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Friday, September 3, 2010

Going nowhere fast

I love trains -- but not when I think about how much they're costing taxpayers.

Comments (24)

Trains make sense down heavily traveled corridors between cities that are no more than 3 or 4 hours apart by car.

I lived in the northeast Amtrak corridor for a number of years and I guarantee you taking the train to NY or to Wash, DC. made a lot of sense to me and persuaded me to leave my car at home. By the time, you added parking at either end to gas plus waiting time in at least one parking jam per trip, the cost of the train was a wash. Plus you could work on your laptop on the way. For several months, I was part of a team at my workplace that met every couple of weeks with a partner in NY. We used the train ride to have a committee meeting at a table in the dining car to iron out our strategy for each meeting. On the way back, we made our working plans to meet our goals in time for the next meeting -- and the next strategy meeting on the train. Cheap and productive. Can't do that on a plane or even in a car, if one team member is driving in tough traffic.

I wish the Eugene to Seattle train was as well used. Of course, they need to figure out a way to keep landslides from closing the tracks.

There are all sorts of corridors around the nation where trains could be very effective and more cost efficient (notice I didn't say deficit-free) than other alternatives.

But real trains, not the toy ones, which I liked at first but have come to view as unending drains on the public purse as well as crime magnets. Keeping the bus service as robust as possible is a better solution that costs a lot less.

I get it. I feel exactly the same about roads.

With roads I think to myself, "This is the way the vast, vast majority of people get around -- and how they want to get around. I'm glad I live in a democracy." I don't get that feeling with trains.

Jack: I'm looking for the "like" button on the above comment.

Trains have their place, but like every other investment in the world, you reach an amount where the expense tips from worth it, to not worth it. A train might make sense at X dollars and no sense at all at 2X dollars.

I think we, and apparently California, are starting to realize that we're being asked to pay 2X dollars to build these things, and then take money from buses to keep them running.

My wife and I traveled around Japan a few years ago, and the train experience there cannot be beat. Metro, regional, nationwide--they've got it down. It is a shame and truly pathetic that America simply has lost the "can do" attitude and just refuses to build a decent rail network. It takes us decades to build a stupid bridge over the Columbia, one only shudders to think how long it would take to build a nationwide (or even a collection of regional) rail network.

Dave J. - I'll love trains when those who use them pay for them. Meanwhile for those of us who live inconveniently located for Tri-Met's pet toys, it's either cars or buses (and oh wait, I cannot commute by bus from here) so why should I subsidize someone else's commute in oh so many ways?

Just think, the entire federal outlay for Amtrak since its formation is STILL less than the bailout money given to the airlines JUST in 2001-2002 alone to help them get through the post-9/11 period.

And Amtrak has never busted a union or paid an executive large dollars to break a deal or run his company into the ground.

If you want to live in a continent-size nation that has no passenger rail options except for a few high-traffic corridors, well, just keep complaining about all the waste on Amtrak while, all over America, FAA and local gangsters like Port of Portland rape taxpayers day and night for sums that far exceed what goes to Amtrak.

GAS - Real trains are one thing... Tri-Met tinker toys are another.... I think we should have mag-levs or shinkansen type trains for long distance travel.... less pollution than the buses in the sky... and nicer scenery

Luc, read the Enthoven article linked to in the original post -- they're upset about the High Speed Rail proposal that voters passed in CA, which your comment suggests you would support. This isn't about tourist choo-choos in the Pearl.

I actually find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with the gist of this article (the CA high-speed rail proposal is a bad idea) while disagreeing with everything else that Enthoven writes. And his final conclusion is laughable -- suggesting that CA doesn't need rail between SF and LA because "We've got plenty of airports" is absurd.

Still, for CA and certainly for the US as a whole, and especially for Oregon, I would take every dollar that says "high speed rail" and use it to restore a viable rail network coast-to-coast. "Low speed" (up to 79 mph) is fine if the tracks are in good condition; speeds up to 120 mph are easily attained with existing equipment and some right-of-way isolation. I'm afraid that, in much of the US, the window closed on true high-speed rail when the Interstate Highway System was built without consideration of how to integrate the two pieces together. The sprawl that the IHS created makes right-of-way acquisition for real high-speed rail prohibitive just about anywhere where the economics of high-speed would otherwise work.

In other words, "You can't get there from here." Sad, but true.

We are not going to be the world's wealthiest nation soon; we're already not #1 per capita. Soon we're going to be doing a lot of what Britain did after WWII -- figuring out what we can keep from our glory days as Top Dog, now that we're not. Of all the things we should keep, a viable, robust, pervasive rail system is just about #1, as it provides benefits in every sector (social, economic, political, environmental).

Which is probably why we won't do it -- we'll squander our money on electric car foolishness and biofuel fantasies until the money runs out, when we'll find that we are too broke to double back and rebuild the rail network.

High-speed rail is just another high visibility and mass casualty target for terrorists, both foreign and domestic.

If we build it, they will derail it. Probably with a truck holding accelerants and/or toxins.

GAS - I am well aware that we are following in the steps of Great Britain in terms of becoming a declining power. Even had an extemporaneous discussion on that very subject with a total stranger in the RH Freddy's earlier today.

As for railroads, one of my great-grandfathers owned a short haul line. Another died working on a railroad and because he was an uneducated immigrant his family got nothing in terms of a settlement. And I've been in the engine room of a shinkansen - part of my fun and unusual adventures in this world. 120 mph is not really that fast on rails. MagLev (faster) makes more sense in some ways but it's a lot more expensive technology.

Mr. Tee - conspiracy theory much? Oh... those terrorist booeymen... they're hiding in the woodwork so let's suspend everyone's constitutional rights...

Sounds like we're in violent agreement then that trains can be worthwhile. My only point is that, in this country, with our previous (mis)investments in carburban sprawl, talking about even a 120 mph train system is about like talking about individual jet packs for everyone. The best thing we can do is not allow the rail infrastructure to decay further and to shoot for trying to replicate the system that was there in your great-grandpappy's day -- we could feel well pleased with ourselves if we can do that. High speed rail is like the B-1 bomber -- it ends up being a negative for the force that owns it, just because of its cost cancelling out so many other necessary investments.

I'm glad I live in a democracy

I missed that you'd left the country. Where are you now?

Can we get back to the trains? They're a money pit.

The thought I have is that all forms of transportation are heavily subsidized, both directly from government expenditures and indirectly through externalized costs (traffic delays and gulf oil accidents come to mind. If a majority in the US prefer long distance travel by auto it may be at least in part because they have not had the experience of a good alternative. Take Brussels to Paris as an example. It's a four hour drive, much like Portland to Seattle, with comparable potential for traffic delays. The high-speed train runs from city center to city center in 90 minutes, ten or so times a day each way. This has replaced air service between the two cities altogether. Does it pay for itself? No more than anything else. But it beats the daylights out of slow, tedious, tiring and dangerous travel confined in a small metal box.

I rode the Acela between New York and D.C. recently, and it's by far the best way to get between those two points. That's always been a good corridor for passenger rail, however. To try it on the West Coast would be a huge gamble, and I think our gamblin' money's pretty much been spent. Compared to "urban renewal," though, it almost looks reasonable.

George Anonymuncule Seldes: Of all the things we should keep, a viable, robust, pervasive rail system is just about #1, as it provides benefits in every sector (social, economic, political, environmental).
JK: Why keep something that does not deliver a value equal to or greater than its cost? If it wasn’t a waste of money, users would be willing to pay their real, full cost. You know, like the freight rail mostly pays its full cost and turns a profit.

Factoid: Trimet carries more passengers every day than Amtrak!

George Anonymuncule Seldes: My only point is that, in this country, with our previous (mis)investments in carburban sprawl,
JK: What (mis)investments?? Sprawl was mostly paid for by the inhabitants of sprawl, not third party non-users as is being proposed for the high speed toy trains set. And “sprawl” dwellers got freedom from big city crime, better schools, lower costs and larger living space - a better place to raise a family.

Allan L.: The thought I have is that all forms of transportation are heavily subsidized,
JK: Some more than other. Cars about $0.07/passenger-mile; transit about $0.40 / passenger-mile; Amtrak is in the same ballpark as transit. See Mark Delucchi, ACCESS NUMBER 16 • SPRING 2000, page 12 or

Allan L.: both directly from government expenditures and indirectly through externalized costs (traffic delays and gulf oil accidents come to mind.
JK: Delucchi included all of that. see above.

Allan L.: Take Brussels to Paris as an example. It's a four hour drive, much like Portland to Seattle, with comparable potential for traffic delays. The high-speed train runs from city center to city center in 90 minutes, ten or so times a day each way.
JK: The four hour drive is only slightly subsidized while the rail is highly subsidized and probably uses more energy. What is the point of spending tax money on something that costs more than driving and uses more energy? And what about the majority of people who DO NOT live in the city center? For those who have been sucking up Portland Planner Pablum: European cites sprawl too - most people live in the suburbs and drive cars. EU-15 transit share is shrinking as cars account for 78% of motorized travel. See:

Allan L.: This has replaced air service between the two cities altogether.
JK: You mean they no longer have air service between these two cities??? I think you need to show us some evidence of that claim.

Allan L.: Does it pay for itself? No more than anything else.
JK: There are degrees of tax subsidy and trains are on the high end and cars on the low end. And intercity buses, unlike trains, turn a profit!!

Allan L.: But it beats the daylights out of slow, tedious, tiring and dangerous travel confined in a small metal box.
JK: Is that a car or airplane? And does the train get you to your destination’s doorstep? And does the train leave from your front door? What happens to the travel time when you include these times? And the waiting time for the next train and the fact that you have to arrive early, find a parking space, schlepp your luggage to the terminal, wait in line for a ticket then for check in then to board the train? (Or do you spend more money and time on a taxi?) Bottom line: how big is the time advantage when you consider door to door? Oh, and by the way, be sure to add the time and cost of a rental car at your destination! (Do you recall those drive to Seattle vs. fly comparisons a few years ago where driving was as fast because it was direct door to door?)


As a regular reader of, one of their main contributor's, Robert Cruickshank, has a blog about high speed rail in California.

Here is Cruickshank's rebuttal of Alain Enthoven and William Grindley's op-ed in the SF Chronicle:

Basically, Cruickshank's whole premise is that critics of US high speed rail ignore the success of high speed rail in Europea and Asia, Japan specifically.

Where Cruickshank errors is where many Progressives error in their thinking. The land mass of individual European countries is a fraction of the total land mass of the USA (9,826,675 sq km). Source:

Here you go on individual countries:

Spain - 505,370 sq km. Slightly more than twice the size of Oregon.

Germany - 357,022 sq km. Slightly smaller than Montana

France - 643,427 sq km. Slightly less than twice the size of Colorado.

United Kingdom - 243,610 sq km. Slightly smaller than Oregon.

Japan - 377,915 sq km. Slightly smaller than California.


Anyone who advocates rail transit in the United States should be honest in acknowledging that those countries who are leaders in high speed rail do not even have a quarter of the land mass as the entire United States.

Instead, we get a lot of wishful thinking. What works in Japan and individual European countries will not work here because of our total land mass, our history of rugged individualism, and a lack of history of a strong, centralized socialist government.

Jim Karlock: I was mistaken. There seems to be one nonstop flight on weekdays at least on Brussels Airline. All the others require a change of planes in Frankfurt which iirc is farther from both Paris and brussels than they are from each other. Source is Travelocity.


How do you conflate "suspend(ing) everyone's consititutional rights" with my pointing out that a train moving at 200 MPH would be a very tempting target?

It holds more people than a plane, it never leaves the ground (much more accessible to target), and it's going fast enough that putting a Class 8 truck on the tracks will most likely result in catastrophe. If the truck is hauling gasoline or hydrogen, it will damage more than the semi.

It happens so routinely (truck on train accidents), you can't truly believe the terrorists wouldn't be tempted? I think my consititutional rights are violated everytime I have to remove my shoes at the airport: and I don't feel one little bit safer.

And I think it would more likely be a domestic terrorist than a foreign one. Why? Because they're are so many freak show candidates in California to begin with. At least one of them is going to be pissed off the train runs through his backyard, and the idea of a giant-sized penny on the rail is just too tempting.

Tee, if you look at the real high-speed rail systems abroad, they are totally isolated -- no at-grade crossings, etc. That's essential to operating high-speed rail. And that's why it's pretty much a fantasy for the US.

Ryan Voluntad gets it. The corollary to the size of land mass, is of course, population density. The American west has very very low population density. A high speed line from Portland to San Fran would be the same length and construction expense as one running the length of Japan, but it would serve... who exactly? Yreka?

Again the problem with this discussion, as with so many transit discussions in Portland, is it avoids the question of cost. The discussion is always binary here: rail is good, or it is bad. Bikes are good, or they are bad. Bioswales are good, or they are bad.

The real question is, "at what price is it good or bad?"


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