01 February 2009

Proposal for a future Interstate Rail Network

From The Transport Politic:


The transport politic blog has run the numbers and made a proposal for a high-speed train network for the United States. I think they've done an incredible job, and so I want to mention them here. Their plan is based upon a few pillars:
  1. This network would be funded 50--90% by the Fed; compare to roads and highways that are funded 80--90% by the Fed.
  2. This funding would be part of the expected economic stimulus plans. In this respect, it sounds to me like a big WPA project instead of a bailout.
  3. A new national authority (which they call NatTrack) will be responsible for acquiring land, building and maintaining tracks, and renting those tracks to service providers such as Amtrak.
  4. They identify the ideal route as one that is (a) shorter than 500 miles, and (b) between two population centers of 100,000 or more. These numbers were chosen as they [a] typically beat an airplane in overall travel time, and [b] have enough potential customers to maintain the route.
  5. The main network features high-speed (150 mph) trains; this is supplemented by low-speed (70--120 mph).
  6. Their route choices were computed mathematically, under some well-defined assumptions. At the end of the article, they give numeric scores for each route to justify their choices.
Again, this is excellent work. I encourage you to read their article. I hope this has a chance.

4 comments:

Ken said...

I am a fan of public transportation and specifically rail transportation.

However my personal preference would be to invest in lower cost rail transportation rather than faster speed transportation.

For example, I personally could live with a train to Florida or Boston that took just about as long as a drive there if it weren't so much more expensive than driving. And certainly , when you factor in the value of time and compare it to flying, it is horribly more expensive to train than fly.

For years I have personally weighed training to Boston to visit family in Maine each year, but cannot handle that it would cost my family $260+ round trip while it would cost a fraction of that to drive.

This infrastructure expansion might drive competitors into the market, but I don't hold much hope for that.

Nick Johnson said...

Ken,

I hear you, but I respectfully disagree with your analysis. You are comparing roads and trains today, in which private automobile travel is subsidized, and rail travel is (relatively speaking) unsubsidized.

Your driving cost is cheaper because the auto industy, the gas industry, and highways and roads are all heavily subsidized by the federal, state and local governments. Our auto manufacturers are being bailed out, our gas prices are a fraction of what europeans pay, and we spend tons of money to pave, expand, plow, and otherwise maintain roads.

You and I both pay taxes to make these cheaper for drivers, even though I don't have a car. Trains too are subsidized, but by a fraction of what private automobiles get.

If our government decided to reallocate its subsidies to favor rail transport instead of automobiles, I believe that your analysis would swing the other way. No, I don't have exact numbers to support this claim.

Further, I'd like to see a cost/benefit analysis from the perspective of the federal government. If the government spends 1 unit of money, how many safe passenger-miles does that purchase in trains or in cars?

In terms of the value of the passenger's time on the train vs flying, note that this proposal is focusing on short (< 500 mi) trips on fast (150 mph) trains. In this situation, the total time in transit by train is less than by airplane. This is adding in time inefficiencies such as waiting at the security checkpoint, etc. Such rides are (in my opinion) more comfortable, since trains are less cramped than airplanes, have fresher air, have dining cars, and have electrical outlets for your laptop or whatever. Such shorter trips include PA to MA, but probably don't include PA to FL.

Thanks for your input.

Ken said...

Nick,

I agree with you that the real "costs" of private automobile transportation far outweigh those of rail transportation, particularly in the areas of federal subsidies, time, and environmental impact (especially where electric locomotion is concerned). Additionally, safety reports I have read in the past have always indicated a higher mortality rate associated with automobile travel than with air or rail travel, pointing to other higher social costs.

However, from a personal perspective, comparative out-of-pocket expenses create a prohibitive barrier to rail travel.

As an owner of a car I already have paid the direct costs of private travel; those including the purchase of the car, fuel, maintenance, insurance. These are in addition to the indirect costs paid by all taxpayers, which you mentioned in your response, including tax subsidies for fuel, manufacturing and highways.

Having already paid those costs REGARDLESS of whether I travel by car or rail, I am left with a comparison only of the additional costs, that being fuel and tolls versus a round trip ticket.

And by the way, the cost to drive myself to Boston is virtually the same as the cost of driving myself, my wife and my son. By train, the cost of riding there myself is 1/3 the cost of all three of us!

Where I do absolutely agree with you is in the value of time on the trip. By far I personally believe that the value of time on the trip is highest by train, where one can sleep, eat (both safely!), telecommute and/or enjoy quiet family time in comfort.

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