Monday, December 12, 2011

Who pays for the Romance of Rail in the US? We do.

Ah, the Romance of Rail. 

Actually, for $480. it sounds rather Spartan.   

Joe Sharkey took the Silver Star, the Amtrak train that runs from Tampa, Florida to Penn Station, New York City, a trip of around 1,500 miles. 26 hours. Not high speed. Regular, Amtrak-sharing-freight-rails speed.  Averaging roughly 58 mph. 

Mr. Sharkey enjoyed his trip, we are told in this article, but he did not investigate, apparently, how much the taxpayers subsidized his train ticket.  In 2008, it was over $145. per passenger.

Nor did he question what the total annual operational cost is to transport 393,000 passengers on this route. 

With full-cost accounting, he would have to calculate a lot more than the amount of Diesel fuel required.  He would have to include labor, non-fuel consumables, administration, maintenance (both rolling stock and infrastructure), wear-and-tear depreciation, all leasing fees, insurance and replacement costs.  

From that, he would be able to discount the annual fare-box receipts and then send us tax-payers the bill for the rest.  

Those HSR advocates who both promise that HSR would require no subsidies, but at the same time who love to compare rail to the other subsidized modalities, like highways and airways, say, see, they're all subsidized.  So which is it, HSR lover? Is HSR subsidized or not? The CHSRA persists in saying that all HSR, world-wide, is profitable.  That's totally not true and whenever they do that, they get deserved howls from their audience.

The others, those that involve car and aircraft sales, and those who profit on fuel sales, etc. are managed by profitable business organizations.  So are the air carriers.  We buy our own cars, pay for their operation and upkeep and are taxed to use the roads and highways we drive on.

Both modalities, highways and airways, tax the users to cover the infrastructure costs.  And, when business is bad, the air carriers feel it, cut back, borrow, etc. in order to return back to the black.  The auto dealers compete, cut prices, and remain in business.  GM or Ford or United Airlines investors give a damn. Amtrak has only one investor.  Us.

In short, Amtrak and HSR, if it's ever built, are not the same as the other transit providers in the US.  We don't operate rail as a private business, we operate it as a public, subsidized, social utility. It will be the same for high-speed rail. 

Amtrak is not a business, it's the government; that is, its stock is wholly owned by the government.  There's a difference.

Instead of asking a lot of academic questions, Mr. Sharkey merely paid his nearly $500. for his ticket, and took his pleasant 26 hour trip, which we taxpayers generously made possible.

You're welcome, Mr. Sharkey.  However, we can't afford these costs for you and those of you who are able to pay for such expensive tickets, so please don't do this again.  Take the two hour flight, and endure the inconveniences.  It costs you and the rest of us a lot less.

December 12, 2011

On a Long Train Trip, Rare Pleasures Return


I TRAVELED from Tampa, Fla., to Manhattan over the weekend. What a pleasure! Nobody hollered at me to sit down or turn off my electronic devices. Nobody warned me to obey all instructions from crew members.

“I didn’t get treated like a terrorist,” a man sipping a beer told me en route.

“Nobody patted me down,” added a woman, who joined the conversation.

O.K., the trip did take 26 hours, because it was by train — as opposed to more than two hours by air. I was experimenting with taking a long-distance train rather than flying. Would I do it again as a business traveler?

It depends. Clearly, a train on shorter-haul routes, like Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, makes great sense. But 26 hours to travel is a lot of time. I did rationalize it partly, though, by noting that I have to sleep anyway, and arriving at Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan is itself a significant convenience compared with arriving at the airport.

Given the length of the trip, I reserved a sleeper compartment. The private sleeper had two comfortable seats that could fold down into a bunk bed and a second bunk that ratcheted toward the ceiling when not in use. It also had a toilet, sink, a work table and an electrical outlet.

The fare was $480.80, which included four meals in the adjacent dining car. By comparison, one-way nonstop airline fares on that route ranged from $248 to $301 this week.

“We’re seeing more business travelers, usually on trips of about 500 miles but sometimes even all the way to New York,” said Dennis M. Lyons, an Amtrak product development officer. I ran into him at Union Station in Tampa as I was boarding the Silver Star, which travels about 1,500 miles from Miami to New York, with brief stops at about 20 cities along the way.

The Silver Star, one of more than a dozen of Amtrak’s long-haul trains, carried about 393,000 passengers in 2010, up 6 percent from 2009, Amtrak says.

Before boarding, I was skeptical about this adventure, but I have to report that the trip was more civilized than air travel and worth it this one time. The dining car menus offer a good range of selections. Communal dining — that is, you’re seated at a small table with strangers — was a nice change from the general social alienation of air travel.

Early the next morning, incidentally, I was astonished when the sleeper car’s affable porter, Thomas Clemo, tapped on my door to deliver The New York Times, one in a bundle that had been picked up at a stop in North Carolina.

Train travel has been much in the news lately, and the news is not good. For one thing, a consensus has developed, driven both by politics and simple economic reality, that America is probably not ready anytime soon to follow the lead of Europe and Asia in developing high-speed rail.

Congressional Republicans and others have been attacking various proposed rail projects as expensive boondoggles. In Florida, for example, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, rejected federal financing and scuttled a proposed $2 billion high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa, saying its costs were unrealistic.

In California, public support is declining for a proposed 520-mile high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco that would cost an estimated $98 billion to build. 

And about a year ago, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, canceled a project to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson River that would have cost an estimated $8.7 

Opponents of the huge spending required to achieve networks of high-speed trains argue that costs aside, none of the proposed projects, including one between Chicago and Detroit, would yield true high-speed trains, which travel at speeds above 150 miles an hour.

The one location where there is bipartisan support for at least an attempt at better-speed rail (if not true high-speed) is the Northeast Corridor, where trains on the 437-mile route from Washington to Boston attract more than a third of Amtrak’s national ridership. On that route, however, even Amtrak’s sleek Acela trains average speeds of a mere 75 miles an hour.

Because of population density and extensive urban transportation connections, the Northeast corridor is the “one region of the United States where high-speed rail makes the most sense,” Representative John L. Mica, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said in hearings last week. Still, given shrinking Amtrak subsidies, it isn’t clear even on the Northeast Corridor if track and other improvements can be made to speed things up.

Meanwhile, the heavily subsidized long-haul trains have passionate supporters. From a single trip on a long-haul train, I don’t know whether I’d call myself passionate, but I was certainly a happy customer, given that I was in no rush.

“You all have a good night now,” Kathy Raines, the helpful Amtrak employee who worked the lounge car said as a small group of us headed back to our compartments for the night.

I slept well in my bunk with the gentle sway of the car. My ear never heard the mournful wail that the sad ballads claim for a train whistle. Instead, I heard soft chords that reminded me more of Duke Ellington’s rhythms as the Silver Star sped up the coast through the dark.


No comments: