Tag: high-speed rail

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.

Is California High-Speed Rail Dead?

The CEO and board chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority have resigned in disgrace over erroneous cost projections. A peer-review commission created by the California legislature says the authority’s high-speed rail plan is “not financially feasible.” Surveys show a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in the state all oppose construction.

Yet the authority’s scheme to build a new rail line capable of moving trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes won’t die unless the state legislature kills it. Officially, the authority plans to begin construction by September 2012, despite the fact that it has less than 10 percent of the money it needs to complete the project.

The tide definitely turned against the plan when the authority published a new business plan admitting that estimated inflation-adjusted construction costs had more than doubled from $43 billion to $98.5 billion. Moreover, under the new plan the promised 220-mph trains would not roll until 2033, more than a decade later than voters were promised in 2008.

The authority’s credibility was further reduced when it admitted that the million jobs it promised were really job-years, and that no more than 60,000 jobs would be created at any given time (and even that was probably an exaggeration). These revelations cost the project the editorial support of a number of major papers that had previously endorsed the project.

The 2008 ballot measure that voters narrowly approved authorized the sale of $9 billion in bonds that would eventually have to be repaid by state taxpayers. But those bonds could only be sold if they were matched by funds from federal or other sources. The Obama administration has given the state about $3.5 billion (giving the authority a total of $7 billion) on the condition that construction begin by September 30 and that the first segment constructed be in the Central Valley. The latter condition was made just before the 2010 election in a blatant effort to assist the election campaign of Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) of Fresno (who subsequently won re-election by a mere 3,000 votes).

Journalists are now questioning every aspect of the project. The latest story is that “doubts [are being] cast on cost estimates” for the alternative to high-speed rail, which is better highways and airports. I pointed this out back in 2008 in a Cato report showing that the highway-airport alternative did far more to reduce congestion than the high-speed rail line, suggesting that a highway-airport alternative that accomplished the same congestion reduction as the rail line would have cost much less.

What raises doubts now is the way the cost of the alternative has crept up. When the authority was insisting that the rail line could be built for $43 billion, its highway-airport alternative was estimated to cost $100 billion. When the rail cost jumped to nearly $100 billion, the highway-airport cost mysteriously increased to $171 billion. “There is some dishonesty in the methodology,” says a University of California, Berkeley transportation engineer. “I don’t trust an estimate like this.”

California Republicans have introduced a bill in the state legislature to prevent any bond sales that would fund the initial construction out of Fresno. Some Democratic legislators question the project, but it retains the endorsement of Governor Jerry Brown, and since Democrats have majorities of both houses of the legislature, anything could happen.

If the legislature doesn’t kill the project, the authority will spend the money it has available to build track capable of moving trains at 220 mph from somewhere south of Fresno to somewhere north of Fresno (though probably not all the way from Bakersfield to Merced). A handful of daily Amtrak trains might use those tracks, probably at no more than 110 mph, to save their passengers a few minutes on their trips from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The authority will be betting that someone will come up with the other $92 billion, but at the present time neither the federal government nor the state government has the cash.

All this has made rail advocates increasingly desperate. While supporters hysterically talk about California’s population growing to 50 million people, the truth is that, by the time the state could ever finish a high-speed rail line, the technology will have been completely superseded by such things as driverless cars and improved air service. Although the failure of the California scheme will end Obama’s dream of a national high-speed rail system, California needs high-speed rail like it needs a $100 billion hole in its budget.

America 2050: Forget the Forgotten Mode

Half truths, innuendo, and pseudo-science form the basis of a response to my recent Cato paper, Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode. The response is produced by America 2050, a project of the Regional Plan Association, a New York City–area regional planning organization. The response’s basic thesis of the response is that intercity buses have a role to play in a “balanced transportation system,” but they are “no replacement for high-speed rail.”

Of course, my report never argued that buses were a replacement for true high-speed rail. But it did show that existing bus schedules in many corridors are faster, more frequent, and charge far lower fares than Amtrak in the same corridors. Of course, there is a “replacement” for high-speed rail: it is called “air travel” and it is far faster and costs about a fifth as much per passenger mile as Amtrak’s Acela.

In any case, America 2050 says my report ignored “one of the most powerful arguments for rail: providing an alternative to highway congestion.” I didn’t address that argument in the paper on buses because, as I’ve shown in other papers, it’s a bad argument. Highways move about 85 percent of all passenger travel and more than a quarter of all ton-miles of freight in this country. If they are congested, maybe we should relieve that congestion rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an elitist rail network that won’t relieve congestion and won’t carry more than a tiny fraction of the number of people (and none of the freight) moved on the highways.

But we can’t fix highway congestion, says America 2050: “providing additional road space does not solve congestion; in fact it creates additional demand for driving.” That’s another bad argument, for four reasons. First, my bus paper never advocated building new roads, and if asked, I would have suggested relieving congestion using congestion pricing of roads before building new capacity.

Second, the idea that building roads creates demand is totally absurd. As my friend, Wendell Cox, says, it is akin to saying that building maternity wards leads people to have more babies.

Third, those who argue that we shouldn’t build roads because people will drive on them are effectively arguing that government shouldn’t provide anything that people will use; only what they won’t use (such as high-speed trains). If that’s the case, government should just get out of the transportation business entirely and leave it to the private sector.

Finally, most congestion is in cities, not between them, so building rail lines between cities isn’t going to help much. Of course, planners don’t want to relieve congestion anywhere because they hope congestion will persuade a few people to stop driving.

America 2050 goes on to say that “one railway with a single track in each direction has the capacity to transport as many people per hour as sixteen lanes of highway.” While I could dispute that number, even if true, capacity doesn’t matter unless people actually use that capacity. Amtrak has 6 percent of the passenger market between Boston and Washington; highways, mainly Interstate 95, have 80 percent. Interstate 95 and parallel roads probably have less than 16 lanes, yet they carry 13 times as many passenger miles.

“High-speed trains allow passengers to bypass this congestion,” America 2050 goes on to say, “bringing passengers directly into center cities.” Yes, but who wants to go directly into center cities? Less than 8 percent of American jobs and less than 1 percent of America’s population lives in city centers (which is why I call high-speed rail “elitist”). In many, if not most, urban areas, more people and more jobs are located near airports than near train stations, and virtually everyone is near a highway.

America 2050 then challenges some of my numbers that it says are “flatly incorrect.” “To count passenger miles,” says the article, “O’Toole uses the American Bus Association’s 2005 Motorcoach Census, which counts passenger-miles logged by intracity airport shuttles, sightseeing tours, and private commuter buses, amongst other categories that are not making cross country or intercity trips.” America 2050 clearly did not read my paper carefully: first, I used the 2007 Motorcoach Census, but, more important, I counted only those passenger miles (about a quarter of the total) attributable to scheduled intercity buses.

When comparing bus to rail safey, “O’Toole counts passenger miles only for Amtrak trains, while counting fatalities for all passenger trains, including commuter rail,” says America 2050. Again, America 2050 did not read carefully. National Transportation Statistics reports that commuter trains suffered about 20 to 60 fatalities per year over the past two decades; the fatalities I reported ranged from 3 to 24 per year (except in 1993 when there were 58), which obviously does not include the commuter rail fatalities. That 1993 number may have skewed my data upwards; but rail fatalities are nevertheless higher than bus fatalities per billion passenger miles.

America 2050 then goes into the topic of subsidies, noting there are large subsidies to highways. “Recently, the Highway Trust Fund has received bailouts of $8 billion in 2008, $7 billion in 2009, and $20 billion in 2010.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, those bailouts were not subsidies to highways; they were subsidies to pork barrel. If Congress had not diverted a third of gas tax revenues to non-highway projects, and then mandated spending on those projects even if gas tax revenues fell short, the bailouts would not have been necessary.

Admittedly, there are highway subsidies, mainly at the local level. But when compared with highway usage, which is on the order of 4 trillion passenger miles and 1 trillion ton miles of freight per year, the subsidies are trivial: about a penny per passenger mile at most. Since intercity buses operate with about twice the occupancy rates of other vehicles, subsidies to them are probably much lower (and were taken into account in the numbers my paper cited). By comparison, subsidies to Amtrak are close to 30 cents a passenger mile and subsidies to most high-speed rail lines will be much more.

America 2050 concludes by saying, “Intercity buses provide a valuable service and are an important part of a complete and balanced transportation system.” Who can argue with “balanced”? With respect to buses, America 2050 would give the high-use transport corridors—the cream of any transport service—to subsidized rail, leaving the dregs to buses (which would then require subsidies to serve those dregs).

The question is: How do you measure “balanced”? Apparently, America 2050’s answer is “balanced means taking the fees you pay to drive and spending them on my favored mode of transport while you sit stuck in traffic.” By contrast, my answer is: if it can be done without subsidies, it is balanced. Let’s just end the subsidies to all modes of transportation and see what happens.