Sunday, February 20, 2011

The little engine that couldn't ....

So today in his column, Jack Kelly essentially said that while freight trains are fine, passenger trains are pretty useless, and the government shouold not spend extra or perhaps any money on them. Before I look at the gaps in his argument, I should probably look at where I might agree with him. Kelly states that right now passenger rail accounts for a small percentage of all of travel in the US, and I have no doubt that's true. I suspect Amtrak has been given an impossible task, ordered to charge ticket prices that reflect as a large a part of costs as possible, and then given a subsidy that allows the trains to (just barely) continue running. I believe the trains between DC and New York/Boston are somewhat popular, but I would be surprised if any other routes could say even that.

So when Kelly compares passenger mile prices between driving, flying and taking the train, he is looking at just the cost of gas for driving, and the for flying the ticket price for a flying cattle car (full capacity seating) as compared to the less than full trains. Of course the driving cost ignores maintenance, insurance and other incidentals, and the cost of both driving and flying ignores their greater effects on the environment. But what really caught my eye was that Kelly ignores the fact that train ridership is higher in Europe (in absolute and percentage terms). Why would that be the case? I am not absolutely sure, but I'll bet a lot of the train tracks in Europe wee laid after world war II, and can accommodate faster trains (which they run). Oil being highly taxed there probably makes train travel more attractive pricewise, especially if the trains have more passengers, and so can better leverage the higher fuel efficiency per passenger mile of trains.

Amusingly Kelly also complains about the time it would take to go to a train station, without once mentioning the time it takes to go to airports, including larger parking lots and of course the wait at security checkpoints. But despite the fact I disagree with Kelly on theoretical grounds, I think he may have a point. Unless we throw maybe ten times what the President wants to spend, we won't be able to fund more than one or two projects, a drop in this bucket. Americans seem in love with cars (and/or SUVs and pick-ups) and flying, and even if Congress were to increase the gas tax (though I don't that coming to pass), I don't think Americans will give the cars and planes easily or soon.

Still, the ultimate point in Kelly's column, for my money, was where he said he had read somewhere that the Denver airport covers more land than would be required to build an Alaska to Miami rail line. First of all, hunh? And second, if anything, that meaningless factoid supports rail construction. But Kelly tries to present it as the opposite, as he so often does.

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