8.2.11

PERFECT THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD?  The Obama administration continues to push for faster passenger trains.
Vice President Joseph Biden laid out details of the plan in Philadelphia today. He pitched the plan as necessary to keep America competitive with the rest of the world.
“We cannot compromise. The rest of the world is not compromising,” he said.
The Opposition is not interested in compromising.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the house committee that oversees transportation policy, quickly blasted the plan. “Rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested corridor in the nation and the only corridor owned by the federal government, the administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects,” he said.
Would the right honorable gentleman be willing to review the Federal Railroad Administration's safety regulations, to permit faster operation of trains on the existing tracks?

In New Hampshire, the Opposition is not interested in providing commuter rail service to Boston.
The plan would extend Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Lowell Line from Lowell, Mass., to Nashua, N.H.


“If it made sense, the private sector would do it,” said Rep. Donald McGuire, R-Epsom, author of the bill to shut down the extension. McGuire’s bill would repeal the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, which the legislature created four years ago with bipartisan support from Nashua-area legislators.
This private sector talk is misleading ... where are the private sector roads in New Hampshire?  Perhaps the commuter service does not have a positive benefit-cost ratio, but let's evaluate the project on that basis, not on some faith in invisible hands against a history of using public money on internal improvements.

And let's evaluate the benefit-cost ratios on a sensible basis.  In National Review, Wendell Cox (via Newmark's Door) sees nothing but doom behind Passenger Rail projects.
Among intercity transport modes, only Amtrak is materially subsidized. User fees pay virtually all the costs of airlines and airports, which (together with connecting ground transportation) link any two points in the nation within a day. The intercity highway system goes everywhere, and nearly all of it was built with user fees paid by drivers, truckers, and bus companies.
The Interstate Highway System is nothing without the city street network, and last time I checked, property tax payers were being assessed for street repairs (and in most jurisdictions it's more than $40 per house and $115 per hotel).  With the Little Ice Age setting in, states and cities are exceeding their budget for plowing and salting, and I don't see the invisible hand refilling those accounts.  Again, if you want to call a service self-sustaining, make a proper accounting of the costs and benefits, and the hidden subsidies.
High-speed rail is a budget buster. Japan, with the world’s leading system, illustrates the financial devastation that high-speed rail can produce. For 25 years, Japan borrowed to build a system serving the ideal rail corridor, nestled along a single coast with a population of more than 75 million people. Ridership was artificially increased by high gasoline prices and one of the highest highway tolls in the world. Yet this modest system, only twice as long as proposed California system, played a major role in driving up a gargantuan rail debt that was transferred to Japanese taxpayers. The rail debt added more than 10 percent to the national debt. This is akin to adding $1.4 trillion to the U.S. national debt.


Virtually everywhere high-speed rail has been constructed, financial liability has fallen to the taxpayers. In Taiwan and the United Kingdom, taxpayers assumed billions of dollars in private debts for much more modest high-speed-rail systems than Japan’s.
Perhaps so.  On a fully allocated benefit-cost basis, passenger rail might still be a proper use of resources.  Rail passengers can avoid parking charges ... I once astonished a British O Scaler who was attempting to make sense of London's urban access charges with my description of Chicago parking charges and the effect those had on Metra ridership; that, yes, and rail passengers are able to work from their seats without being traffic hazards.  Without being annoying is another matter, the Metra monthly commuter newsletter is full of whinges about cell-phone yakkers and self-important types who turn the walkover seats to create a small office.

4 comments:

David Foster said...

Current law requires broad implementation of Positive Train Control technology by 2015...surely PTC meets the requirements for exceeding the 79mph speed limit?

Sounds like there are still some technical issues in play, and I'm not sure I'd want to bet on a 2015 completion date. But perhaps it would be better to spend money accelerating PTC implementation--allowing higher speeds on existing lines and also increasing traffic capacity for both passenger and freight--than to spend it on very expensive new dedicated HSR routes...which the environmentalists and NIMBYs aren't going to allow to get built in less than several decades, anyhow.

Stephen Karlson said...

Yes, positive train control does, and there are opportunities for mutual benefit between the freight railroads and the Passenger Rail authorities (not necessarily Amtrak) in getting that done.

The other kickers are track structure, grade crossing timing, and grade separation at major roads. A 110 mph steam-powered Hiawatha on jointed rail ballasted with fine gravel and relying on whistle signals only at road crossings is against the law in more ways than I dare contemplate.

David Foster said...

"110 mph steam-powered Hiawatha on jointed rail ballasted with fine gravel and relying on whistle signals only at road crossings is against the law in more ways than I dare contemplate"

All of these laws passed, I feel certain, for the improvement of safety. But to the extent that they have collectively made passenger rail travel less attractive and redirected travel-miles to cars, they have probably actually had a *negative* effect on overall transportation safety.

Stephen Karlson said...

Do I detect the influence of Sam Peltzman?

The regulations mandating 79 mph on signalled track, with cab signalling and train stop and train control for higher speeds were responses to some fatal crashes on fast railroads, including one on the Pennsy near Elizabeth, N. J. and one on the Burlington near Lisle, Ill. That other railroads had safe records at those speeds didn't matter, and many of those railroads took the new regulations as one more reason to withdraw from the passenger business.