As word comes of more passenger trains for North Carolina that are about to start, I pose this question. : Do you think other states should follow the North Carolina approach to building a conventional passenger rail system ? The state of North Carolina is getting the trains running. While other states do many studies and plans for more trains, few leave the station. I would rather ride a train then study a proposed one that may never happen.
So what do you think ? All comments welcomed.
The state of North Carolina seems to have the money to develop the system, and it apparently has chosen to spend it on developing the passenger rail service/system. That is the right of the state of North Carolina. I'm not sure, though, that I'd like to be sending my kids to North Carolina schools or relying on Medicaid for my health care. Whether I agree with NC or not, the fact is that I don't get a vote (literally), and the people who live and pay taxes in NC do. It's their choice.
North Carolina has proven that the incremental approach works. The Downeaster service in Maine is also a successful operation, along with the Talgos in Washington State. None of these operations have multi-billion dollar trainsets or high-speed routes. Frequency and on-time performance are keys to success. Offering services like wi-fi and electrical outlets at each seat will only help to build ridership.
Passenger rail in FL, TX, and my beloved TN (err wait, is there passenger service in TN???) is an absolute joke. This just goes to show that studies don't take cars off the road, trains do. Well-planned and funded trains, but trains nonetheless.
KnoxvilleShipper makes some good points. It seems the 3 hour trip between state capital Raleigh and business center Charlotte is competitive with automobiles, and many business travelers would rather read the paper or work in comfort than muck their way along the highway. Incremental is the way to go; I doubt North Carolina would have gained voter approval for a mega-system. The service in Maine and that in Washington fit the parameters for successful operation. They are over distances that are short enough to beat air, even if competitive airline service were available, and they are limited in scope. KnoxvilleShipper doesn't say, but I'd be willing to make a small wager that even so, these passenger operations are subsidized by the involved states.
As for his beloved Tennessee, yes, there is passenger service of a sort there. Amtrak runs the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans through Memphis.
What do I think?
I believe that, overall, without a national policy in place to support various initiatives, a state-centred approach is ultimately doomed to failure.
By the way, Caltrain has just announced massive service cuts.
Garl: By the way, Caltrain has just announced massive service cuts.
Economics works every time - even in California. An enterprise must bring in more in revenue than it pays out in expenses, or it must have subsidies for the shortfall. California is broke and the subsidies that once were counted on for just about everything no longer come so easily. Welcome to the real world, California.
If a state can afford it, then that state might consider passenger rail of it's own, but the problem now is that Amtrak seems to think that it's own improvements or expansions of service, must be at State expense. I have no problem with my FEDERAL tax dollars supporting Amtrak as long as it is responsive to the needs of travelers, but Amtrak responded to my needs back in 2005 by cutting the east end of the Sunset permanently. Now they are willing to restore the service if the Gulf Coast states pay for it. Wrong, it is dead wrong for any state, or states, to support INTERSTATE trains. Perhaps build stations (like they do airports) or other fixed infrastructure, but they must not be expected to subsidize operational costs.
I don't agree with landnrailroader on his view of whether states oreven groups of states should provide subsidies to Amtrak for operating state or regional rail services. For one thing, Amtrak does so under contract with the appropriate state or regional body. If Amtrak hadn't bid for an won the contracts, then the states would be paying even more to other operators. Face it, passenger rail service will be subsidized or it won't be provided. Arguing over state vs. federal taxes is an exercise in futility.
It isn't often that I can say this, but my own state of Illinois is probably an example of what NC is working toward. Illinois already has multiple trips running between Chicago and most major "adjacent" cities. Passenger volumes on the runs to St. Louis and Milwaukee, in particular, have increased significantly -- even over what you'd expect from the numerical increase in daily scheduled trips.
By the (admittedly low) standards applicable to Amtrak, the Milwaukee run (Hiawatha) performs well financially, recording a loss of $1.5 million on $23.5 million in revenue in 2008 (see subsidyscope.com for this and other scintillating details).
We'll have to see what happens in the immediate future given our own dire budget constraints.
Huh. I spoke too soon. According to the same site, the Chicago-St. Louis run recorded a profit before depreciation.
"recorded a profit before depreciation." That still equals a net loss and a need for subsidy. Depreciation may not involve a cash loss, but it is a cost nonetheless. See how long a capital intensive business lasts if it doesn't charge off depreciation. The day will come when rail, ties, locomotives, etc., will have to be replaced and if proper depreciation accounts have not been kept, there won't be any money to pay for needed capital expenditures. Sorry to be insistent, but all the rationalization in the world can't make rail passenger service profitable - unless it brings in more revenue than it has above- and below-the rail costs.
Larry, your comment about economics (revenue greater than expenses) simply isn't true in the transportation arena. Roads most assuredly do not make a profit, with tolls, taxes and user fees covering only about 60% of costs. Other modes get similar support (or, as some call them, subsidies). If subsidies were removed from all modes, then we might have an even paying field, but this will never happen and, in fact, transportation improvements have always been one of the significant activities of government since ancient times.
You have a point, fbs, but I think so does Larry.
Too much of the calculation of how much effective subsidy is provided to rubber-tired vehicles is either driven by agenda rather than fact, or is too specific to a certain size of vehicle.
It also raises the possibility of greater public involvement in (freight) railroad infrastructure, which has to be looked at very cautiously. Sometimes free help isn't worth what you pay for it.
Even in it's heyday, long haul passenger depended a good deal on other high(er) speed freight to share costs with; a limited revival of mail-on-rail in the appropriate markets (NE, mostly) might have done a lot more to help contain costs, but I don't know if there is enough USPS infrastructure left to make it work.
fbs>"Roads most assuredly do not make a profit, with tolls, taxes and user fees covering only about 60% of costs."
I think you ought to add "dedicated" before taxes. General revenue is still taxes, last I saw, mostly.
fbsleeper: Respectfully, I disagree. Transportation is no different than any other enterprise. Yes, all modes have degrees of subsidy, although rail has far less than the modes with which it must compete. Subsidies distort the modal choice decision of shippers. In the truck-rail realm, it can cause higher consumption of fuel, greater environmental degradation and the like. You're right that "Roads most assuredly do not make a profit, with tolls, taxes and user fees covering only about 60% of costs." What is sacrosanct about 60%? Should motor carriers not pay a greater share of the cost of roads, perhaps 100% of their allocable cost? Roads are provided by the public and are used by a variety of users. Taxpayers of various kinds make up the difference. Truckers receive great economic benefit from the roads they use, particularly as they do not pay their allocable cost. Ordinary motorists, for the most part, receive no direct economic benefit from the greater mobility provided by the public highways. As I have said in other message threads, in our society, you can have as much transportation service as you're willing to pay for. You say "If subsidies were removed from all modes, then we might have an even paying field, but this will never happen and, in fact, transportation improvements have always been one of the significant activities of government since ancient times." Some of that is so, and some is not, but that doesn't change the reality that unless revenue exceeds expenses an enterprise either will vanish or it will be subsidized. And why should trucks not pay 100% of their allocable cost responsibility? The answer to that is political, not economic. I'm not debating the morality of subsidies (not being a libertarian), but I do believe those who appropriate the subsidies really ought to consider the consequences of their actions. The New Haven's last profitable year was when it carried to construction materials for the New England Thruway, a highly subsidized bit of transportation capacity. Also, it would be mathematically easy if politically difficult to set truck user fees and taxes at levels that caused them to pay more for their use of the public right-of-way and also made it more economic to divert some traffice from the highway to railroads.
NC has it right. Wake up Florida before you build a new system down I-4 when improvements to CSX would suffice. Building a new station in Tampa instead of using the restored
Tampa Union Station goes against reason and good business logic. Florida residents, join me in helping turn this around. The sad Florida details are in the June issue of Trains Magazine .