Cars, Planes and Buses Serve Us Well – Passenger Trains Don’t

What nation has by far the biggest and most efficient railroad network on the planet?

We are trained to reflexively think that the answer certainly is Germany or Japan or even China. But the answer is the USA. Our freight railroad system is the envy of the world that does not take any government money except for some small local or regional public/private partnerships.

Most people know nothing about this system because it is part of our industrial infrastructure that operates in the background of our lives and is in the private sector and is thus never discussed by the media.

Today this system has 22,000 locomotives, 140,000 miles of track, 1.5 million freight cars and it generates $55 billion a year in revenues. Most freight trains run on passenger-train-type schedules, arriving and departing at fixed times, for instance Chicago-Los Angeles.

From the early days of railroading in the 1830s these systems have been vital to the American economy. Going into the 1970s, however, government regulations had practically destroyed the freight railroad system in the following ways:

*The federal government was regulating routes such that a railroad could not abandon one single mile of track without government permission. The Interstate Commerce Commission often took years to make decisions as the railroads bled cash on money-losing routes.

*The government was forcing the freight railroads to continue running passenger services that were losing boatloads of money since virtually all Americans were traveling by car, bus or plane.

*Worst of all, the government set the rates that railroads could charge for hauling freight. This alone was enough to destroy the railroads.

But wait. There’s more. The railroad unions and their crazy work rules, also emanating from the socialist left, were requiring, for instance, 3-man or 4-man or 5-man crews on trains that could have been run with two.

For decades the unions fought every single labor efficiency while outrageous wage demands and constant strikes put many smaller lines under financial pressure or right out of business. They put the big lines under pressure too and drained away precious capital. That is why so much rail infrastructure deteriorated.

By the early 1970s many of the major freight railroads had gone belly up including the behemoth New York Central and the mighty Pennsylvania, the ‘Standard Railroad of the World’. Even the colossal Southern Pacific, “the railroad that built California” was a declining system with decrepit motive power and deteriorating tracks. Its president Benjamin Biaggini was expecting nationalization.

The theory behind government control was that the railroads were considered to be public utilities that could not be trusted to manage their own affairs. Yet since deregulation in 1980 under the Staggers Act the freight railroads have flourished and modernized, unions have been restrained, rates for shipping have fallen substantially (contrary to the socialist theory) while unprofitable routes have been picked up by local and regional entrepreneurs and made profitable (contrary to theory).

In short, the deregulated system serves us much, much better than the highly regulated one. As usual.

Today’s modern rail freight system is dominated by The Big Four – Union Pacific and BNSF in the West; and Norfolk Southern and CSX in the East. Other lines include Canadian National (now a private company operating in both countries), Kansas City Southern and hundreds of regional and local lines. Search for any of these companies on the internet. It is very interesting reading.

They cover the Lower 48 with an amazing network that gets better and better every year. These systems are being upgraded substantially on an ongoing basis.

Today’s freight trains run at high speed on steel “ribbon rails” that are a quarter-mile long and welded at the ends. No more clickety-clack. And more miles of track every year are running on super-durable and stable concrete cross ties, creating railroad superhighways.

These freight railroads have computerized car tracking systems, and dispatching and signaling systems using the latest technology. They have all the newest, most efficient locomotives and they move 1.9 TRILLION ton/miles of freight per year, everything from coal to chemicals to oil to new cars to steel to grain to food products like fresh produce going from California to the East Coast.

The newest development in freight railroading is the wave of the future – the so-called “intermodal” network where standardized containers can be put on wheels for truck delivery on the highway; loaded onto trains for long-distance trips at much better fuel efficiency, labor efficiency and cost efficiency than trucks; or transloaded onto ships for travel across the oceans. The whole global transportation system is now adopting uniform 53-foot intermodal containers whose design was originated in the United States.

Intermodal is going to shift more and more US traffic from trucks on the highways to the rails, freeing up highways for car travel. Above is an intermodal train on its route from New York/New Jersey to Chicago.

American freight trains move 1.5 times as much cargo as trucks do on an annual ton/miles basis. They are three times as fuel-efficient as trucks, or more. Higher fuels costs are pushing more and more traffic to the rails.

Liberals have been saying for decades now that the United States needs a high-speed intercity passenger train network. This is nonsense. These types of systems are very inefficient and they consume huge amounts of taxpayer cash all over the world; hardly any passenger train systems anywhere make a profit. Even the Japanese Bullet Train system was privatized after 25 years of operation because it was losing so much taxpayer money.

Second, liberals totally ignore the efficiency of the freight rail network because it is in the private sector and it works like a charm while they never acknowledge success in the capitalist sector.

Third, a high-speed passenger system would need separate tracks. And if you wanted to build such a system between, say, New York City and Washington, DC you would need to bulldoze thousands of neighborhoods along the route to install the new corridor through the densely populated areas of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

Fourth, high-speed passenger systems in the US would need to be funded by the government because no private investors will touch them. Because they would lose so much money.

Ultimately most of this system won’t get built. And that is a good thing. But the liberals still want these trains.

Just look at the horrible Amtrak system and you understand it.

Amtrak sells only 28 million tickets per year (compared to 780 million tickets for the airlines) and is run primarily to funnel cash to unionized Amtrak employees while the train riders suffer with a terrible system. Amtrak has a horrible on-time record, old equipment that breaks down frequently, and rude employees who are protected by their union.

Even in the much-vaunted Northeast Corridor of Boston – New York – Washington private intercity buses (including Trailways, Greyhound and a new generation of ‘curbside’ operators that do not even have terminals) carry 1.5 times as many passengers as Amtrak does, with statistically lower levels of pollution and at much lower cost. Yet buses are ignored by the media while Amtrak is obsessively discussed.

Amtrak draws more and more taxpayer subsidy every year (about $1.6 billion annually) and refuses to economize by, say, abandoning its expensive and inefficient cross-country routes that burn up huge amounts of money and waste fuel by the millions of gallons. These routes are extremely costly but Amtrak refuses to drop them because Amtrak is a political entity not a railroad.

Amtrak should be largely shut down and then shrunken into its few heavily-traveled corridors and possibly sold to private investors.

Meanwhile look at this from about America’s intercity buses, a mode of transit ignored and constantly maligned by the pro-Amtrak, pro-high-speed-passenger-train media:

Travel by intercity bus is growing at an extraordinary pace: reflecting a rise in travel demand, escalating fuel prices, and investments in new routes. This confluence of factors has propelled scheduled bus service between cities to its highest level in years and has made the intercity bus the country’s fastest growing mode of transportation for the third year in the row. “Curbside operators,” including BoltBus, DC2NY Bus, and, which eschew traditional stations in favor of curbside pickup and provide customers access to WiFi and other amenities, have enjoyed particular success.

The comeback of the intercity bus is noteworthy for the fact that it is taking place without government subsidies or as a result of efforts by planning agencies to promote energy efficient forms of transportation. Instead, it is a market-driven phenomenon that is gradually winning back demographic groups that would have scarcely contemplated setting foot on an intercity bus only a few years ago. (One study) estimates that curbside operators like Megabus expanded the number of daily departures by 23.9% last year. In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, service grew at an even faster rate.

Look at this from the Cato Institute, in 2011:

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.

And look at this from (italics for emphasis):

American intercity buses focus on medium-haul trips between 200 and 300 miles; airplanes perform the bulk of longer trips and automobiles shorter ones. For most medium-haul trips curbside bus fares are less than the cost of automobile gasoline, and one tenth that of Amtrak. Buses are also four times more fuel-efficient than automobiles. Their Wi-Fi service is also popular; one study estimated that 92% of Megabus and BoltBus passengers planned to use an electronic device.

Why have liberals rejected buses?

It is pure snobbery. They think that buses are “low class” and that America needs a train system “like Europe”, i.e., very expensive, run by the government, with luxury services subsidized by the taxpayer.

Yet more and more people are riding buses because they are tired of the lousy Amtrak system and its high prices. Meanwhile a separate new high-speed passenger train system would be much more expensive than Amtrak is today.

Also you will notice that every time Amtrak is waylaid by track problems or by severe weather, passengers are shifted over to… buses!

A new high-speed passenger train system should not be built.

So why is air travel actually better than high-speed passenger trains?

It is because air travel is much more efficient and needs no subsidy. After all, America is very big so we need planes more than we need trains. And our airlines take no subsidy.

Air travel is much faster than a train. And the reason that it needs no government subsidy is because there is no need to expend vast amounts of money, labor and energy building and maintaining a track infrastructure, which is very costly.

All you need for air travel is an airport at each end. And any increased per-passenger energy consumption for flying is compensated for in much higher speeds and is saved in dramatically less energy consumption than would be needed to build and maintain a railroad track system.

Because maintaining all of these railroad tracks is very expensive, particularly for a high-speed system which requires daily monitoring and high tolerances. And because all of the track maintainers for Amtrak are – and for a high-speed network would be – unionized government employees who are paid at exorbitant and unsustainable wage rates.

Meanwhile a long trip on a passenger train consumes lots of time and energy in other ways. It takes up the passenger’s time that could be saved by flying, and time is valuable for many people these days.

Second it also consumes extra energy in another way because it takes energy to provide accommodations and food for travelers for long periods on a train trip while an airplane could cover the same route without even having enough flying time to offer a meal.

Meanwhile millions of Amtrak tickets are sold every year to people who want to “go for a train ride”. This is hardly a reason to spend all those hundreds of billions on a passenger-train system.

Not only is the idea of high-speed intercity trains a boondoggle but it goes much further. In Massachusetts for example Democrats are pushing the state to spend a whopping $113 million to upgrade just 40 miles of slow-speed freight train track in order to carry passenger trains from New York City through rural Connecticut to the western end of Massachusetts. This Massachusetts stretch is only about one-fourth of the total route. So already you might spend a half-billion dollars just for the track just for this one single route.

These types of expenditures are happening all over America and they are extremely wasteful of taxpayer money. This Massachusetts route is like the Toonerville Trolley; it winds through the hills and mountains, cuts through many small towns and has sharp curves and few straight stretches.

Already the route is served by a private bus system and by several branches of a state-subsidized commuter railroad out of New York City that hundreds of Massachusetts residents drive to every week to get to the City. Many people also drive their cars for the full route. Thus a new passenger train service would be a costly fourth service that few people would use.

And remember that spending all this money on the tracks is just the start. It does not account for the huge costs of operating the trains and upkeep on the tracks and signals after the system is running.

Now here is an essay from Spring 2012 from about a proposal to build a high-speed intercity train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In an article called ‘High-speed rail: Lawsuits could delay, kill plans’ on (the website of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper) it recently was reported that ‘Even if state officials can scrape together the billions of dollars needed to fund California's ambitious high-speed rail plans, lawsuits from cities and opposition groups could delay, divert or derail the project.’

So now Californians are using lawsuits to oppose the Big Government agenda after Big Government liberals have used such lawsuits for decades against private business.

Good… It’s about time these lefties and their cabal of lawyers got a taste of their own medicine. And in these cases, it is for a positive end. Because the Big Government agenda never works. These trains, intended to transport passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles, would end up being super-expensive boondoggles if they were ever built. That is why they are attracting precisely zero private capital.

Because one of the main reasons they are being built is not to move people efficiently or make a profit like the airlines or intercity bus lines do, but to funnel vast amounts of taxpayer wealth to highly over-paid jobs for Democrat-supported union labor to construct them.

And then these systems would be operated, managed and maintained by overpaid, over-pensioned unionized government employees because they would be government entities that could never survive in the private sector. And these employees would kick back a portion of their pay to Democrat political candidates who then support more such projects. It is a vicious cycle.

There already are three ways to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco: There are cars; there are intercity buses like Greyhound and Trailways; and there are airlines. And these are three efficient systems that have been around for many decades and do not require the expenditure of tens of billions more of government dollars and the disruption of towns and farms and cities and suburbs to blast through the new track that a high-speed train would require.

And don’t think that high-speed rail is something that can meander along established routes. These trains would need to have long straight stretches of their very own special track and very gradual curves to sustain the high speeds. So they would require completely new corridors and tracks at enormous cost.

And even at a thoroughly unrealistic 220 MPH average, they would require three times as long as an airline flight. And cost much more than a plane ticket, rest assured. Because airlines have no massively expensive infrastructure to support; they fly through the air.

So if there already are three ways to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, why does California need a fourth in high-speed trains?

It does not. And this fourth way would simply siphon off riders from the established airlines. And it would siphon them off unnecessarily at very high cost to the taxpayer.

Meanwhile the average bus passenger generally travels on a lower budget and would never be able to afford the expensive train tickets, while those who drive by car between the two cities are going to drive anyway. They usually have a reason (they are transporting multiple people, taking lots of luggage or other possessions, they need their car when they get to their destination etc.)

Won’t this competition damage the airlines by taking away their passengers? Haven’t the airlines been transporting people between the two cities naturally and competitively for decades in the private sector without any government subsidy? Won’t a high-speed rail project funded by the government unfairly compete?

Of course. And don’t think the ticket prices for these trains will not be sky-high even with their government subsidy. So ridership will be low, rest assured. And one single high-speed accident will mar these trains’ reputations long-term. If the public really knew about the cumulative accident record of Amtrak, it would be shocked. Thus the media do not report on it.

And then there are hundreds of political squabbles that always accompany such a project such as what land will be disrupted, what towns served etc.

Here are excerpts from – with a comment after each – about some of the local issues regarding this high-speed California rail boondoggle, which is planned to follow a roundabout route that does not even connect the two cities directly, but travels hundreds of miles off of the direct line and up through the Central Valley of California.

*At the heart of the county's frustrations is the rail authority's refusal to consider running the high-speed trains along the Highway 99 corridor. Instead, the line veers off the highway south of Fresno to follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight line. Then it breaks away again to swerve through farmland, dairies, homes and anything else in its path, eventually meeting up with the highway again near Corcoran (Kings County).

Last month, the Kings County Board of Supervisors sent Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo a 21-page letter complaining that state officials had illegally shut local agencies out of the planning process and ignored laws that protect prime farmland.’

Comment: So the liberals who always say they are out to ‘protect farmland’ now want to destroy it by the hundreds of thousands of acres. Just like environmentalists who say they want to ‘protect nature’ now want to destroy it with windmills.


*The petitioners in the first lawsuit won, forcing the authority to redo its environmental study for that segment. The most recent suit, filed last year, challenges the revised study and accuses the rail authority of using faulty ridership estimates to make its preferred route seem more attractive.

Comment: Advocates for such projects always offer overly optimistic ridership projections in order to get them built. Then when ridership is low, they go running to the government for more money. That is why Republican Florida governor Rick Scott turned away federal billions for a high-speed rail project.

*Fearing noise and blight from elevated tracks, the plaintiffs – which include the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, as well as several nonprofit groups – argue that a better option would be to route the train over the Altamont Pass, farther north, and along I-580 through the East Bay. There, the line would split, running across the bay to San Francisco and southwest to San Jose.

Comment: How could trains be noisy and a blight? All we have ever heard for the last 40 years from the wealthy enviro-residents of Palo Alto and Menlo Park is how wonderful Euro-type passenger trains are. Yet now that these trains may become a reality, these people don’t want them.

*It's a much different story down south in Palmdale, where local officials have fought not to prevent the intrusion of high-speed trains, but to keep a rail station in town. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in July, city officials said they were promised a high-speed rail station as part of an Antelope Valley line that would connect Los Angeles to the Central Valley.

Comment: Yes, connect these areas at massive cost.

So this is just a fraction of the debate over this project. Let us pray that it will never be built.

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