No.” We simply prefer the convenience of the car to the train for intermediate distance travel and the speed of the airplane for long distance travel. Before you get on my about these being “high-speed” trains, picture the hullabaloo raised by folks who have a train barreling through their community at 300mph. And at 300mph (which is the current top speed for passenger service anywhere), you’re still traveling around 200mph slower than a plane.
In plain talk, trains can’t compete financially, technologically or convenience-wise, with the way we currently travel. Heck, even if gas went up to $10/gallon, that drive to Philly would still be cheaper and faster than taking the train!
So, refocus your attention where it’s needed, Mr. President. Improve light rail service in our cities. Improve connections between the suburbs and the downtown areas. Figure out a way to make those services profitable – or at least self-sustaining – then come back to us.