Trains… An economic analysis

One of the reasons I’m a devotee of our fearless frog is a shared, dare I say philosophical, pedestarian attitude. Society has become so dependent on the motor car we seem to prefer a lemming like approach to destruction rather than forgo a personal comfort capsule (aka car).

Still, I wonder about The Frog and I. Trains… Because We Have No Choice The fact is, we live in a society where market forces rule, and where transit solutions are increasingly being revealed as mere money making ventures for the Fat Controller (refer Thomas the Tank engine) rather than a solution to reducing carbon fossil fuels.

“Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff are American academics whose book Mega-Projects, The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment provides a respected summary of America’s experience with new railways, as well as other big projects. Their conclusion is stark.
“Since the mid-1970s,” they write, “transit has consistently received about one-half of all public money spent on surface transportation in urban areas”. Despite this, today it serves fewer than 2per cent of all passenger movements.
So rail has failed to get people out of cars, at enormous expense, in many different cities across America…”

Rail infrastructure is a massive boon for those engineering/investment corporations who regularly plunder the public purse at our expense. Its easy pickings, we want carbon efficient transport, the corporations want plunder. We are generally naïve enough to accept the carefully presented rationalizations, but not see the realities.

We are being screwed over because we continually play into the hands of these psychopathic control freaks who obviously believe the ‘common man’ simply does not grasp the importance of their wealth generating mission.

11 thoughts on “Trains… An economic analysis”

  1. So rail has failed to get people out of cars, at enormous expense, in many different cities across America…”

    Well that’s almost certainly true, so then the question becomes: What qualities does a successful rail deployment possess, and where do we look for models to emulate?

    The sad fact in the US is that there may *be no* models we can emulate. Successful mass transit in this country has almost always had a historical component: New York, San Francisco…with Washington DC being the only counter-example of the last 4 decades. European cities certainly give support to this argument.

    It’s all very well to encourage transit advocates to avoid, as you put it, “playing into the hands of these psychopathic control freaks”, but without a successful alternative to point to, massive investment is still the name of the game. I wonder what proportion of their transit Euro’s Paris spends to maintain it’s transit system and if, for that level of investment, they get better results than we do here?

  2. The historical component of success, when combined with the desire to copy a successful model, sets up a no-win circle for cities that didn’t set dominant land use patterns in the pre-car era.

    The Personal Rapid Transit model (1, 2) is an attempt to break this cycle by developing something new that can better compete when sprawl or geography give urban rail limited effectiveness.

    If you go back to the chart at 1, look at the bottom of the chart. The mode with lowest energy used per passenger mile is the vanpool. What positive characteristics does the vanpool have?

    It is flexible in terms of location of pickup and destination.
    They have efficiency: seats tend to be full all/most of the time; it doesn’t run when not needed; the full occupancy lowers per-person energy use.

    The negative? Arranging the pool schedule.

    The PRT model is very similar to the vanpool positives, but operates on-demand like a taxi or an elevator, and has fewer seats per vehicle in order to raise percent-occupancy. A large fleet of vehicles would realize high aggregate capacity, and a relatively dense network of small stations addresses accessibility.

    Oh, and these comments in no way lessen my 1000% support for intercity passenger trains.

  3. Kvatch, I’m not so sure the issue is finding effective models so much as changing the focus from corporate to government for urban transport delivery. There is no shortage, particularly in Europe, of highly qualified design consultants. But urban transit is not a natural profit centre, transit does not lend itself to competition; benefits are to society generally both in effective people movement and reduction in fossil fuel usage.

    Developers like these projects purely because of the dollar scale, so the focus is never of effective. You might also not that governments tend to remove corresponding bus services when rail goes in. The fact is we should be providing the widest range of alternatives possible.

    In the past governments, outside the US at least, funded these infrastructure developments on loan funds. The community as a whole carried the cost of loan repayment and operating losses. The benefit now is massively valuable rail corridors through dense urban areas.

    Sydney is now discussing a new transit system for the rapidly growing outer suburbs. European experts are already arguing the fallacy of a rapid transit system in this situation, while developers are on a feeding frenzy to secure contracts. The problem? The distances and relative low density of the development area simply don’t stack up for a usable system. They are suggesting securing a corridor for future use and use a suitable bus service in the interim. We already rum a large fleet of LNG buses which mitigate carbon emissions.

    Like Mr Blog, I am still dedicated to efficient urban transit.

  4. The distances and relative low density of the development area simply don’t stack up for a usable system.

    The system is usable, but the business plan doesn’t pencil out — much higher densities in station ridershed areas are needed to justify the high capital cost.

    An alternative small (lightweight) vehicle system would call for less materials and less disruptive construction, and therefore lower cost per mile.

  5. Much of Sydney is serviced by a heavy rail network, suitable for stops separated by 2 to 3 miles. Many of these commutes can also take up to 90 minutes which is not suitable for the strap hanging scenario of light transit.
    So you are right, the traffic during the growth period will not justify the heavy rail option, yet it is probably the most suitable long term option. My argument is that a future rail corridor should be secured now rather than expensive land buy backs later.
    The real irony is that the Sydney public transport system is sitting $billions of unused, waste land and redundant facilities. Selling that off, judiciously, would pay for an efficient city light rail system leaving the historic heavy rail to service the growing out suburbs. Even running the current heavy/light rail mix plus buses is inadequate for the urban parts, but resolving that creates far better future alternatives for the longer commutes.
    I guess my real argument is to take the corporates out of the picture and focus on real solutions rather that paper profits.

  6. I’m not so sure the issue is finding effective models so much as changing the focus from corporate to government for urban transport delivery.

    Can you expand on this, Cartledge? In most cases (at least here in the US) government *is* the provider of transport. Three are some public/private partnerships, but they are the minority. Now…when it comes to contracting for the actual infrastructure, corporate is the name of the game. So…are you suggesting that governments also take over the infrastructure build-out? Sort of what the US Army Corp of Engineers used to do–actually still does, but not for transit projects.

  7. Well Kvatch, I guess I am arguing for a return here to the old dynamic where government, primarily state governments, ran the whole process. That was until the concept of government not having debt became popular.
    In Australia government even built the rolling stock until the 1980s when they sold off that part of the system. Since then this country has had endless problems commissioning new urban upgrades.
    The PPPs consistently fail, though the corporations behind them make their cut before they go into liquidation. Typically these have been new companies formed by a ’coalition’ of major corps.
    I know civil service is known for its inefficiencies, but they always delivered the goods here when they had control of the whole system. Partnerships, contracting or handing over delivery has been a disaster.
    In more ways than just the service delivery, I should add. Another major downside of government here relinquishing infrastructure development has been the loss of a source of trades people. Private enterprise never supported apprenticeship training to the levels of government enterprises. So we receive the double effect of downgraded services and fewer skilled workers.

  8. a return here to the old dynamic where government, primarily state governments, ran the whole process

    In the US the railroads were built by the railroad barons. My memory is hazy on the history of the government’s involvement, but that era was the dawn of deregulation of state control of corporations. Corporations began winning personhood rights, and the 20-40 year time limits on corporate existence started coming off.

    Today, the tracks are still owned by multistate transportation companies. Regional public transit agencies that want to start commuter rail either must pay the companies to share the lines with the freight trains (resulting in inflexible scheduling), or condemn/buy corridors to build their own lines. Neither option is cheap — and the latter attracts the engineering firms and developers.

    In the US, maybe Australia too, there has been a movement called Rails To Trails. The idea was that old rail lines would be saved, but converted for recreational trail use until needed again. Kind of like King Arthur going off to Avalon, now that I think about it.

    Anyway, the problem is that it’s now time to think about resurrecting the rail lines. Except there are now recreational interests that want to keep the trails, and the surrounding land has had time to build up into 1st and 2nd generation suburbs. Freeways now cross the old rail line, and a web of surface streets necessitate crossings that would keep train speeds low.

    It’s a clash of paradigms. What the sustainability movement is trying to change are the billions of microeconomic choices we’ve made, and are still making, in where we live, work, shop, etc. It cannot be resolved through nostalgia or one-size fits all answers.

  9. “Rails To Trails” I love nature, but that borders on the obscene. But you are right, it is those endless microeconomic factors. I don’t have a problem with commercial competition on long haul lines, particularly if it results in reducing road transport.
    It’s the urban/suburban infrastructure that should not be in the public/commercial mix. The mix of rail, bus and pooling should be operated as a service run for and by the communities it serves. I would even disregard competition between bus and rail as these should, where there is a high population density, be working parallel and in tandem.
    It was only after these services were ‘corporatized’ in Sydney, subject to profit accounting, that the wheels fell of that city’s system.

  10. So is transit in Sydney private, or public-private? The latter should be called “public-guaranteed private profit.”

    For years the controversy over US mass transit has mainly centered on how much it costs — there is never a question of public operation, heavily subsidized, and some places even have laws forbidding private competition in certain jurisdictions. Corporatization has not been an issue because the corporations hide behind contractor status; only rarely do “contractors” get high profile exposure. The Boston Big Dig, and Charlotte, NC light rail (both Parsons projects, the people who brought you the Iraq police academy) come to mind.

    Yet the contractors are an inextricable part of the public works process. Seattle citizens had an idea in the late 90s to extend our short 1962 monorail. By the time the final designs were done, the contractors had added on so much in costs that we could no longer afford it, and the project was scrapped.

    Of course, cost is not the only controversy anymore, there’s also energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Which brings us back to… doe.

  11. Sydney’s transit, trains at least and city bus services, have always been government, albeit now subject to corporate profit models. However the concern now is for developing needs which are being touted as private developments.
    You are right about cost as a criteria, the core of my argument in many ways. Delivering an efficient transit system can not be done on a profit model, add in the carbon issue and profit really doesn’t figure anywhere.
    Sydney might have gone the first step to a good resolution by privatising major road construction. While I object to the growth in private toll roads perhaps they are a perfect incentive to developing an effective transit alternative.

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