The wreck of the 501–the Amtrak train that crashed near Seattle on Monday–is raising lots of questions about Amtrak operations, but they aren’t always the right ones. Here are some questions that should be asked and some of my preliminary answers. Answers from Amtrak (the operator), FRA (the funder), Sound Transit (the track owner), or WSDOT (the train owner) may differ.
1. Congress required passenger railroads to install positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. Why did the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) give money to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for a new passenger rail line that would not open until after 2015 when the project didn’t guarantee funding for positive train control?
Answer: The Obama administration wanted to distribute high-speed rail funds to as many states as possible in order to build political backing for the program, so it couldn’t be bothered with positive train control. The tracks the train was on are owned by Sound Transit, which says it is installing PTC, but it won’t be finished until spring. Public releases of WSDOT’s application for funds for this train didn’t mention PTC.
2. Around 800 people die in railroad accidents a year. PTC would prevent only about 1 percent of these fatalities; far more would be saved by spending the same amount of money on better grade crossings and fencing of rail rights of way. Why do we put so much emphasis on an expensive technology that will do so little?
Answer: Accidents that PTC could have prevented tend to be more spectacular than people getting killed when a train hits their car at a grade crossing. This suggests that, when politicians decide where private businesses spend their money, it’ll get spent on grandiose programs rather than things that could really make a difference.
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.
In the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes. As people in the rest of the nation watched videos and photos of bumper-to-bumper northbound traffic on Interstates 75 and 95, while the southbound lanes were nearly empty, most had one of two reactions. Some said, “If only Florida had large-scale passenger train service that could move those people out,” while others asked, “Why aren’t people allowed to drive north on the empty southbound lanes?”
The aftermath of the storm has already opened a debate over what Florida should do to increase its resilience in the future: build more roads or build more rail lines. The right answer is neither: instead, state transportation departments in Florida and elsewhere need to develop emergency plans to make better use of the transportation resources they already have.
Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transportation evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people on three different routes. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
At the same time, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. The most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lanes on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic.
Amtrak’s co-CEO Wick Moorman has announced that the passenger railroad is thinking of offering a new service to compete with the airlines: economy seating that is crammed together as tightly as airline seats. This was immediately blasted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), saying, “Amtrak should not throw out one of the best things about Amtrak and train travel — that is, you at least get a seat you can sit in and be comfortable.”
In fact, this idea makes no sense not because heavily subsidized train travelers somehow deserve more comfortable seats but because it would cost Amtrak more in lost revenues than it will save. Airlines fill 85 percent of their seats and on lots of flights they fill 100 percent. Amtrak fills only 51 percent of its seats, so cramming more seats into a railcar will simply mean more empty seats.
According to USA Today, Amtrak seat pitches–the distance from the back of one row of seats to the back of the next–are 39 inches for day trains and 50 inches for overnight trains. Airline seat pitches are 30 to 33 inches while buses are 28 to 31 inches. That means Amtrak could squeeze in four rows of seats where it now has three on day trains and five rows where it now has three on overnight trains.
Amtrak’s overnight trains rarely have more than four coaches. Substituting one economy coach for two regular coaches would save a little bit on fuel and maintenance and results in an overall loss of seating capacity. Many coach riders on the overnight trains are price sensitive, so most of the people attracted to the economy coaches would have otherwise taken the regular train. Thus, Amtrak is likely to lose more revenue than it gains by attracting few people away from buses or planes.
Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release claiming a “new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever.” Noting that “ticket sales and other revenues” covered 94 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this “a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad.” The reality is quite a bit more dismal.
Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn’t really brag about having its “lowest loss ever.” The “world-class performance” claim is based on the assumption that passenger trains all over the world lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.
Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak’s positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.
Ridership grew by 1.3 percent, but passenger miles fell because the average length of trips fell by 3.1 percent. One of the biggest drops in trip lengths was on the New York-Savannah Palmetto. Starting at the beginning of F.Y. 2016, Amtrak added stops at Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton Junction, and Baltimore-Washington Airport, effectively turning the supposedly long-distance train into a Northeast Corridor train. In 2015, the train’s average trip length was 396 miles, but in 2016 that dropped to 257 miles.
A decline in passenger miles means more empty seats. In 2015, Amtrak filled 51.4 percent of its seat-miles; in 2016, this fell to 50.0 percent. In other words, the average Amtrak train is half full; when was the last time you were on a half-full airliner? The biggest declines were on the Washington-Richmond state-supported train, the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, and the Auto Train.
Some trains did show an increase in passenger miles. One of the biggest increases was the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, which saw an 11 percent increase in passenger miles and a 16 percent increase in revenues. This train is supported by Indiana, which got fed up with Amtrak service and contracted it out to another operator, Iowa Pacific. Amtrak is a “partner” because it allows people to make reservations on the train from its web site. But the lesson may be that privatization (or semi-privatization) can result in bigger ridership gains than Amtrak.
An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.
At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling me that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add to those calls for more funding.
But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on that train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 or more seats. The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or about two-and-one-half buses worth.
Amtrak fares for its seven daily trains each way between Chicago and Milwaukee start at $24. According to Busbud, Greyhound and Megabus together offer 13 trips per day each way between Chicago and Milwaukee, and their fares are often as low as $7 and never higher than $10.
While intercity bus operators pay a discounted fuel tax, the buses otherwise operate without subsidy. Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains produced $16.8 million in ticket revenues in 2014 against $24.5 million in operating costs, for a net loss of $5.7 million (not counting amortized capital costs). The trains carried slightly less than 800,000 riders, for an average subsidy of slightly more than $7 per trip.
In other words, the subsidy alone would have been enough to give every single Hiawatha rider a free trip on Greyhound or Megabus (at the low cost of $7 per trip).
In the wake of the terrible train crash near Philadelphia, people are asking whether Amtrak budget cuts could have been a contributing factor. The short answer is that federal rail spending has not been cut. The longer answer is that rail spending has been greatly misallocated by Congress. Rather than being spent on maintenance along heavily used corridors (particularly in the Northeast), the federal rail budget has been frittered away on uneconomical rural routes and high-speed rail schemes.
In the federal budget, Amtrak is within the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The president estimated that fiscal 2015 outlays on the FRA would be $3.6 billion. Of that, $250 million is for Amtrak operating subsidies, $1.1 billion is for Amtrak capital grants, $1.8 billion is for high-speed rail grants, and the rest is for safety, research, and other rail activities.
The chart shows total FRA outlays from 1990 to 2015 in current dollars (not adjusting for inflation). Outlays have soared in recent years, partly due to rising high-speed rail spending. During 2009 to 2015, high-speed rail grants were $2 million, $16 million, $304 million, $513 million, $768 million, $1.1 billion, and $1.8 billion. But even aside from that spending, FRA outlays were up modestly over the past decade.