This is one of those articles that, at first blush, appears to confirm our worst fears about the California HSR project. But, upon a moment of reflection, we begin to draw additional conclusions. Before discussing those, I do want to share my agreement with Mr. Leckrone's basic contention: So let’s be frank here: If we cannot afford to fix up our roads and bridges, then how on earth can we afford to subsidize a luxury train for the few, in perpetuity, while the rest of us have to drive on roads and bridges that are left to rot?
First of all, Mr Leckrone, with an MS in transportation engineering has, with this career-limiting article, shot himself in the foot. Who in the rail industries would want to hire a guy who totally opposes taking money from the government to build a train, fast or slow?
Second, even as he seeks to correct some fudged numbers whereby he intends to belittle this project, he comes up with some strange calculations of his own. He says: A typical transit bus only gets 4 mpg -- which is the equivalent of 8 Chevy Cruzes (or 12 Toyota Priuses). The high-speed rail line in Florida, which has been cancelled, would have used 3.5 to 6.0 times as much energy as the cars they would have replaced!
I fail to follow the logic here. To begin with, those are the wrong metrics. It's an inversion of the CHSRA which also uses the wrong metrics to come up with their favorable fake statistics about the energy superiority of the HSR. Both the CHSRA and MR. Leckrone should be comparing passenger-miles as the constant utilizing different modalities. Of course a bus burns more gasoline than a Chevy Cruze. But what is the per-passenger differential? Basic transportation measures include time, distance and weight or analogous units. They should also include per-passenger per-mile costs.
Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Their respective energy consumption must be divided by the number of passengers carried, time and distance.
Actually, with railroad trains, I like to use, not the number of passengers, but deducted tare weight (empty train) from gross weight (weight of the whole fully loaded train). That gives us net weight, and that can become a constant among various modalities as well. What is the net weight capacity of each modality? That becomes one among several measures of energy efficiency. On that basis, we find passenger trains, even fancy high-speed ones, not longer quite so attractive. And this is so despite the fact that the tare weight of HSR is less than that of traditional passenger rail cars.
The point here is that passenger train advocates, particularly high-speed train ones, like to use the cost-benefit equations appropriate for freight rail but now arbitrarily apply them to passenger rail, and that's a false comparison. Freight rail is phenomenally cost-efficient; hence its profitability. But passenger rail is far less so, even though we pay far more per pound of people-load that the coal industry does with its shipped product.
I hope and pray that there are more competent cost-efficiency/benefit analyses out there that will finally give us some independent and honest numbers about the cost and fuel efficiencies of various transit modalities.
Bottom line? High-Speed Rail is surely the most expensive and least cost-efficient way to take a train. And we have yet to establish, by way of full-cost accounting, the relative cost/benefits of the other transit modalities. So far, all we have are the same meaningless numbers for HSR provided by the hucksters for the relative superiority of weight-loss and body-building products on TV. The word for that, in both cases, is scam.
GUEST COLUMN | SAM LECKRONE
OPINION: Spending money on a high-speed rail system in Michigan is an ill-conceived idea
Posted: Sun, Jan 22, 2012 : 8 a.m.
Topics: Opinion, News
I was reading Sandy Schopback’s guest column (“Ann Arbor and Michigan could learn a lesson from Europe on high-speed trains” -- AnnArbor.com, Sunday, Jan. 8). And as a young engineer with a master’s degree in transportation engineering from Purdue University and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan, I must respectfully disagree on the merits of high-speed rail in Michigan. In fact, I believe that the train should not be built at all, and that the money would be better spent on other uses.
The proposed high-speed train from Detroit to Chicago will not really be a high-speed train. It would be a slow-speed train, with a top speed of only 79 mph and an average speed of much less, about 60-65 mph when you take into account all of its stops (twelve in total, including Ann Arbor). And these stops are at Pontiac, Troy/Birmingham, Royal Oak, Detroit New Center, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Albion, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Dowagiac, Niles/South Bend, New Buffalo, Michigan City in Indiana, Hammond-Whiting in Indiana, and Chicago Union Station. That’s 16 stops in all, and 12 between Detroit and Chicago. Notice that towns like Ypsilanti and Chelsea are NOT on that list. So how did they pick the stations?
Also notice that I-94 has a posted speed limit of 70 mph, a design speed of 75 mph, and many people will exceed even the 75 mph design speed and actually go faster than the 79 mph that is the train’s top speed. I have made the trip myself, and almost all of the segments of I-94 in Michigan do flow at 75 mph and faster. What might slow me down is if I stop along I-94 to eat, to refuel, or to take a rest break. But consider that, if I were starting out at Exit 210 in Dearborn and head west from there along I-94 at the 70 mph speed limit, I would reach the Indiana state line in exactly three hours. About another hour and a half, and I will have reached downtown Chicago in a total time of 4.5 hours.
But the assumption that most trips are from downtown to downtown is fundamentally flawed. Many people actually have to go to suburban areas instead, and the point-to-point convenience that the car provides is much better than having to wait 30 minutes for a transfer from the train to the bus (for example, AATA's buses run on a 30-minute frequency), and realizing that in that time you could have arrived at your destination already. Because the automobile allows for point-to-point transportation on demand, which is something that no mass transit system can provide. Indeed, someday in the future, cars will be able to drive themselves (the technology is already here with Google’s driverless car) and at that point, the train will be completely obsolete.
What’s worse is when I actually look at MDOT’s high-speed rail grant application (<www.michigan.gov/documents/mdot/Michigan_Corridor_SDP_330329_7.pdf>). They hold that the train’s travel time, under the proposed conditions, would take 5 hours and 26 minutes. They state that the drive time is about 4.5 to 5 hours, and then they state that the drive time is “4 to 34 minutes slower than” the train’s 5 hours and 26 minutes. Even a third-grader can tell you that it’s wrong! Because the drive time will actually be FASTER than the proposed high-speed train -- by 26 to 56 minutes.
If you look at the same table for the airplane travel time, they state that it is 4 hours and 40 minutes, which is “14 minutes slower than” the train’s 5 hours and 26 minutes. This is starting to look suspicious! I then back-calculated the travel time comparisons, and then concluded that the numbers have been fudged.
The report does not even mention what the cost of the ticket would be. But I looked at Amtrak’s website, and they often charge up to $75 for a ticket from Detroit (or Ann Arbor) to Chicago. That’s more than double the cost of fuel, even at $4 per gallon. Google Maps reports the distance from Detroit to Chicago to be 286 miles; my 2011 Chevy Cruze gets 32 mpg, and at $4/gallon, I would spend $35.75 on fuel for the entire trip.
So is high-speed rail a worthwhile project? My answer is a clear NO! Because the train will not attract any riders from the existing modes of transportation. Let’s face it: Nobody will give up driving their cars on I-94 to ride a train that is slower than the freeway, especially when they would have to use a car at both ends of the trip. Worse, though, is when our leaders and our governmental agencies deliberately fudge the numbers to make the project LOOK like a worthwhile project, when it IS NOT a worthwhile project. This is a very clear misuse and misappropriation of our taxpayer money, especially when other more worthwhile projects have to do without.
Look at the state of our transportation system in Washtenaw County and in Southeast Michigan in general: Some of our roads are in bad shape, not just from a pavement condition standpoint, but from a capacity standpoint. Look at Michigan Avenue (US-12) between Ann Arbor and Saline. Look at US-23 between Ann Arbor and Brighton. Look at I-94 between US-23 and State Street. All of these roadways have needed widening and improvements as long as I have been alive! Also look at the bridge on Stadium Boulevard over State Street and the railroad tracks, near Michigan Stadium. Look at how bad of a shape it is in, and how it was so difficult to get the money to replace it. (Thankfully, they are finally getting around to replacing it.) This is where we ought to be spending our money, not on a high-speed train that obviously will not solve these problems.
Look at how many subsidies go into mass transit, especially rail transit; note that there is no transit system in the nation that even comes close to being economically sustainable, not even that of New York City. Note that the experience in Europe has been similar: roadways and cars have still attracted MUCH more travel than the high-speed rail system there. Also note that only two high-speed rail lines in the WORLD have ever broken even: Paris to Lyon, and Tokyo to Osaka. And also note that, contrary to popular belief, mass transit is NOT greener than the private automobile: A typical transit bus only gets 4 mpg -- which is the equivalent of 8 Chevy Cruzes (or 12 Toyota Priuses). The high-speed rail line in Florida, which has been cancelled, would have used 3.5 to 6.0 times as much energy as the cars they would have replaced!
Even Amtrak’s $75 ticket from Detroit to Chicago is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. So the high-speed rail system would likely have to be heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars in perpetuity -- and very few people would use it. So let’s be frank here: If we cannot afford to fix up our roads and bridges, then how on earth can we afford to subsidize a luxury train for the few, in perpetuity, while the rest of us have to drive on roads and bridges that are left to rot?
Sam Leckrone is a life-long Ypsilanti resident.