Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Thoughts on the Amtrak accident

By now you've heard of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.  At least eight are dead and many more are hurt.  I expect that this will soon fade from the news because unlike airplane crashes, train accidents seem not to get the 24/7 over hype that you get from, say, a Malaysia Air crash.

Even though as many people are killed by trains.  Maybe more: at least 1400 dead in the last decade.

Passenger rail is a big problem, for several reasons: It's slower than air travel on all but a handful of routes (say, Boston city center to New York city center), and that's mostly because the TSA screening processes at airports add 60-90 minutes to the travel time.  This even applies to new rail technologies, like Japan's new Tokyo-Osaka 500 kph mag lev line. It's less convenient than air travel - the train only goes where there are tracks (duh!) while the airplane can fly to any place with an airport.  There are also many more departures by air than by rail, so the traveler will have many more options on when to go.  Lastly, it's much less expensive.  While rail ticket prices are competitive with air, they are heavily subsidized by government.  After all "sustainability" means "as long as the grants keep coming".

Can you think of any other mode of transportation that is still around despite that it is slower, less convenient, more expensive, and no safer than an alternative?  The question is why is it still here?

The answer is that rail projects give big shot politicians prestige projects where they can, say, entertain visiting big shots in the grand new terminal or on shiny new high speed trains.  High speed rail (and Light Rail) take money away from other transport projects that would, say, help the poor (e.g. increased urban bus frequency) to flatter the egos of those feeding from the public trough.  It's actually the best example I can think of why "Technocratic Government" (management by the highly educated) is a mirage.  A true technocratic government would kill Amtrak subsidies tomorrow and allocate the funds to something that would provide real value.


ASM826 said...

The state of passenger rail travel is a direct result of gov't intervention in the years after WWII. Regulations and money were both used to squeeze rail travel in favor of airlines and highways. You can, as they say, look it up.

Weetabix said...

Thanks, ASM - I've always wondered why rail travel in the denser (take that how you like) areas of the east wasn't more prominent.

We visited Europe in 2001, and the trains were excellent, affordable, and easy. I don't know that there were not gov subsidies making that so.

I'd think that, free of gov meddling, rail in densely populated areas should be affordable and convenient. But what do I know? I'm an engineer, not a mastermind manipulating the peons for their own good.

Borepatch said...

Weetabix, we also have a rail network that is highly optimized for freight, not passenger. A huge percentage of our freight goes by train.

In Europe, things are reversed. Most freight goes by truck. You can optimize the network for freight or for passengers, but not both.

We've chosen lower cost freight and passenger transport both - freight by rail and passenger by auto (short distance) or air (long haul). Europe has chosen both expensive passenger and freight modes.

Nosmo King said...

Freight by rail makes a lot of sense, people by rail, not so much anymore. I don't know exact ton/mile costs, but I'd wager - assuming the rail infrastructure is up to the task, which is questionable - it would make a lot more sense to put even more emphasis on long distance rail freight and abandon passenger rail. Trucks do very well at short haul (<600 mile, eg., 1-day-drive portal-to-portal), trains better at longer. Along the same lines, it would seem higher efficiency buses could easily replace <600 mile passenger rail. >600 mile = airplanes.

Then again, with the dead hand of government involved, not a chance.

Dave H said...

In my area passenger rail is burdened by having to use the same tracks as freight trains, and I believe the freights have priority.

My fiancee thought it would be a great way to travel down from Toronto to visit me a few years ago, until the train got held up at the border for two hours while they checked passports, and then they had to wait another two hours because a freight train was stuck on the tracks between Buffalo and here. We don't mess with the train any more.

In Canada rail travel is much better managed, but they have fewer urban centers to connect so they can spend what budget they have on fewer lines.

Jeffrey Smith said...

I am flying to Richmond tomorrow. I can fly there and arrive 9 hours after I leave my house(includes TSA time and waiting for the connecting flight at Charlotte--flying time is really about five hours) or take Amtrak and spend over 24 hours on the train, and pay about twice as much.

Why would I pick the train?

Train travel makes sense only on short haul, as in the route this derailment occurred on. Which is why Europe might seem better. Distances are shorter, in general, there.

Archer said...

@Jeffrey Smith:
A lot of European countries are smaller than some of our states. The distance-by-train across the state of Texas would take you through three or four European nations.

As they say: An Englishman thinks 100 miles is a long way; an American thinks 100 years is a long time.

It specifies England, but it could just as easily be applied to Europe in general.

Will said...

A complicating factor in passenger rail here in the US is that Standard Oil and others bought up almost all the short line trains and trollies in the early 1900's, and shut them down. They were direct competitors to automobiles and the oil companies.
Once you rip up those tracks, and sell off the right-of-ways, short haul rail is toast. This is one of the main reasons that Light Rail systems are so damn expensive, besides the fact that all the rolling stock comes from outside the USA.

Borepatch said...


Citation needed.

Amtrak is twice as expensive as driving. While I don't have numbers handy, Light Rail is famously expensive. Honolulu's soaring costs for its new light rail system can't really be chalked up to Standard Oil a century ago.

Overload in Colorado said...

The government subsidizes all modes of transportation. The rail is owned and maintained privately, while the .gov pays for roads and airports. Amtrak does own its rolling stock (trains).
So, to say that the government only subsidizes rail is a false or leading statement.

Another mode of transportation that is slower, less convenient, more expensive, and no safer than an alternative? Horses. Cruise Ships. Of course there are only a handful of transportation modes, so it was a loaded question.
Amtrak services some northern areas that has no other public transportation: no planes or buses.

Would it surprise you to know that there are more train stations than Primary airports?

You are correct that Amtrak is slower and more expensive than most airplane long distance travel.

Jeffrey Smith said...

Archer, I once compared maps. From Key West to Jacksonville is roughly the same as from "JohnO'Groat to Lands End", the length of the UK.

Paul Bonneau said...

All modes of transportation are subsidized. Auto travel is subsidized by the occupation of Iraq and constant meddling in the Middle East. And don't forget those "Bridges to Nowhere".

One wonders what transportation (and the structure of cities) would look like in a free market. Maybe we should try it some day.

Nosmo King said...

Since this is still active....saw something this AM I had not seen before - double decker containers on a train. The rail cars were not the usual simple flatbeds, but size-specific cars the length of long CONEXes and with recessed frames lowering the load to allow stacking them two high. Not encountering trains much, I have no idea how long this configuration has been around, but clearly someone is thinking about freight transport efficiency.

Archer said...

@Jeffrey Smith: Exactly! "Cross-country trip" has very different connotations to Brits than it does to Americans.

@Nosmo King: As someone who lives near a freight line (not close enough to always see it, per se, but we hear and sometimes feel it when a heavy load comes rumbling through), those double-stacked shipping container cars have been around for a while. I believe some of them feature a mechanism to adjust their overall length for longer or shorter containers.

But I agree, they do make freight transport more efficient (the train cars likely weigh as much or more than the containers they're carrying; minimizing the number of cars increases efficiency)) and it's good to see someone thinking about that.

Will said...


From the little I read this evening on the subject, Standard Oil was just one of the players involved. GM seems to head the lists of perps. Lots of controversy over who did what, some court cases, and probably some financial missteps by various rail entities appear to have conspired, directly and indirectly, to lead to the wholesale loss of urban and interurban rail systems. Not quite as clear cut as my memory said it was...

This link is fairly brief in laying out an overview of the history, but I think the author/site may have a left wing mindset, so bare that in mind:

To clarify my comment on light rail being expensive: Urban areas, that originally had rails, tended to run them down the middle of the street. That space should still exist, but newer areas quite often don't have it, so if it needs to run there, they generally go elevated, since that is the cheapest option compared to buying ground or doing tunnels.

Running from one city to another still has the same problem. Where do you put it? Buying a right-of-way after an area starts being used gets to being expensive. Run into a property owner who won't deal, and you have a big problem. Watching the Silicon Valley area add new freeways and Light Rail, and try to extend commuter train systems has been somewhat entertaining. The amount of money they toss around has been staggering, but the time frame is the real eye-opener. Get the eco-wackos involved, and it becomes decades to get any sort of results. They are their own worst enemy, since logic and facts are a dead language to them.