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Thursday, February 17, 2011

WaPo Got Pushed Too Far

Take a look at this WaPo editorial on high-speed rail. Somebody did some research for a change.

There's no mention of high speed air!

If FedEx won't resurrect the Concorde then who will?

It was introduced in 1976 and retired in 2003. Something needs to be done!

And where are the high speed cargo ships?

Modern cargo ships slow to the speed of the sailing clippers

"Container ships are taking longer to cross the oceans than the Cutty Sark did as owners adopt 'super-slow steaming' to cut back on fuel consumption"

Why won't the government fix this!

Snark! ;)
I guess those things aren't cute and cuddly.
Let's see: how many limos and drivers could we buy for 100B?

We could give the rides away and reduce unemployment!
Why not **low-speed, old-tech** passenger rail? Advantages:

1)For the hyper-Keynesians, the labor spent building a steam locomotive is just as "stimulative" as the labor spent building a modern electric locomotive

2)Steam locomotives are much cooler and cuddlier

3)More crew will be required, both for operations and for maintenance, further increasing the JOBS payoff of the project

4)Slow speeds will allow track to follow the curvaceous paths which will be required in any case by environmental and NIMBY issues

5)Slow speeds will reduce the stress of modern life

(Historical note: actually, some railroads regularly ran steam passenger trains at 90mph, which exceeds the speeds planned for some segments of the "high-speed rail" project)

I really like your idea. I'm running with it!

Stagecoach Technology!
The US has a very good rail freight network, which does offer efficiencies.

I don't see why we couldn't improve on that.

It's just that we seem to have to go for the glitzy stuff.

But most of all, we need power. If we're not going to do coal, which I see from the president's budget we are not, then we'd better get cracking and start building a whole bunch of nuclear plants. That's not something we can do on the fly - it needs careful planning.

If we're not careful we could find ourselves like India, where the power pretty much goes out most days.
A friend told me that her dad always said that mass transit was subsidized transport for government workers. I really think that's true. Most of us work odd shifts these days.

I believe that all mass transit systems are an 1800s solution to current problems. We just don't live the kind of lifestyle to make those systems work for most of us. Even car pooling is difficult. I'd love to find someone to share my 150 mile commute, but doubt I could find anyone working my shift.

I think the old transit systems (think Chicago or NYC) work quite well, except that the big cities used their infrastructure advantage to put in place crony capitalist systems that negate their competitive advantage. The politicians monetized the city infrastructure to their personal gain.

The new transit systems are, for the most part, fantasy systems designed on the one hand to serve a non-existent urbanist utopia, and on the other to serve a the projects of a few crony devlopers. Boondoggles.

I actually think that speeding-up the existing freight lines for the purpose of medium-speed passenger trains would be a good thing in some areas. The 79mph limit is a government-imposed limit, they require special signaling and grade-crossing devices to go faster. Getting trains up to 125mph peak speeds is possible, but won't pay if it's just freight. If the public wanted to pay for sped-up passenger service out of some of the highway funds, the freight could probably be sped-up too. It's possible with modern locomotives.

Right-of-way and signaling improvements would be a reasonable use of Federal and state transportation money, but I think there's probably too much NIMBYism for it to happen. I know the proposed Chicago-St.Louis line is having trouble that way.
Maybe there is hope yet for the Republic if the WaPo can do the math on this. Or maybe they've figured out that we can't afford the programs we've got and the old days of adding pure fantasy and vanity boondgoggles like this means someone goes without food or medicine.

Neil, while mass transit systems like those in NYC have high levels of ridership, they are fiscal time bombs (at least in NYC). The fare box only covers about half of the operating costs. The balance is covered by an ever expanding array of taxes, ie tolls on the bridges, phone and electric bills, sales tax, real estate transactions, and most recently a payroll tax - it is quite a list. And as for capital costs, well they just borrow those with no hope of amortizing the principal involved - just a ponzi style debt accumulation.

Lastly the system is probably the worst example of the public sector union/elected official industrial complex out there. We pay people $25 an hour to sweep the floors in the stations (that's just wages, not benefits), employees get first dollar health care coverage for life with no contribution and they can retire at age 55 with 20 years service. It is a complete joke. When the MTA wanted to move retirement back to 62 a few years ago, the union went on strike a week before Christmas during one of the most important weeks for retailers in the city.

In short, this is just one more government entity that will need a bailout - it's just a question of when. The traditional pattern has been to find some other activity to tax and hope that no one looks too hard at what they are paying. They have never once succeeded in controlling cost in the system and no one has had the stones to stand up to the unions. We'll see what happens next time.

Christie's decision to defund the 2nd Hudson river tunnel for NJ transit caused a political earthquake and sent people like Frank Lautenberg into a tizzie (he's got a station named after him in Secaucus so you know where his campaign dollars come from). Perhaps that is the first sign of a change in tide for the black hole of public transit. Taxpayers in NYC can only hope that is the case
Mass transit worked pretty well back in the days when cities were organized so transit could be efficient. Most cities had an industrial/docks section, a financial section, a marketing section, and residential section. New York City's subway system was built during those times and it still works quite well today, even though the various specialty sections are not as well defined. Most such cities are on the Eastern seaboard where they grew up before the auto.

I've done a lot of travel by rail in Europe. Europe is quite small by comparison to the U.S. so distances are not as great. Their system grew up and was continuously financed by high taxes on fuel and autos to make auto travel prohibitive. (Only the upper middle class and above have autos.) Many European cities have narrow winding streets that don't accomodate autos very well and there is practically no parking anywhere in a city in Europe. They have a pretty well rationalized system. Most people can take a convenient bus or taxi to the nearest rail connection and once at the new destination, there are further buses and taxis to get you to your destination. The big drawback is that it takes time to get around and you have to do advance planning. However, it is very well planned and efficient compared to trying to travel by rail, bus, and taxi here in the U.S.

Air travel is far more efficient here in the U.S. considering the distances people need to travel here.

The libs here in Puget Sound are all excited about building a high speed rail from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. We presently have rail service on that route from AMTRAK, but it doesn't make money. Why they think high speed rail would do any better, I have no idea.

What progressive planners don't understand is that the auto gives a person personal freedom that those without autos in Europe don't have. As long as poor families can own an operable auto and afford gas for it, bus and train travel will not catch on nor should it. Our cities and our infrastructure are built around the auto. It's impossible to rationally plan a mass transit system that is efficient and will be self supporting.
In Chicago mass transit worked well until the city government started dictating fares. Part of the problem was one company eventually owned all the rail lines - which the city encouraged at first to make transfers easy. Eventually the city, and then the state, dictated the fare structure without a care for profitability.

I'm old enough to remember when my suburban area bus service and commuter rail service was via private operators - and the service was excellent. I wouldn't say it was a bargain, but it was reasonable especially for the level of service provided. Once fares were capped, service was less frequent, then shortened, then taken over altogether by a government agency which continued to reduce service.

Make no mistake, part of the problem was the advancement of automobiles, especially steel-belted radial tires - this took a lot of the fear of driving away from women and the demand for mass transit service. But I remember the switch-over to the government-run transit and it was not pretty - my sisters used the bus every day to work downtown, a 20+ mile express trip that cost about 75 cents in 1973. The fare on the now-public system didn't go up, but the service hours were cut and the riders on the earlier runs quickly organized a charter bus service to handle the hours the government agency cut. But it cost more and over the course of a couple years as people changed jobs, moved, etc. The charter service was discontinued because it could not attract new ridership (partly because there was no way to get the entire community well-informed about it). And then the agency prevented new charter services from being established.
The 79mph speed limit applies in the absence of Automatic Train Stop systems, which ensure that the train will automatically be brought to a stop if the engineer misses a signal. It hasn't been well-reported, but legislation passed a couple of years ago requires Positive Train Control on most US mainline trackage by 2015...PTC systems surely qualify to get you past the 79mph speed limit, although there are still issues with grade crossings and, especially, track geometry. Also, it's not clear that the 2015 date for PTC is really achievable.

I'm not sure how much good higher speeds would do for freight..in terms of the door-to-door schedules, you still have to make up a train, disassemble it at the other end, and possibly do intermediate switching.

For passenger trains, note that there is a tradeoff between speed and frequency of stops...if it takes 2 minutes to slow down, 3 minutes to let passengers on/off, and another 2 minutes to accelerate again, then for a 180mph train that station stop consumes the time equivalent of 15 miles of travel.

The higher speeds mostly apply to container traffic. Container yards are remarkably fast at unloading a train onto trailers. But really, it's about capacity, not speed of service. Faster trains = more trains on the same line. I doubt capacity is a problem at the moment, but it will be again someday.
The management of the NYC subway system is a disgrace. So is the way that the private lines were driven into bankruptcy and siezed by the city.

Crossing a bridge within the city limits, I pay four to twelve dollars in tolls. Maybe a quarter of that goes to the upkeep of the bridge; maybe not even. (In 1970 the toll on the Henry Hudson Bridge was ten cents.) In other words, I pay more for a subway ride than the subway rider.

If those monies were used for capital construction and heavy repair/renewal I wouldn't mind so much. But they are used to keep the fare artificially low. Or to allow salaries to be artificially high. The MTA has an abominable history of taking monies that were granted for capital improvements and using them to hold the fare down, a clear case of fiscal malfeasance and seed-corn gorging.

And yet ... NYC really does make good use of the subways, and expanding them would help a lot. The Lexington Avenue Line alone carries more passengers daily than the Boston and LA systems combined, and more than the entire Washington Metro. If the current Second Avenue line work is carried to completion, it will provide some relief, but it's only a two-track line, not a four-track line like the other north-south lines. By 2030 we may be back where we are now,
NJCommuter - I'd prefer to see each city and metro region look at what it has, try to improve on it, and then figure out what regions with poor public transport could do to improve.

I think buses would have to be a part of it. High-speed rail doesn't work for lines with a lot of stops to pick up riders. If you have high enough ridership, you can run trains with alternating stops (train1 picks up stations 1, 3, 5, 7; train2 picks up stations 2, 4, 6, 8) but even that doesn't give you much effective speed.

The problem with close-in commuting is less rail speed than the number of stops.

I don't think we have enough inter-city commuting to make real high-speed profitable. And anywhere we do, you'd probably have to have an adjunct bus station to get riders to a central pickup point, so....

Higher speed rail can move trains across rails more quickly, especially freight, so that the lines can be shared usage. But we gain so much from the efficiencies of the freight rail system that I'd hate to see us swap an efficient system for an inefficient, deficit-running system.
MoM, I agree with you. It is a regional matter. That's why I pointed to NYC; it's one of the few places where passenger rail makes real sense. But even that has been mishandled by government and subverted by the union bosses.
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