Is the U.S. Ready for a Sustained High-Speed Rail Funding Source?

» The government has yet to identify a source of long-term funds for its highway and transit programs, let alone a new high-speed rail scheme. If it did, though, would it know where to direct the funds?

The development of high-speed rail networks ought to be a relatively simple matter: Once a route alignment serving a state’s biggest cities is selected in coordination with local governments, the governor and the state department of transportation makes a deal with the federal government in which each party commits to covering a certain percentage of total costs. If Washington were to establish a consistent funding regime as it did with the Interstate highway system, it could guarantee, for instance, an 80% match as long as the affected states chip in their respective 20%.

Unfortunately, it’s probably never going to be that simple.

Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government was rapidly expanding its size as the economy grew by leaps and bounds, today’s national government is paralyzed by mounting deficits, falling revenues, and a lack of popular trust. While President Dwight Eisenhower could promise in 1956 a steady stream of funds for the highway system over a decades-long period, members of Congress are now incapable of moving forward on a renewal of transportation funding legislation because of harsh disagreements about how to cobble together enough money to pay for existing programs, let alone new ones like high-speed rail.

Nonetheless, these hard truths haven’t stopped members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from demanding a dedicated funding source for high-speed rail in the next transportation bill. In a draft version of the bill released last June, Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) suggested a $50 billion to the intercity transportation mode over six years, with $450 billion more going to highways and transit. Without clarifying where money would come from, more than one hundred members of the lower chamber have signed a letter to President Obama asking for him to pronounce himself in favor of providing funding for fast trains over the long term.

This kind of stable commitment to the high-speed rail program is absolutely vital to the system’s development, as it will be impossible for major projects such as California’s Los Angeles-San Francisco line to be built without an agreement by the federal government to shoulder a significant portion of total expenditures.

Chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads Corrine Brown (D-FL) traveled through New York last week promoting the idea. That state’s high-speed rail program is currently in disarray because of the resignation of the state’s rail director Ann Purdue and claims of “lies” emanating from the Governor’s office, the Department of Transportation, and freight railroad operator CSX.

The Obama Administration is planning to unveil a framework for moving ahead with the next transportation bill before the summer, likely without a clear statement on how more funds will be raised in the absence of adequate financing from the existing source, the fuel tax. The hesitation to move past a user fee-approach to funding transportation is making a serious increase in infrastructure spending difficult to undertake. Even the proposed infrastructure bank, which has virtually unanimous support, isn’t going anywhere because of wildly diverging visions about its goals.

But all this in-fighting about how to finance the program adequately doesn’t answer the question of whether the government is capable of distributing project funds appropriately.

The biggest unknown is whether the American federal system possesses the appropriate mechanisms to make a national high-speed network possible.

If, as has been evident recently, Washington is reluctant to identify corridors for investment, decisions must be made by each individual state or by groups of states. At least under this Administration, a proposed national route network, identifying priorities for investment and specific goals for each line, seems unlikely. Places that don’t want high-speed rail won’t get it, and places that do — and are politically connected in the enormously influential Senate — will.

For train spending in big states, like California, Florida, and Texas, the process should be relatively simple to undertake: Once state-level administrators have selected a preferred investment and the federal government has agreed to its importance, a deal similar to the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start full-funding grant agreement can be signed. Done.

But the situation becomes far more complicated once multiple states get involved. Take the Northeast Corridor: despite clear evidence that the Washington-Boston mainline holds the most potential for increased ridership, plenty of affected states have been pushing for other investments. New York is focused on the Albany-Buffalo line, Pennsylvania on the Scranton-New York corridor, and Connecticut on the New Haven-Springfield connection. None of this is to suggest that those projects aren’t important, it’s just that they aren’t as essential as the mainline.

Yet the fact that states have to respond the the needs of their own constituents means that the region’s broader interests are ignored. Because states want spending within their borders, they’ll fight to prevent the federal government from using “their” tax returns for infrastructure construction elsewhere, even if those projects are indirectly beneficial. The federal government’s unwillingness to step in and promote routes as more important than others means that spending will be scattered around, often distributed to projects that shouldn’t be at the top of the priority list.

But if Washington is distributing billions of dollars in grants, it must identify which projects it thinks are most important, and its hodge-podge “designated high-speed rail corridors” map, filled with inaccuracies and gaps as a result of the uninformed interference of congressmen and senators, is not that. And even if it were to be equated with the 1955 Interstate highway map, itself the product of political maneuvering, states have not been given clear evidence from the national government that their investments will be rewarded with federal funds.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has no serious plan for how to implement nationwide high-speed rail. This comes to the detriment of the seamless and efficient distribution of funds.

Indeed, if Congress ever gets around to reauthorizing the transportation bill, it must take a step back and ensure that it will be capable of awarding funds fairly under a dedicated high-speed rail revenue stream before simply handing the money over to the DOT. Not producing such a preparatory plan will mean an eventual waste of money and time for everyone involved.

Image above: Shinkansen Platform in Tokyo, from Flickr user hikikomorix (cc)

45 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • francis

    maybe we can let China pay for it in exchange for access to resources.

  • I think Yonah has outlined the two biggest problems with HSR currently.

    1)The lack of dedicated funding. I think this is problematic because it discourages a real industry and economies of scale from forming. It reminds me of wind and solar energy where the lack of a long-term subsidy stunted growth for years as no one knew if the subsidy would be around the following year. I mean who wants to start investing in something that takes a while to make if the resources may be gone at the whim of congress the following year. For example who knows how much FY 2011 will have for HSR will it be $2.5 Billion like this year or more or less. Maybe HSR needs a bill of its own if the next transportation bill can’t get off the ground.

    2)The incentive only to invest in one’s state. I mean that’s why no one is putting forth anything for the Northeast Corridor which is the best corridor for investment in the whole country. This could lead to a fractured unconnected high speed rail system which would discourage its use. It will also result in less desirable city pairs to be chosen just due to them falling within one state. It seems if if the US DOT and FRA need to make a new agency to better guide a national vision for HSR.

    If not like Francis said maybe if we wait long enough China will build across all of Eurasia and then build across Alaska and into the states.

  • Adirondacker12800

    New York is focused on the Albany-Buffalo line, Pennsylvania on the Scranton-New York corridor, and Connecticut on the New Haven-Springfield connection. None of this is to suggest that those projects aren’t important, it’s just that they aren’t as essential as the mainline.

    Why aren’t they as essential as the mainline? Current proposals are for increasing speed enough that it’s faster than driving, not for full blown high speed rail. People who want to go from Hartford to New Brunswick clog I-95 as effectively as people who want to go from Stamford to Trenton. Or Paoli to Woodbridge ( Metropark ) or Croton to Lancaster or…..

    • Nathanael

      The mainline doesn’t need upgrades *nearly* as badly as the feeder lines need upgrades.

      Once those feeder lines are built, then you’ll have a large enough constituency to make *serious* upgrades to the mainline. Or indeed to make a second mainline.

      Currently the state of the feeder lines is simply too weak to support spending the trillions needed for serious upgrades on the mainline. (Obviously the basic stuff like catenary upgrade and frequency conversion should be done.)

  • Of course, to play the devil’s advocate, why should a state like California depend on federal funds to develop its HSR? Where does the “interstate” part come into it?

    • Matt Korner

      The State of California is the fifth largest economy on the planet.

      The federal government depends on California, and its economic development, for tax revenue, which effectively gets redistributed to the other states.

  • jim

    For the Northeast and Midwest, empower Amtrak. Most of the routes that have been discussed in these regions are interstate routes (the Keystone and Empire corridors are exceptions, Triple-C is purely within Ohio and most of Chicago-St. Louis lies in Illinois). Individual states have a hard time prioritizing interstate routes. Is Massachusetts more interested in the Downeaster, a Concord-Boston line, New Haven-Springfield or the NEC? Should Massachusetts’ priorities be taken as the national prioritization between these?

    Planning for the Midwest and Northeast combined (say east of Minneapolis and north of Charlotte), twenty states containing 45% of the US population, is sufficiently national in scope. There needs to be a national-level entity doing the planning and prioritization. FRA has abdicated. Amtrak at least runs trains. Amtrak at least maintains track. Amtrak has an office that negotiates with states. Amtrak has set up an HSR division. There continue to be noises coming out of Amtrak that it is working on a master plan for the Northeast (Virginia to Maine).

    So task Amtrak to plan for the larger region. Task Amtrak to negotiate funding splits with the states. Then bring the plan to Congress, to fund through the Amtrak authorization/appropriations bills (multi-year appropriations, though).

    This isn’t perfect, but you work through the institutions you have, not the institutions you might wish to have.

  • deacon

    Considering the tax breaks big oil and corporations get and the difference we the public then have to eat, that is a good place to start. We pay tax so should they.

    Exxon in particular needs to fork out, considering that in 2008 they made $ 15 bil and didnt pay a sent tax in the USA, Alabama supreme court excused them of a $ 70 mil back tax they owed.

    Now, we the people want an alternative travel option so its said that we now have to not only pay to build it but pay to use it out of our pockets. Hey I’ll gladly fork out my share as long as the movers and shakers do the same.

    Funding an HSR System of any sort, state, interstate or national requires that corporations pay up. Getting out of our deficit requires that corporations pay up. Until they do as we do and the collective then gets used constructively, the argument for a funding source will go on with no end. There is enough money floating around for the USA to compete with Europe and Asia when it comes to infrastructure spending. In 18 months the dow has picked up 3000 points, the big boys are making money again, if they don’t want to employ people let the states employ the people and tax big corp to pay them. Problem solved.

  • Californian

    Here’s a good funding source: the profits from the TARP program and the remainder of the unspent TARP funds. That should bring in tens of billions of dollars. Projects that would receive funding must be in their environmental review stage or will be ready to brake ground soon. Projects would also have to be grade-separated and electric, not diesel.

    • Woody

      “Projects … must be in their environmental review stage or ready to break ground soon… also have to be grade-separated and electric, not diesel.”

      Californian, I think only Cali would qualify under your stringent standards, and not sure it would. And some good projects, like North Carolina’s 110-mph route Raleigh-Charlotte, would lose out.

      To be fair to the feds who dished out the funding commitments and to the states that threw in bids that were far from HSR, nobody was ready. No state had anything “shovel-ready”. Even St Louis-Chicago at 110 mph, they haven’t quit got things settled about the route through Springfield, and probably other stuff as well. But now everybody is scrambling to get their planning underway. Team LaHood muddled through last time and did a pretty good job; next time should be less muddle and more through.

      I agree that we should get money from the super-rich (that is, from Street) to pay for government, and that includes passenger rail. Another approach could be a tiny tiny tax on all financial transfers, say 1/10th of .01% on every trade, sale, deposit, or mortgage. Most citizens would pay that tax once or twice a week, but Wall Street traders, hedge funds, and speculators would absorb it as a cost of doing business.

      • North Carolina’s project is terrible, but that’s not because of traction or top speed. It’s because the minimum standards for non-sleeper intercity service should be a 2-hour takt, and preferably a 1-hour takt; lightweight rolling stock, with tilting capability if the line is curvy; turnaround times lower than 20 minutes; and trains with one operator, or at most two.

        Electrification would help, and may save money at those service levels. But the important bits are high frequency and low operating costs. Going back to the service levels of the 1930s, which were low enough to get wiped by 1950s roads, is not going to get people to ride trains instead of drive on 2000s roads.

      • jim

        Alon,

        To defend NC:

        If the project is ever fully built out, Charlotte-Raleigh will see 9 trains per day, which is more or less a two hour takt, Washington-Richmond will see 17 trains per day, which is a better than one hour takt. It’s in between that has the lower frequencies. The project was defined as highly fiscally constrained. Even so, it’s going to cost close to 10 billion to fully build it out. There’s an “art of the possible” going on here.

        Woody,

        The only segment in SEHSR that will allow a 110 MPH top speed is Raleigh-Petersburg. Everywhere else, the top speed will be 90 MPH or lower. That’s because everywhere else passenger trains will be sharing track with freights. It is Norfolk Southern’s explicit policy (it’s in the Alternatives Analysis for Richmond-Hampton Roads) that on track it controls that is shared with freights, passenger trains are limited to 90 MPH. From the noises coming out of New York, it seems likely that CSX has the same policy. This is quite independent of any FRA safety rules. I suspect it’s mainly driven by traffic management considerations, but it might also be that it’s too hard to maintain track tolerances for speeds above 90 MPH when freights are chewing the track up.

        This has implications. If all the Class Is are going to take this view (now that it’s actually possible that passenger trains will run at speeds above 79 MPH), then the notion that we can get to higher speeds on freight-owned track has to be ditched.

      • I doubt the timetable will be anything like a takt. More likely, it’ll be roughly every two hours, but with a lot of small variations and changes in service patterns, which would require people to repeatedly consult schedules.

        If it costs $10 billion to run trains on 700 km of legacy track, then something’s seriously wrong with the cost control. SNCF builds full-fat HSR at those costs. Norway’s over-budget, tunnel-heavy downtown-to-airport HSR cost a little bit more than this per km. Legacy line service reactivation in Europe costs less than $5 million per km.

      • Nathanael

        Alon, NC is fundamentally building a train line from scratch (the prior quality was so dreadful it barely counts) through what are essentially fully urbanized areas along much of the length. Remember, there is no significant break in the urban fabric from Raleigh-Durham to Winston-Salem (where most of NC’s money has been sunk).

        The only comparable projects are the line rebuilds in the UK and Germany, and they too had astronomical costs.

  • Alurin

    Surely we don’t rely on the states to determine the routes of the Interstate Highway system. Why not let the DoT prioritize the routes they want to fund, and then let the states kick in their 20%?

  • One of the problems with a national plan is that the US has no institution capable of it, at least not yet. The FRA and Amtrak are stuck in the 1950s, and DOT is largely a highway department. There’s no notion of different service levels, leading to completely different projects competing for the same money (what does the Lackawanna Cutoff have in common with California High-Speed Rail?). The feds can’t just put up more money, because it will be misspent under the current political funding structure.

    The federal government is more than capable of developing better institutions – for example, a reformed Amtrak, an FRA with new staff drawn from EU and Japanese rail regulators, or an expanded DOT. Such institutions will have to copy some of the government planning that led to the US Highway and Interstate networks – for example, writing national standards, based on industry best practices, for questions like train control, electrification, track construction, and rolling stock; creating sample zoning codes for cities to use for upzoning near train stations; helping local rail transit agencies maintain takts, and ensuring the takts ensure timely transfers from one region to another.

    • simple

      Amtrak and FRA have arguably moved forward at least a decade in the past year. With luck they will continue to progress at this rate during the upcoming years! :-)

      In their defense, they have a whole lot of lost ground to make up — mostly due to previous Congressional and White House leadership (or lack thereof) — but they’ve finally been given a real chance and they’re trying.

  • jim

    Alon,

    It’s not so easy to create new institutions. I spent half of my professional life trying.

    It might be possible to create a reformed Amtrak. Spin off the long distance routes and the original corridors and try to allocate the deadwood and the subsidy seekers to the spinoff.

    FRA is a lost cause. Look at their preliminary rail plan: “freight … blah, blah … freight … blah, blah … freight … blah, blah … freight … blah, blah … freight.”

    • A reformed Amtrak is a new institution: such a beast would likely get almost its entire traffic and revenue from the Northeast Corridor and other modernized operations, which would put it deep in the black. It would run different trains and different service levels from today’s Amtrak, and have much higher standards for timeliness. It would probably even have enough NEC profits to afford subsidizing a long-distance train per day to make Mike Crapo happy.

      It’s even feasible, as long as the people in charge are careful to follow industry best practices at first and not try to change things with “America is special” excuses.

    • Nathanael

      The FRA really is seeming hopeless. What the HELL is wrong with their “buff strength” rules? Let’s run ’em over with one of their FRA-compliant cars and then hire some competent rail engineers to write some competent regulations.

  • Ethan

    Unfortunately, it will take a month of Yellowstone blowing its top and shutting down air travel across all of North America before Republicans realize the need for passenger railways.

  • Re: northeast corridor. Why not create a multi-state entity like the Port Authority of NY/NJ? Governed by a board that’s either elected by people in the corridor, appointed by states/cities in the corridor, or some combination of the two.

    The PA gets its revenue exclusively from tolls and fees. This new NE Corridor Authority would have to find other forms of revenue. Perhaps renting out use of the ROW to NJ Transit, SEPTA, freight, etc?

    It would also need a way to borrow funds for capital expenditures. If there were a consistent revenue stream, though, it could theoretically issue debt.

    • Adirondacker12800

      There is a multi state agency, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, commonly know as Amtrak. They run a few trains along the Northeast Corridor now and then,…

    • Why not create a multi-state entity like the Port Authority of NY/NJ?

      Because states never create those entities by themselves. Some states keep bitching about how those entities transfer money to other states: for example, New Yorkers always say that Port Authority exists to transfer money from New York to New Jersey. In fact New York and New Jersey had to be compelled by a federal court to relinquish power and create Port Authority.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Amtrak can do it they have the know how and the people along with the plans it’s that they are spending most of of their time having to fight tooth and nail for funding from the goverment. They have no choice but to spend most of their time spending trying to keep themselves from being scrapped.

    Amtrak can do it they only need the funding.

    • I don’t think that a high-speed rail proposal where much of the money goes to Moynihan Station and Hell Gate Bridge repairs shows know-how.

      Yes, Amtrak’s underfunded. Part of it is its own fault, though. It didn’t push for FRA compliance exemptions, it avoided off-the-shelf solutions for the Acela, and its representatives keep not knowing what to do with the long-distance routes.

      • Nathanael

        Moynihan Station is close to a prerequisite for HSR going through Manhattan. The only alternative would be “alternative G”, connecting the North River Tunnels to Grand Central.

        Why? Because the current Penn Station is simply not suitable for purpose, and you are not going to be able to shoehorn another large station into Lower or Midtown Manhattan. Germany spent a bundle of its HSR money on new stations and station renovations, and so did France, and so did Spain, and so did the UK….

        I suppose you could propose a new deep tunnel route with a grand station at the former World Trade Center site continuing to a deep underground station in Brooklyn, but that’s not reasonable.

        I have no complaints about putting HSR money into Moynihan Stations. Hell Gate Bridge repairs? I didn’t know it had problems. Sigh.

      • Moynihan Station and ARC have nothing to do with each other. ARC is a project adding a two-track Hudson crossing, at outrageous cost and minimal off-peak public benefit. Moynihan is a pretty station concourse, moving Penn Station a block further away from most people’s destinations.

        There’s nothing fundamentally “not suitable” about Penn that requires a new station. New York is nothing like Berlin, which had had to use makeshift stations due to the division of the city, and which added significant S-Bahn capacity when it built the new Hauptbahnhof. No, Penn isn’t pretty. Spend the money on public art if you really want things to look good; just don’t call it transportation.

      • Adirondacker12800

        There’s nothing fundamentally “not suitable” about Penn that requires a new station.

        Except that it’s overrun with pedestrians who then become railroad passengers. Get rid of the those pesky passengers and they could run lots of trains into and out of the station. Think of all the money they could save on lighting, air conditioning, maintenance….

      • It’s not overrun with pedestrians. By the standards of Gare du Nord or Tokyo Station, it’s not that crowded. Remember how half of the lower concourse is used for back offices and concessions? There’s your problem. (But… but… Amtrak must place back offices right where all the passengers are! It can’t possibly move the back offices without moving the entire station! And let’s name something after Moynihan!)

      • Adirondacker12800

        It’s not overrun with pedestrians.

        You really have to climb down out of your ivory tower some time, get on the subway at 4:30 in the afternoon and see what it’s like at rush hour. Get off at Times Square and walk down. Observe the pedestrians walking in the automobile lanes on 7th Ave because there’s no room for them on the sidewalk. Experience the pure joy of using one of the entrances. Or even better, try to get of the station at 5:15. Get on an express to Ronkonkama or Dover and stand until you are almost there.

        …concessions.. those pesky passengers again, eating, drinking, buying newspapers, magazines etc. Impertinent to unreasonably expect that they might be able to do that while, I know this might seem outrageous, in the station.

      • I know what it’s like at rush hour. I do use the station sometimes. It’s about as crowded as the Singapore MRT stations on the shoulders of peak hour, in the reverse-peak direction. Compared with genuine cases of overcrowding, Penn Station is about as bad as the V at 9 in the evening.

    • jim

      Ocean Railroader,

      No. The problem with Amtrak is they don’t have the people. For forty years they’ve been operating in an environment where the first question about a route is, Where will the subsidy come from? rather than, Where will the passengers come from? Managing in such an environment warps the judgment. Among other things it makes one too subservient to politicians. The argument for Amtrak isn’t that it’s great; it’s that the other possibilities — state DoTs, FRA — are worse.

      Alon,

      Amtrak isn’t pushing for Moynihan Station. That’s a New York State priority. And the Hell Gate Line is very slow (there ought to be a modern railroad folksong: “Oh, the Hell Gate Line is a mighty slow line . . .”).

      Amtrak doesn’t know what to do with the long distance routes, true. But no-one else knows what to do with them. The proposals I’ve seen range from the insane (URPA) to the apparently plausible. But none are workable. The problem with the long distance routes is their direct incremental costs are greater than their revenue. Adding frequencies loses more money. Adding routes loses more money. Extending routes loses more money. Oh, and all the proposals I’ve seen (except Bruce McF’s for the Cardinal) involve using more rolling stock. Even if Amtrak had more rolling stock, it would be better employed in increasing frequencies on corridor routes, where adding frequencies causes the loss of less money.

      • Amtrak’s $11 billion proposal for improved NEC service includes $1.3 billion for Moynihan Station.

        Yes, the Hell Gate route is really slow; the curves there are actually worse than in Connecticut, measured on a curve radius basis. However, Amtrak says nothing about superelevation or curve radius. It talks about state of good repair, which in this case means locking in low speeds for the same cost as upgrading tracks to higher speeds. The same issue crops up in Maryland and Connecticut; in Connecticut it’s even worse, because Amtrak has no plans for tilting on Metro-North tracks.

        The long-distance issue is a different beast. There are two issues here. First, Amtrak refuses to admit the LD routes are money sinks. It clings to the notion that they feed the corridor routes and are therefore vital. And second, it’s not really trying to market them in terms of service. It talks about how it’s less likely to be 5 hours late than it used to, but it doesn’t try to go after luxury travelers the way VIA does on the Canadian.

      • Nathanael

        As I say, there’s long distance and then there’s long distance. NY-Chicago is just a whole bunch of very valuable corridors stuck end to end, and the entire thing should be HSR. New Orleans-Los Angeles is good only as a tourist train.

      • Woody

        Jim — A dismaying set of assertions indeed: “The problem with the long distance routes is their direct incremental costs are greater than their revenue. Adding frequencies loses more money. Adding routes loses more money. Extending routes loses more money. And the proposals involve using more rolling stock.”

        But I’m surprised to think that we have many real world tests of Amtrak adding frequencies to LD trains or of extending routes. I can see that adding routes costs more money and require more rolling stock. But are there many examples in Amtrak’s history of adding frequencies or routes?

        btw Your friends at URPA raised a big stink over the Palmetto ending at Savannah, instead of extending to the much larger metro of Jacksonville, with a promised connection to the Sunset Limited or it successors. URPA claimed Amtrak’s traffic forecasts for that extension estimated additional riders to/from Jacksonville and intermediate points to/from Savannah, but did not add any revenue for passengers coming from or going beyond points north of Savannah! Whether that is true or not, I’m always suspicious of Amtrak forecasts where the default position is, ‘No, it will cost too much, and we will have to special order the new cars at a custom-made price.’

        And how much do the LD routes lose anyway? I had a notion that the total was $300 or $400 million — compared to debt service in the same range. Another comparable is the Highway Trust Fund, roughly 100 times as much each year, so I have a hunch that repaving alone costs much more than subsidizing the LD trains.

        Nathanael makes the point that LD trains NYC-Chi are really attractive corridors set end to end. But actually, ALL the LD trains are corridors set end to end, some not strong corridors, and many served only in the dark. Amtrak’s ridership figures for the LD lines shows that usually only 10 or 15% of the passengers ride end to end, e.g. New Orleans to L.A. But even that route has corridors, N’awlins to Lafayette overlapped by N’awlins-Houston, Houston-San Antonio, Tucson-Phoenix (potentially), Palm Springs-L.A. Sure, San Antonio-El Paso takes a full day to pass through rugged West Texas scenery and then El Paso-Tucson is desert emptiness again. But with 3 trains a week, and stops in the gloom of night, not even Houston-San Antonio can generate corridor traffic.

      • jim

        Amtrak defines various levels of costs: there’s what it calls FRA defined costs — the cost of actually running a train; the money that you’d save if you canceled just that route; crew salaries, trackage fees, power/diesel consumed, maintenance costs on the trainsets used on the route — there’s other direct costs, allocated across the route system — expenses that would still be there if you canceled a route; the fixed costs of running a railroad; yard ops, station operation and maintenance, reservation system etc. — and finally there’s the management overhead allocated across routes — managers, lawyers, offices etc..

        Every long distance route except the Auto Train brings in less money than its FRA defined costs. FRA defined costs are what would double if Amtrak ran a second frequency. FRA defined costs are what would increase if Amtrak extended a route. There’s no reason to believe that a second frequency would bring in more money than the first — the law of diminishing returns would set in. There’s no reason to believe that the stretch that Amtrak isn’t servicing today would bring in more money relative to the costs of servicing it than the stretch that Amtrak is servicing. (And if I have to either believe Amtrak or URPA, I’ll go with Amtrak every time.)

        Yes. Long distance trains are corridors set end to end or overlapping. But they’re lousy corridors. They’re corridors with few and small cities set too far apart. Add to that that long distance trains are much more subject to delay than corridor trains, so are less likely to attract riders. So they’re the wrong modality running along the wrong corridors.

        How much do they lose? In FY2009, the 15 long distance trains lost $558.8M. Amtrak had a total loss on running trains of $776.3M. That is, they were responsible for 72% of Amtrak’s operational losses. By comparison Amtrak’s debt service that FY was $108.8M.

        By contrast to, say, the subsidies to “essential air services,” these losses are relatively small. But they are very damaging both to Amtrak and to the notion of rail service in general. They enable the attack line that Amtrak passengers are subsidized $50 per ticket.

      • Woody, there’s a difference between LD and the corridors they overlap. You could make an argument for a 2-hour takt on Houston-New Orleans or even Minneapolis-Fargo; this would have nothing to do with adding more trains through the mountains.

      • jim

        Woody,

        I want to say one more thing about

        “I’m always suspicious of Amtrak forecasts where the default position is, ‘No, it will cost too much, and we will have to special order the new cars at a custom-made price.’”

        But it’s true. The proposed change will cost more money and will require rolling stock Amtrak doesn’t have. It doesn’t matter what the change is. But for definiteness, look at URPA v. Amtrak on the Palmetto. Amtrak knows, if not to the penny, certainly to the nearest ten dollars, how much such an extension will cost. They know what extra crew will need to be hired and how much they’d have to pay them; they know how much the host railroad will charge for trackage; they know how much extra diesel fuel their locomotives will consume; they know how much more frequently their rolling stock will go into maintenance. URPA makes a wild-assed guess. On ridership, Amtrak has a ridership model. We can criticize their model — I have. But URPA has a wild-assed guess. Just as with global warming, if we have to choose between the guy with the model and the guy with some vain hope, we’ll go with the guy with the model every time.

        Alon,

        Re: “Amtrak refuses to admit the LD routes are money sinks.”

        I also read Robert Cruikshank’s CAHSR blog. I’ve seen Alon comment there, too. There’s a frequent commenter who works for Amtrak. I think he’s a customer service guy in San Francisco. He remarked the other day that there wasn’t a European rail system ran a 2,000 mile long train route. My reaction, I suspect Alon’s, too, was that no European system would be that dumb. But I didn’t say so. All the management books tell you that you should get your workforce to internalize the goals of the organization. Here’s an Amtrak guy proud of the California Zephyr, proud of being a part of an organization which operates such a train. His management has done something right. But that mentality runs up the organization, too. I suspect that Joe Boardman is, to some extent, proud of running an organization which operates the California Zephyr, even as, with some other part of his mind, he realizes it’s a lead weight tied to his feet.

  • Norman Brown

    “But all this in-fighting about how to finance the program adequately doesn’t answer the question of whether the government is capable of distributing project funds appropriately.

    The biggest unknown is whether the American federal system possesses the appropriate mechanisms to make a national high-speed network possible.”

    This pretty much wraps it all up, Federalism is simply not capable of funding a functional National High Speed Rail system (or any other speed system). Federalism has castrated AMTRAK over the years. Federalism can promise a National system, Federalism can criticize and mock AMTRAK for not being a National system, but Federalism can’t fund it. It does not have the authority to allocate funds in a way that would be both adequate and effective.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I’ve followed the whole route of the Amtrak from New York City to Richmond VA and I found several areas where there are side railroad lines that follow it in some sections with abaondoned catenary lines that they could reopen and add new wires to offer bypasses around some of the stations. There are also secitons in the railroad where it is rulled by major existing bottle necks where four tracks narrow down to two tracks and where some four track sections have two tracks abnodned. I think they could easly raise speeds and on time if they would think about breaking existing bottle necks then trying to rip out the whole thing and rebuild it.

  • Privatize It

    Why not allow for private development of a NY-Chicago HSR line? 4-track, multi-modal, 200 mph, for passenger and freight. Stop only at MAJOR cities (NYC, Philly, Pittsburg, Chicago). Make it a prize! Set up proving routes (say, intercity 200 mile segments), use off-the-shelf trainsets (from Europe or Japan), and let the winner (fastest build time, fastest travel time, lowest cost) have rights to the whole route. Federal government is broke/slow/incompetent. Private enterprise can make money off freight/passengers/rail sidings/real estate, and will do so if encouraged. Oh, and stop subsidizing auto transport…that should help level the playing field.

    • First, nobody builds four-track high-speed lines. And second, the investment in an NY-Chicago high-speed line would be about $30 billion, on the low side (only in countries with very competent contractors, like Norway). On the high side (more likely in the US), make it $60 billion. No private consortium has this amount of money.

      Government can be remarkably competent, in countries that don’t let private consultants run everything.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I think as gas prices begin to go though the next stage of going up from $3.00 a gallon to $4.00 and $5.00 Amtrak’s ridership will keep growing beyond what we have seen or known today such as with it’s ridership growing by the millons in the last five years. So Amtrak’s ridership on it’s cash cow routes could keep growing and be used to counter flood the money lossing routes in the next few years.

    The Pennsyvinia Railroad used to have a four track mainline from Philli to Pittsburg that was ripped down to two tracks so if we restored two sets of tracks we could have a set of passanger only tracks on it and chargo only tracks.

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