Tag: high-speed rail

Yesterday’s Technology the Day After Tomorrow

The apparent death of California high-speed rail has led to a spate of stories asking, “What went wrong?” The answer to that question is a lot simpler than most people think: what went wrong is that the state even considered building the project in the first place.

Back in 1997, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley named David Levinson – who has since gone on to do a lot of incredible work on transportation access – asked whether high-speed rail would cost more or less than flying or driving. The state had not yet made cost estimates, so Levinson estimated that the line from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost about $10 billion. Based on that, he found that high-speed rail would be “significantly more costly than expanding existing air service” and also more expensive than driving.

Just three years later, California’s first official estimate was that the SF-LA line would cost $20 billion. The state should have stopped right there. Yet, having made that estimate, the momentum was in place to continue even as estimates rose to $33 billion, then $68 billion, then $77 billion and more.

High-speed rail is presented as some kind of new technology race that America is in danger of losing if it doesn’t start building right away. In fact, American railroads began experimenting with high-speed trains back in the 1930s. Japan’s bullet trains date to 1964, 55 years ago. By that time, we had already surpassed them with jet airliners.

Today, air travel is far less expensive than train travel, with airfares averaging under 14 cents a passenger mile, barely more than a third of Amtrak fares even though Amtrak receives much bigger subsidies, per passenger mile, than the airlines. Racing to build a faster train would be like subsidizing the manufacture of new IBM Selectric typewriters because China developed a faster electric typewriter – no matter how fast, typewriters have been rendered obsolete by word processors.

The reason high-speed rail is expensive is that it requires a lot of precision infrastructure that is costly to build and costly to maintain. By comparison, airlines require very little infrastructure and while highway infrastructure is relatively inexpensive: for the cost of one mile of high-speed rail, California could build eight to ten miles of four-lane freeway.

Moreover, the growth in costs was totally predictable. Bent Flyvbjerg has shown that megaprojects like this just about always go way over the original projected cost because planners are guilty of optimism bias — they always make optimistic assumptions about each part of the project. Flyvbjerg went even further, saying that often planners weren’t just optimistic but engaged in “strategic misrepresentation” in order to get the projects approved. 

California rail planners, for example, justified the high costs with unrealistically high ridership projections. Although the California corridor has a lower population that is less optimally arranged than the Boston-to-Washington corridor, California was predicting that its high-speed rail line would attract 55 million riders a year, fifteen times the number carried by Amtrak’s high-speed Acela. Based on this, the planners predicted the trains would collect so much revenue above their operating costs that private parties would gladly invest $7.5 billion in the project. Such private money never materialized.

Whether light rail, heavy rail, commuter rail, or high-speed rail, it turns out to almost always be true that construction and operating costs are higherridership and revenues are lower, and projects take longer to complete than the original projections – a combination of problems known as the planning fallacy. Moreover, maintenance costs are almost never considered since rail infrastructure wears out after about 25 to 30 years, by which time the original planners are retired and won’t be blamed when the systems start falling apart. This is why rail transit today is suffering far more from crumbling infrastructure than the nation’s highways.

Though these problems are repeated over and over, many cities and states today are planning more such urban and intercity rail projects. The state of Washington is thinking about starting a state high-speed rail authority. Cities like Austin and Durham want to build light rail even though transit ridership in those regions (and just about everywhere else) is declining. 

The reason these projects go forward is the city or state hired some engineering firm to do a “feasibility study” – and then that firm spent part of its income from the study to lobby for the project, knowing that if it goes forward it is likely to get some of  the future contracts. A plan to extend Portland’s light rail into Vancover, Washington died after it was revealed that the main lobbyist for the project was paid by the contractor who was hired to write the environmental impact statement.

Such revelations rarely come in time: Honolulu is building a rail line whose costs have tripled partly because the transit agency turned most project administration over to consultants – paying them $505,000 a year per person – who made more than 270 contract changes that added a half a billion dollars to the total costs.

The bottom line is that states and cities should not even ask whether urban or intercity passenger rail projects are feasible. I can tell you at the start that they are not: unless you are in Tokyo or Hong Kong, buses, cars, and planes are always superior to passenger rail. Once you start spending money on it, it is hard to stop. The only thing that stopped California is that it literally didn’t have any more money to spend.

No, Passenger Trains Don’t Work in Europe & Asia Either

On January 23, the Wall Street Journal reviewed my recent book, Romance of the Rails, calling it an “exhaustively researched exploration of America’s passenger-rail story.” Naturally, this brought a response from a rail enthusiast named Benjamin Turon chiding me for “failing to point out how poorly and unimaginatively trains in the U.S. are run compared with innovative and efficient rail systems in Europe and East Asia.”

If Mr. Turon read the book, he would know that it devotes an entire chapter to looking at passenger service around the world. The sad truth is that passenger trains don’t work much better in Europe or Asia than they do in the United States.

Both Europe and east Asian countries are highly celebrated for building high-speed rail lines. But these efforts have to be judged by their results. Are they making money or at least covering their operating costs? Are they attracting people out of their cars or airplanes? Are doing anything other than putting their countries deeply in debt?

The answers to all of these questions are “No!” Spain and Italy are jeopardizing their entire economies by going so heavily into debt for high-speed rail. A case can be made that Japan’s economic stagnation since 1990 is due to that country’s continued construction of subsidized high-speed rail lines. Despite growing high-speed rail systems, air travel in Europe and auto travel in Asia are both growing much faster than rail travel.

Instead of high-speed rail, Turon’s letter points out that commuter railways “in Japan and Hong Kong are for-profit publicly traded companies.” But this isn’t because they are innovative but because Tokyo and Hong Kong have far higher population densities than any U.S. urban area. With the possible exception of New York City, those results just don’t apply here.

Turon also cites privatized passenger trains in Britain. As I discuss in the book, privatization has certainly made a difference for British passenger trains, as they are the only trains in Europe outside of Switzerland whose market share of travel is growing. But only some of the privatized trains are operationally profitable and all depend on taxpayer subsidies to infrastructure maintenance. The book notes that we could privatize Amtrak, but it is likely that only the Northeast Corridor would survive and only if taxpayers provided more than $50 billion in infrastructure subsidies.

All around the world, rail travel is more expensive than driving or flying. By heavily subsidizing rail, European governments have managed to persuade the average European to ride urban and intercity trains about 500 miles per year more than the average American. In contrast, Americans chose modes of transport that are less expensive, more convenient, and faster, and the average American travels 10,000 miles a year by air and auto more than the average European. As much as I love passenger trains, I think we chose wisely.

 

A Horrible Way to Be Right

Today is 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 six people. To make matters worse, Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington, about 10 miles north of the crash, warned WSDOT a few weeks ago that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he cautioned.

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.

In response to the accident, President Trump tweeted, “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.” The implication was that this is an example of crumbling infrastructure, when in fact it is an example of misplaced infrastructure priorities.

In fact, what the accident shows is why the federal government should get out of the infrastructure business. As Mayor Anderson said, this project was unnecessary, and it was only done because President Obama wanted to spend billions of federal dollars on ideologically driven high-speed rail projects and WSDOT had a shovel-ready project (despite not being high-speed rail) on which to spend some of those dollars.

MagLev: The Idea Whose Time Never Came

Superconducting magnetic levitation is the “next generation of transportation,” says a new rail advocacy group that calls itself The Northeast Maglev (TNEM). The group’s proposed New York-Washington maglev line has received attention from the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. TNEM’s claims might have seemed valid 80 years ago, when maglev trains were first conceived, but today maglev is just one more superexpensive technology that can’t compete with what we already have.

Superconducting maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.

Maglev has all the defects of conventional high-speed rail with the added bonuses of higher costs and greater energy requirements. Unlike automobiles on roads, rails don’t go where you want to go when you want to go there. Compared with planes, even the fastest trains are slow, and modest improvements in airport security would do far more to speed travelers, at a far lower cost, than building expensive new rail infrastructure.

Hyperloop’s Real Problem

Most reviews of Elon Musk’s hyperloop plan focus on technical questions. Will it cost as little as he estimates? Could it move as fast as he projects? Could the system work at all?

None of these are the real problem with the hyperloop. The real problem is how an infrastructure-heavy, point-to-point system can possibly compete with personal vehicles that can go just about anywhere–the United States has more than 4 million miles of public roads–or with an airline system that requires very little infrastructure and can serve far more destinations than the hyperloop.

Musk promises the hyperloop will be fast. But fast is meaningless if it doesn’t go where you want to go. Musk estimates that people travel about 6 million trips a year between the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, where he wants to build his first hyperloop line. But these urban areas are not points: they are huge, each covering thousands of square miles of land.

Airlines deal with these large areas through multiple airports. The Los Angeles area has five commercial airports and San Francisco has three. The hyperloop would only have one station in each region, making it inconvenient for the vast majority of people.

Moreover, airplanes from these airports can reach hundreds of other airports across the country and around the world. Even if Musk’s optimistic cost estimates are valid (and remember, the first cost estimate for California high-speed rail was about $10 billion, less than a tenth of the current estimate), the hyperloop would require billions of dollars spent on more infrastructure to add any new city.

Why High-Speed Rail Is a Ridiculous Fantasy

High-speed rail supporter Alfred Twu has gotten a lot of attention for having boldly drawn a map of where he thinks high-speed trains should go. Never mind that Twu’s map is even more absurd than Obama’s plan. What’s sad is that the romance of trains still manages to hold peoples’ attention long after passenger trains have become technologically and economically obsolete.

Slate calls this the “liberals’ dream [of] what America’s high-speed rail network looks like.”

Anybody can draw a map, and that map is likely to reflect their own particular preferences. My ideal high-speed rail line would connect my home in Camp Sherman, Oregon (population 380) with Cato’s offices in Washington, DC. Of course, I tend to move about every eight or nine years, so by the time the rail line was finished the only potential regular customer would be gone. But just think of the jobs that would be created!

Twu lives in California, and his map has six lines radiating from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco. Twu is probably thinking either of where he would like to go by high-speed train or that everyone else would like to come to California by high-speed train. (He would also like us to “imagine no cars” in which case everyone would happily live in high-density, mixed-use developments. Like many planning types, he doesn’t understand the economics behind the horror of dumbbell tenements.)

Economist Megan McArdle points out that Twu’s New York-Los Angeles line makes little sense. Few people will want to spend 18 hours (McArdle’s estimate) in a coach seat when planes can do the same trip in six at a far lower cost. Nor will many intermediate segments, such as Chicago to Omaha or Denver to Las Vegas, attract large numbers of passengers. Thus, the trains will be fairly empty for much of the route.

McArdle doesn’t mention the even more absurd Los Angeles-Miami line on Twu’s map. As this analysis shows, Los Angeles-New Orleans is Amtrak’s least-used long-distance train, and Amtrak’s attempt to extend this route to Miami failed (partly due to Hurricane Katrina) after just a few years.

Twu’s map also includes routes from Cheyenne to El Paso; Chicago to Montreal; and a line to McAllen, Texas and beyond into Mexico. Other than the politicians that represent these regions, how could anyone take these routes seriously?

Twu’s map violates conventional wisdom among high-speed rail aficionados, which holds that trains are most competitive in 100- to 600-mile markets, not 2,000- to 3,000-miles. By “most competitive,” of course, they mean “able to capture 5 or 6 percent of the market,” which–when all modes are counted–is all that Amtrak has in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Rail supporters argue that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor barely qualifies as high-speed rail as its top speed is only 150 and its average speed only about half that (which also means that none of the lines funded by the Obama administration, outside of California, qualify either). But dreaming about faster trains does little to change the fact that the fastest trains in the world are only about half as fast as jet aircraft, nor the fact that more Americans live and work within a few minutes of airports than downtown train stations. Anyone who is really serious about speeding travel would find ways to speed airport security, which would cost a lot less and do a lot more to help a lot more travelers than building multi-billion-dollar rail lines.

Here’s the real problem: America is a two-dimensional place, and we have a 4-million-mile network of highways and streets that allows anyone to get from practically anywhere to practically anywhere else in the contiguous 48 states. Rail lines are one dimensional, and what is worse they serve only selected points on that one-dimensional line. The number of people going from one point served by trains on a line to another point will be a small fraction of the total travelers in any given corridor.

The Post: Not Even Loans for High-Speed Rail

The Washington Post is somewhat of a bellwether of public opinion on high-speed rail. Back in 2009, when President Obama first proposed to build a high-speed rail network, Post editorial writers were all for it as a way of reducing congestion. Then in 2010, the paper published an op-ed by a National Geographic travel writer who argued that the “benefits of high-speed rail have long been apparent to anyone who has ridden Japan’s Shinkansen trains or France’s TGV.”

By 2011, though, the Post was having second thoughts. In January of that year, the paper argued that the nation should “hit the brakes” on the California high-speed trains, the only true high-speed rail project in Obama’s plan (since Florida dropped out). (This editorial led to a letter expressing the opposite view from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.)

In February 2011, the Post argued that joining China, France, and Japan in a high-speed rail race would be joining “a race everyone loses.” Then in May, the Post again hammered the California project in light of new reviews questioning both the claimed costs and benefits of the project. “Somebody, please, stop this train” the paper added that November.

Yesterday, the Post even opposed just loaning federal money to a private high-speed rail company. A private company wants a $4.9 billion loan to help build a rail line from southern California to Las Vegas. But the memories of Solyndra and other solar companies getting federal loans, giving huge amounts of money to executives, and then going bankrupt may be too recent. The Post even understands opportunity costs, noting that, “As for jobs, any that the Vegas train creates will come at the expense of alternative uses of the money,” a reality not always recognized by journalists.

The Nevada group, which is backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, may get its money, although that money would come from a fund that has never been used for this kind or size of project before. But any expectation by Californians that D.C. pundits will support more federal funding for even a modified high-speed rail plan must be considered wildly optimistic.

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