The Democrats in Congress want to spend tens of billions of taxpayer–okay, let’s be honest, borrowed dollars on “high speed rail” projects that only a fraction of Americans will ever ride. Meanwhile, our existing automobile and other infrastructure is falling apart because no one is willing to spend the money to fix it. Democrats want to spend up to $43 billion in Federal and state money just for high a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and are looking at giving away over $50 billion through the “Stimulus” legislation passed last year. Joe Biden, Harry Reid and President Obama each have expressed their intense desire for these projects to go forward.
A little quick math here but even at $200 per one-way ticket it would take 215 million riders for the Los Angeles-San Francisco line to pay for itself, and that’s getting the maintenance, energy and labor to run it for free. I’m pretty sure ridership projections, even projected over the next 20 years, aren’t that high. If they are, the people who wrote the ridership report should be in jail for fraud, because Americans don’t ride the rails.
Why don’t Americans ride the rails? Simply put, our cars are cheaper and more convenient than railroads. Existing “low-speed” railroads are very good at moving freight throughout the country at very low cost per ton shipped. The longer the trip, the cheaper the cost per ton gets compared to trucks.
So why is high-speed rail so expensive? The obvious answer is that our existing rail infrastructure is designed for long, low-speed freight trains. Sure, in some areas freight trains get up to very high speed, but these are long-distance, low-density routes with few rail-yards, switchbacks, curves or inclines to slow the train down. In most places, the trains have to turn frequently or pass through rail yards or towns at low speeds. To increase speed, these areas must be rebuilt or bypassed. In many cases, high-speed rail proposals simply bypass all of the existing rail infrastructure to avoid these slow-downs.
Politicians like high speed rail a lot. They claim that high speed rail gives people more convenient travel options, reduces energy consumption (and therefore energy prices) and reduces traffic congestion by moving people out of their cars and on to trains.
Proponents of high-speed rail in California suggest that the two most commonly proposed California routes, Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to San Francisco, can be more convenient than driving a car and faster than taking a plane. They believe ridership along these routes will be significantly better than other rail routes in the US. It beggars the question of why aren’t these routes already heavily traveled by rail?
It’s because the ridership doesn’t exist. If it did, the free market would have already built high-speed passenger rail service along these corridors. The reality is that passenger rail service is, in most parts of the country, an out-dated transportation mode. Riding the slow rails might be cheaper, but the lost time and inconvenience negate any cost savings and reduce the number of people willing to ride.
One of the reasons “low-speed rail” is so inexpensive is the huge number of cars that can be pulled by a single locomotive. That’s not possible with high-speed rail simply because the volume of travelers between cities isn’t high enough. Even the Eurostar bullet trains running between London and Paris generally operate with about a dozen or so passenger cars and some mail and automobile carriers. That’s a train with about 20 or 30 cars, not seventy to one hundred. So the cost per car, and hence per passenger, climbs steeply.
The distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco is about 400 miles, and from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is about 280 miles. It might cost $2,100 to transport a rail car 300 miles (including the overhead) on a 100 car freight train. At 70 tons net weight, that’s about $30 per ton. My experience with rail freight indicates this is a good approximation for current rates. I’ll assume that the car is never switched to another train at any point (much of the cost savings of “slow-rail” comes from these switches).
Convert these numbers to passenger trains. At, for example, $100 per one-way ticket, each 80 seat car requires only 22 passengers to be profitable. when the number of cars per train is reduced, the cost per car climbs precipitously because fixed costs must be applied to fewer cars. The cost per car on a 20 car train may increase to over $8,000. Even if a smaller, more energy efficient locomotive is used, the cost is likely to still be significantly higher. I’ll use $5,000, or a little more than double the rate of a “slow-rail” car.
Apply this math to the Los Angeles to San Francisco or Las Vegas route: A 100 car train at $2,100 per car will require just 21 passengers at $100 per ticket. That’s 2,100 passengers to break even! Scaling it down, a 20 car train will require 1,000 passengers to break even (and that’s a “being
nice to high-speed rail proponents” number on my part). So now a passenger car carrying up to 80 passengers requires 50 passengers to break-even. The break-even ridership has shrunk by 1,100 passengers, but the ridership per available seat has to increase from 28% of capacity to 63%!
The reality is that, to makes sense, rail requires population density. In New York City, the MTA can operate effectively because the trains stop frequently to pick up more passengers (slowing them down) and are almost always full of passengers trying to beat the slow, heavy traffic into the city. During rush-hour, it is usually faster and (thanks to the bridge tolls and dearth of cheap parking) often cheaper to spend $15-$45 each way to ride standing-room-only on the train than it is to ride in a car. New York’s existing infrastructure of subways, buses and taxis increases the value of the train ride, reducing the inconvenience of not having a car.
Contrast this with other US cities like Los Angeles, Denver or Atlanta: The local mass-transit infrastructure doesn’t exist the way it does in New York. There is no criss-cross of well-connected subways, buses and taxis to handle the people who have no car. Sure there’s the LA Metro, the Denver Light Rail and the Atlanta MARTA, but the utility of these systems doesn’t begin to compare to New York’s. So building a rail line and expecting passengers to find a taxi or bus route to their final destination simply doesn’t make sense.
I know I just upset some liberals with that statement. “People use AmTrak all the time! They rent cars or take taxis when they fly! Why should this be any different?” The difference is, once again, the convenience. There really aren’t many that many taxis in Atlanta, for example. There’s no Avis or Hertz or Thrifty rent-a-car next to the train station. Without ridership, the taxis and rental agencies won’t come, but without those conveniences, there won’t be much ridership. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. It’s possible that convenient rail service could attract additional passengers, but it will be a long time before ridership builds to the point that the rental agencies and taxis will see the economic value of providing additional service to the train station.
Energy prices won’t be much affected by a few high-speed rail projects, either. Even if a train with the mythical 1,000 passengers takes 600 cars off the road (1.67 occupants per car), each way, six times per day, that’s just 7,200 cars per day. 300 miles is about 80% of a tank of gas in most modern cars, so one trip saves 1.6 times 16 gallons per tank. That’s 184,320 gallons of gasoline per day and 67.3 million gallons per year. At an average cost of $3.53 per gallon (a recent nation-wide average), it would take 181 years for the mythical 12,000 passengers per day to save enough fuel to “pay for” the rail line. And that’s without taking into account the rail line’s own energy consumption!
Even if six trains each way per day had 100% ridership with 20 cars (19,200 passengers), the savings on a 300 mile journey would still only be 294,323 gallons of gasoline per day. At that rate, it would still take 113 years even if the train was fully-automated by a donated supercomputer and its maintenance was paid for with leprechaun gold and it was fueled by fairy dust and unicorn farts. So the $43 billion price tag of the Los Angeles to San Francisco route is much more valuable if it is used to find and drill more oil reserves than on an “energy saving” rail line.
I’ll apply these same figures to the contentious debate over a $2.4 billion high-speed rail proposal in Florida. The distance from Tampa to Orlando is about 85 miles. Due to the distance involved, the cost per car should be about 1/4 of the Los Angles to San Francisco route, or about $7.50 per ton (a shorter route should actually cost more per ton). That’s $525 per freight car. Using the same ratio for a 20 car passenger train as above, that comes to $1,250 per car. Great! 12½ passengers per car at $100 per passenger! That’s just 250 passengers per train!
Just a minute. In the example for Los Angeles to San Francisco, the cost of riding in a car was about $56 each way ($3.53 per gallon at 32 gallons per round-trip). Each passenger paid a $44 premium for the increased speed of their high-speed rail trip. At 85 miles, the round-trip cost from Tampa to Orlando (including tolls) comes to about $36. The time savings, even at a constant speed of 150mph, is no more than an hour. That requires a sales premium of about $82 to maintain the $100 price point. In reality, the price premium has to be cut to about one quarter, but I’ll be nice and cut it by only one half, or about $22 each way.
So the market rate for a rail pass from Tampa to Orlando would only be about $40. Again, I’m being generous. So now ridership has to reach 31 passengers per car, or about 625 passengers for each train. Assuming the train is free to operate, the project will still take 60 million passengers, or 24.46 years, to pay for itself. Add intermediate stops such as Lakeland and Disney World, and the price premium falls even further due to the lost time. Remember, that’s still assuming the train is free to operate.
With six trains per day to ensure convenience, this comes to 6,720 passengers who are traveling entirely between Tampa and Orlando. Again, it’s about 4 gallons of gasoline to travel from one to the other, so at 1.67 occupants per automobile the train takes 4,024 cars off the road per day and saves 16,196 gallons of gasoline. Again, at $3.53 per gallon, the savings total about $20.7 million per year if the train consumes no energy, requiring 116 years to pay off in gasoline savings. Once again, it’s much cheaper to just explore and drill for more oil!
Politicians don’t want high speed rail in the United States to help riders get where they’re going nor to take cars off the road nor to lower energy prices nor for any of the other reasons they claim. If President Obama actually believes any of these things, then he is the Chief Executive of Fantasy Land, and Joe Biden is his jester. The reality is that high-speed rail is a pork project that makes it appear that a politician is Doing Something™ about [fill in the blank populist energy or environmental concern]. Meanwhile, our existing infrastructure continues to collapse from that same politician’s fiscal neglect.
There is one thing that high speed rail can deliver that can’t be measured in dollars or easily written-off by logical thought processes: High-speed rail gives liberals and environmentalists the smug satisfaction that they’re beliefs and ideals are superior to those of conservatives. That just can’t be accounted for in nickels and dimes. Or billions of dollars of borrowed money, for that matter.