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Public Transportation Tue Jul 07 2009

High Speed Rail Is the Future (also, the past)

Why do conservatives hate trains? Not sure; but there's no doubt they do. Maybe they just love atomizing transportation, as they love atomizing everything else. But there's no doubt that high speed rail has been a solution to many of our infrastructure, congestion, and environmental problems, and that a lack of political courage has been the major stumbling block to its coming to fruition. There was a time when businessmen used to take the train everywhere; then the defunding of Amtrak in the 1970s essentially destroyed our country's rail infrastructure.

The folks at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, including my friend Dan Johnson-Weinberger, who I know has been chasing this issue for at least as long as I've known him, released a report last week detailing just how a Chicago-St. Louis high speed rail corridor could radically alter the conception of space in Illinois:

Trains traveling at 110 m.p.h. on Illinois' first high-speed corridor would make the 284-mile trip between Chicago and St. Louis in about four hours -- shaving 1 ½ hours off current travel times by Amtrak trains now running up to 79 m.p.h., according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

By going 220 m.p.h., however, those improved trip times would be cut roughly in half, to 1 hour and 52 minutes, according to the association. The estimate includes making intermediary stops in Champaign and Springfield, while providing customers with downtown-to-downtown service and beating the door-to-door trip times of airline travel.

The trip between Champaign and Chicago would take 45 minutes; and 90 minutes between Springfield and Chicago, the study said. The study estimated the cost of building the 220-m.p.h. Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor at $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars. It does not include the cost of new trains, maintenance facilities and other expenses.

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lexslamman / July 7, 2009 11:02 AM

Whenever someone comes up with workable solutions to improving living conditions in this country and to avoid the upcoming oil-pinch, conservatives dig their heels in and put their fingers in their ears and rail against the facts. The fact is that there is a bipartisan Surface Transportation Act of 2009 in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee right now that would put real money behind high speed rail and public transit, which is exactly what this country needs. The GOP is stuck in the pocket of the highway and airline lobbies, who conspired to destroy passenger rail in this country 60 years ago, and will stop at nothing to prevent it from coming to fruition now.

mike / July 7, 2009 2:27 PM

I've taken two high-speed trains in Europe. One connecting Paris and Amsterdam and another connecting Madrid and Barcelona. Clean, fast and comfortable. It would make way too much sense for our dumbassed country to do something so practical. People shouldn't have to fly to fricking St. Louis.

Good Luck / July 7, 2009 2:54 PM

How is it possible to say that high speed rail "has been a solution to many of our infrastructure, congestion, and environmental problems" if it hasn't been implemented?

That is what you call building a straw man.

Good Luck / July 7, 2009 4:11 PM

After searching for some ridership statistics, it looks like rail passengers from St. Louis to Chicago can range between 18,615 in July to 11,571 riders in November

Lets take the average and call it 15,000/month. Take that and multiply it by 12 and you have 180,000 per year. Since trains go both ways, lets assume that the reverse trip has the same ridership totals. That would equate to 360,000 riders per year.

Now take your cost of $11.5 billion (not including cost of new trains, maintenance facilities and other expenses) and divide that among 360,000 riders and you have $31,944 per ride. If you amortize that cost over 30 years, you still have costs of $1,064 per ride. Neither scenario seems like a good deal.

The other alternatives are to take a plane, which costs around $160 for a round trip or to drive in a car.

Not withstanding any new fuel standards, lets say you get awful gas mileage of 15 mpg. Traveling the 284 mile distance will take about 19 gallons of gas, and at $3 per gallon, it would cost $57 each way or $114 total.

Unless we are to assume that the marginal savings in travel time is equal to 10x the cost of the trip, then no market would support this model. It would have to heavily subisdized by taxpayers revenue in order to compete with the alternatives.

Its not that conservatives hate trains, its very likely that they find them as enjoyable as you do. Perhaps they also wax nostalgic about a time long ago when businessmen traveled by train, for whatever importance that means.

Its that conservatives have some grounding in economics. For a state that is experiencing a $30+ billion budgetary shortfall this year, this is a ridiculous proposal and its not surprising that your friend has been engaged on a Quixotic journey...

mike / July 7, 2009 4:11 PM

Oh my God, Good Luck is grammar nitpicking an article about high-speed rail. I am shocked! I't been a solution that has not yet been implemented. Soooooo confusing! Waaah.

Good Luck / July 7, 2009 4:17 PM

Mike, its actually not a solution if it doesn't fix a problem, or creates a larger problem by means of its implementation.

Its logic, not grammar, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt considering you've based your reasoning on two train trips you went on in Europe and a feeling that no one should be "forced" to fly to St. Louis (hint: they can also drive)

Ramsin / July 7, 2009 4:50 PM

You realize that you'd want to look at total commuters between StL and Chicago, not just rail riders, since you're trying to capture people who don't currently take rail because it's not worth it?

If the trip took only 1.5 hours, without the time to go to the airport, park, go through security, fly, then get out of the airport, you would capture a lot of fliers; and since the rail trip would be 3.5+ hours shorter than driving, while also allowing you to get work done on the train, you'd also capture lots of drivers, too.

Oh, also you'd need to factor in people commuting not just to St. Louis but people commuting to Champaign and Springfield.

And the reverse trips.

So while I don't have those numbers, I'm fairly certain that adding people who already take rail and buses to Springfield and Champaign (isn't there a university or something there?) plus people who would take the train rather than drive to those two places, plus people who would rather take a train that would allow them to get work done rather than drive, plus the airline travelers you'd capture, would throw your absurd and meaningless number of the "cost per trip" right out the window.

Good Luck / July 7, 2009 6:25 PM


Thats where conservatives and progressives/collectivists/whatever you call yourself are always going to disagree - cost per trip figures are not meaningless, nor absurd.

Its the difference between a profitable enterprise and a failing enterprise. When and where public funds are involved, there should be more scrutiny to the real economics, not "if you build it, they might come, hopefully, if its not too expensive" thinking.

It interesting that in one post you call attention to the fact that budget cuts actually mean that services will be cut, then in another, you advocate a multi-billion dollar program that has little business sense.

Even if you triple the ridership, you wouldn't break below doubling the next best alternative. Of course, there is nothing in the way of airlines simply cutting their costs to stimulate demand.

If your construct is to attract "commuters", that would then entail traveling on a regular basis. No one would pay close to a thousand dollars per week to "commute", so you would never attract those riders. They would simply relocate to somewhere closer.

Ramsin / July 7, 2009 6:41 PM

No, GL, yet again, you're reading only what you want to read.

The cost-per-trip is not meaningless; YOUR cost-per-trip FIGURE is meaningless. You chose a number--the current rail users--and tried to pass it off as the total commuters.

Triple the ridership? Maybe we'd quintuple it; maybe we'd create a whole new class of travelers. Maybe we'd capture people who would make the trip, were it quick and easy. Maybe the existence of the line would generate its own demand. My point wasn't that we shouldn't care about cost-per-trip; it was that your "analysis" of it was purposefully designed to generate an astronomical one.

Just as building a highway through a town now generates more business around the highway (not to mention increases residential density), if people could get from Springfield to downtown Chicago in less time than it takes to commute there in a car from most of Chicagoland, I think it would generate enormous amounts of NEW demand. I'm presuming you didn't factor this in to your "How many people take the rail trip right now is exactly how many would take it if a 220mph train ran the route, for the next thirty years" public policy analysis.

Good Luck / July 8, 2009 9:06 AM

Take a real world example - the Chunnel high speed train from London to Paris. The trip length is similar to what you describe, and aside from benefiting from governement subsidies, a one-way trip in second class will cost you either $98 or $131, depending on availability.

That cost structure relegates travel to non-cummuter travel. Again, there is no way a rational person would ever choose to pay, or have the ability to pay, that much in commuting costs.

So you may be able to increase recreational travel and re-route some business travel from airlines. However, you resort to some pie-in-the-sky, "if we build it, maybe they will come, maybe everybody will want jobs in St. Louis" naive thinking without coming up with a cogent reason for the increase in demand.

Your assumption is that a new channel of supply for a service that is already available will generate demand by itself.

Look at St. Louis' job figures
There aren't a significant number of new jobs available that aren't being supplied by St. Louis based workers. The reverse isn't any better, with Chicago's unemployment among the country's highest. Do you think eith of those figures will be better by imposing Cap and Trade? Higher business taxes?

Its a good example of where the economic thinking is way off the map and spending multiple billions in public funds on such a project would be gross incompetence in light of the current fiscal situation.

Ramsin / July 8, 2009 9:35 AM

First off, thanks for a civil response.

But it is still not the case that your model applies to the policy calculus here. There are many more factors than you are considering.

Adding a new source of supply to an existing market where there is already not sufficient demand is one thing; and yes, assuming you will generate more demand by fact of the nature of the new supply may be risky--but it is what we do all the time. It's why newspapers are failing but news consumption is through the roof. The internet (and blogs) generated a new demand.

Building high-speed rail has enormous attendant benefits in eliminating existing inefficiency. It reduces congestion, it saves consumers enormous amounts of money in fuel and car maintenance costs, and it saves taxpayers billions of dollars in road maintenance and policing costs even in the short term, much less in the long term. This is why the "cost-per-commuter" calculation you were using wasn't useful.

True, people won't be climbing over each other to get at the current St. Louis jobs market; but did St. Louis change after the canals that connected it to Lake Michigan? Did the exurbs change with the construction of the interstate highway system? To assume everything will remain static when we know for a fact that building a new, highly efficient and inexpensive to maintain transportation system is more naive than assuming a new high speed rail line is the answer to all of St. Louis' job problems.

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