High-Speed Rail Myths Debunked… Again

You certainly have noticed how the media and tens of millions of people on the political left are always advocating for a high-speed Euro-type rail-passenger service in America. They say that such a system will be “energy efficient” and will “save the environment” from our wasteful cars.

But the fact is that few of these trains are ever going to be built. Their time has passed. Even one of the leading railroad journalists in America, Fred W. Frailey, wrote a column in the March 2011 Trains magazine entitled ‘The Curtain Goes Down on US High-Speed Rail’

(Type ‘utopian schemes’ in the search box at the top of this page to read about a California rail project that is not likely ever to be built, in the column called Two Utopian Schemes Failing…. Thankfully)

And never do these advocates study the actual facts about passenger rail transportation – that it is hugely expensive and very energy-INefficient. Those European trains use large amounts of energy as well as taxpayer dollars. And even in the heyday of the California Zephyr and other famous trains after World War II, the freight railroads that operated all those 'name' passenger trains wanted to get rid of passenger service because it was expensive and wasteful.

First, make a mental map of America in your mind. If you drive from Vermont to St. Louis, you would drive direct along a diagonal. But if you take an Amtrak train, you may get routed straight south to Washington, DC and then straight west. In other words, in much of mass transit you end up going many more miles to get to the same location as you would in a car.

Is this efficient?

No. And every extra mile traveled on a train costs three very important things – money, time and energy (as in total fuel consumption for your trip). This is something the rail advocates never tell you.

This is why automobiles are in many cases the most efficient way to travel contrary to the anti-car propaganda put out by the enviro movement and Amtrak lovers. In our modern society, time is money and cars get you from Point A to Point B directly and in short order, without going to Point C in between.

And the fact is that passenger trains are very, very heavy and inefficient. Forget everything they tell you. Trains weigh a lot. And they use large amounts of energy to move.

Here are some facts about passenger trains: The average Amtrak locomotive today weighs about 150 tons. The average Amtrak passenger car weighs about 65 tons. So an Amtrak train with one locomotive and six cars weighs about 540 tons, or 1.08 million pounds. That is just for the train. That does not include one single passenger. Often these trains have two locomotives, which makes their economics much worse. But we will say just one locomotive for this example.

If the six cars carry a total of 500 passengers at an average of 170 pounds for each passenger, the ratio of train weight to passenger weight is 13 to 1. If the train carries 1,000 passengers, the ratio is 6.5 to 1. If the train carries 250 passengers, the ratio is 26 to 1.

The average Toyota Corolla made today weighs about 2,600 pounds or 1.30 tons. The average Ford F-150 pickup weighs almost 5,000 pounds, or 2.5 tons. So let’s say the average car in America is halfway in between at, say, 3,800 pounds.

So if the average car carries a light load – just the driver – at an average weight of 170 pounds, the ratio of car weight to passenger weight is about 22 to 1, which is more efficient that a lightly-loaded Amtrak train (26 to 1), in terms of vehicle weight/passenger weight alone.

Imagine that! A mid-sized automobile that is more efficient that an “energy efficient” train.

If the car carries two passengers, the ratio is 11 to 1. If the car carries four passengers, the ratio is 5.5 to 1. Wow… With four passengers, the heavily-loaded passenger car is more efficient weight-wise than a heavily-loaded Amtrak train!

Of course, there are big energy savings in moving large numbers of people by train. It is called Economies of Scale. Trains also move on low-friction steel wheels on steel rails. But whenever a train runs below a certain capacity – which Amtrak trains often do – they do not save energy; they actually waste energy compared to cars. Because every automobile at least carries one person on an errand, on a trip etc., i.e., the driver. So a car never really "wastes" energy.

So this weight/ratio question is interesting to think about in the overall debate about efficiency.

Then consider this fact: If you ride an Amtrak train on a trip to see Grandma, you often need to drive a distance – sometimes a long distance – to the station at the departure end. Or you must have someone drive a round trip to take you to the station. The same on your return. And ditto on the other end at Grandma’s. All this extra energy use must be accounted for in the “energy efficiency” equation about passenger trains.

If you drive your car direct to Grandma's door to door, however, you just have the car’s energy consumption to think about, not Car + Train energy efficiency. And if the train is not loaded up to a certain point with passengers (see excerpt from Heritage Foundation study below) it wastes energy.

Now think if you put Dad, Mom and three kids in the car and they go directly to Grandma’s house. They do not have to go out of their way to Point C, sometimes long distances, wasting time, energy and money on a train. They do not have to buy five separate and expensive Amtrak tickets, all booked in advance and fixed in time without opportunity for change, for which the taxpayers shells out $250 in addition to the price the family pays for the tickets ($50 government subsidy for every Amtrak ticket sold).

OK, what about intercity passenger buses?

Well, of course they are ignored by the media and the left because they are not “European” enough.

But buses are vastly more energy-efficient than Amtrak ever will be (see excerpts from Heritage and Cato studies below). And you can go to the counter and buy a bus ticket and ride at any time, no advanced reservations needed. Second, buses are always much cheaper than Amtrak even after the taxpayer subsidy kicks in. Third buses serve many more towns and cities than Amtrak does. Fourth, buses take virtually zero government subsidy.

Amazing is it not that intercity buses stay in business and in fact today are thriving economically.

Why?

Because they are not run by the government.

The Rail Nuts hate buses, however, because buses are in the private sector, they make a profit, and are not ‘Euro’ enough, even though buses are common in Europe. And never mind that buses are the most common form of mass transit throughout the world.

The Rail Nuts hate buses because they think of buses as “low class” and for “common people”. Most college professors today in America would not deign to ride a bus unless they ride them in, say, Guatemala or some other Third World nation where they can mingle with the “common people” and then post pictures of their Third World adventure on the internet to show us how proletarian they are.

There currently are 40 major and minor intercity bus lines in America (Greyhound, Trailways, Peter Pan etc.)

Here is an excerpt from the executive summary of a Cato Institute report called Intercity Buses, The Forgotten Mode by Randal O’Toole, June 29, 2011:

 In 2006, scheduled intercity bus service reached its lowest level in decades, yet intercity buses still carried almost three times as many passenger miles as Amtrak. Since then, intercity buses have become the nation’s fastest-growing transportation mode, with ridership growing almost twice as fast as Amtrak.

Intercity buses carry at least 50 percent more passenger miles than Amtrak in Amtrak’s showcase Northeast Corridor. They do so with almost no subsidies and at fares that are about a third of Amtrak’s regular train fares and little more than 10 percent of Amtrak’s high-speed Acela fares. Intercity buses are safe and environ­mentally friendly, suffering almost 80 percent fewer fatalities per billion passenger miles than Amtrak and using 60 percent less energy per passenger mile than Amtrak.’

Yet how often do you hear about buses?

Never. Because the media are too busy slobbering all over these ridiculous ‘high-speed rail’ projects that will be nothing but taxpayer-funded boondoggles.

According to a report published September 20, 2007 on the Heritage Foundation website (heritage.org) called Congress Should Link Amtrak's Generous Subsidy to Improved Performance by Ronald Utt, Ph.D, the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation:

‘The absence of (Amtrak) passengers is a system-wide problem. In the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak has invested heavily in Acela to provide quality and timely service in that corridor, the FY 2006 load factor was only 45 percent for all trains serving that route, which is below the 47.6 percent system-wide average and significantly below the 76.8 percent load factor for scheduled airlines.

…Perhaps because of data problems, 2000 is the most recent year for which Oak Ridge has provided information on bus performance. As Table 3 shows, intercity buses consumed an estimated 932 BTUs per passenger mile in 2000, compared to Amtrak's 3,253 BTUs per passenger mile, making buses almost four times more energy-efficient than rail.’

Wow. Amazing. So buses in America today are far superior to Amtrak. They do not need any multi-billion-dollar new track system like the Rail Nuts are proposing for their ‘high-speed passenger rail’ system. You buy a bus and start a new route. Bingo. Case closed. All aboard.

In a place like Vermont, however, the Rail Kooks are not giving up. In fact they are doubling down. In one case they wish to upgrade just 55 miles of low-speed freight train tracks at a huge taxpayer cost so that they can institute subsidized rail passenger service between the small cities of Rutland and Bennington and connect to New York City. Yet buses already serve that route several times per day, have done so for almost 100 years, and require no operating subsidy and no expensive track upgrades or new track corridors.

And look at this amazing quote on railvermont.org:

‘Passenger trains are 20-40% more efficient. But consider: if the train is already going there, the carbon footprint of you riding it is *zero* !’

Can you believe that they say stuff like this with a straight face?

Because this is utter rubbish. This is grade-school thinking that comes out of an enviro pamphlet. That is like saying that the plane is already going from New York to San Francisco so that you as a passenger are not using any fuel because the plane already is going there!

This is unvarnished insanity. But this is the kind of propaganda that these people put out every day. And they literally believe this. It is crazy talk. And their high-speed rail propaganda is the same stuff. We should ignore it and defeat these high-speed rail plans wherever we can

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