October 1, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The Atlantic’s publication, CityLab, has published a number of sound, thought-provoking pieces. Perhaps man’s inherent fallibility dictated they would eventually get something spectacularly wrong. In any case, they did, specifically Eric Jaffe’s February 23rd article, “The Myth that Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses.”

The errors begin with the title. Anyone who knows transit knows that the transit-dependent often prefer buses to trains, not on an individual ride basis but on a system basis. Why? Because buses running on “free” city streets (paid for by the tooth fairy presumably) can offer a denser network of service in urban areas than can light rail or streetcars whose dedicated rights-of-way are expensive to build. At one time streetcars did offer a service network as dense as buses, but so long as we insist on paying more than necessary to build new streetcar lines, restoring that network is unaffordable.

People who are transit dependent want a dense service network because it reduces the distance they must walk from home to a transit stop and from a transit stop to wherever they are going. So buses usually serve them better than trains, and many of them know that. “Advocates” for the poor (many of them well-paid) now often oppose new rail transit lines and demand more money be spent on the bus system instead. They are reflecting the interests of their constituents.

The supposed ‘myth” Jaffe attempts to discredit is that middle-class transit riders from choice prefer rail to bus. Only it’s no myth: they do. Jaffe’s article provides yet more data, buttressing that from many ridership surveys, proving the point. He writes of a study that surveyed 1,370 people in six Australian capital cities.

For the study, [the authors] gave survey respondents the two images above (modern light rail and modern busway in identical settings), plus two others whose only difference was older-looking vehicle styles (one bus and one train), and asked them to rank the four images in terms of “which one would you like to travel in most.” They found that 55 percent chose the modern light rail image, and another 18 percent chose the older light rail. Only about 17 percent chose the modern BRT. Just 10 percent chose the classic old bus.

Jaffe goes on to argue, as a number of other articles and studies have done, that this preference is irrational. It is not. People are not idiots. They are correct that for riders from choice, rail transit is the superior product. The same is true from the standpoint of the transit system. Rail is superior both ways in serving riders from choice. Jaffe’s statement that “advanced bus systems can perform as well or better than streetcar or light rail systems for less money” is false.

If we compare modern light rail with the modern busway, we find that light rail vehicles offer better ride quality, less energy consumption (you can’t beat steel wheel on steel rail), and most important to riders from choice who have comfortable cars, more space per passenger. The latter advantage is one buses cannot match. Why? Because you can add capacity to a train by adding more cars, each added cars offering comfortable seating. Buses cannot run in trains. They have a fixed ratio of operators to passenger space. That leads bus systems to cram in both seats and standees, making the trip uncomfortable.

Ironically, the two illustrations Jaffe offers upfront in his article, showing bus on busway and light rail in identical settings, illustrate this difference clearly, though Jaffe misses it. I recommend you go to CityLab and take a look at them. What big difference will you see? The light rail train is longer, which means it can offer more space per passenger. Yet like the bus, that longer train has just one operator.

This is why light rail is preferable from the standpoint not only of the passenger but the transit system. The biggest item in any transit budget is labor. Rail can carry a much larger number of passengers, in greater comfort, than bus per operator. So while Jaffe claims bus on busway is cheaper than light rail, that is only marginally true for construction costs (the difference thus shrinks dramatically when fully grade separated construction costs are added in). Light rail’s operating costs are significantly less, primarily because it uses labor more efficiently.

The labor inefficiency of bus on busway is so great that busways put themselves out of business by succeeding. When their ridership reaches a certain level, both operating costs and capacity issues compel the busway’s conversion to light rail. Jaffe cites as a success Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway. In fact, it now faces conversion to light rail because it is too many riders. [Ed. note- see “California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit”] Busways only work for a narrow spectrum of ridership levels. And no, busways in South America that carry large numbers of people do not disprove the point, because South American labor is cheap. North American labor is not. And most of the people on those South American busways are transit dependents, not riders from choice. They accept uncomfortable travel because they have to.

In the real world, bus systems best serve transit dependents and rail best serves riders from choice, who demand more than a qualitatively minimal product. Trying to bridge the difference with bus on busway falls flat, because the service quality is not equal to rail and the operating costs make it uneconomical beyond a certain ridership level. It turns out all those stupid people who prefer rail to bus aren’t so stupid.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Getting It Right

July 31, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I was in Palm Beach in February escaping the vagaries of winter n Cleveland – – for us, February is a surplus month – – and I read a story in the February 26 Palm Beach Post that is good news for friends of passenger train. All Aboard Florida, a project of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), plans to run a privately-funded, unsubsidized higher speed rail passenger service from Miami to Orlando. That includes building a new line from the FEC main to Orlando and buying new equipment for 32 passenger trains a day.

The return of privately-operated passenger trains is something devoutly to be wished. I’ve taken Amtrak coast-to-coast this winter, as Cleveland to Florida. The trains were good, mostly on time, and a far nicer way to travel than what the airlines now hand us. But Amtrak’s network is so sparse much of the country has no service, and when Amtrak does serve a city or town, it is usually with only one train a day. Had I wanted to go from Florida to New Orleans, I would have been required to do so via Chicago! We need the private sector to get back into passenger trains if we are to get enough trains, running to enough places, to make rail travel convenient again.

So All Aboard Florida is good news. Unfortunately, it has generated a lot of opposition along much of the proposed route corridor. Part of this is uninformed Nimbyism, much of it reflecting fear of 32 trains in 24 hours. In the old days, many railroads ran a lot more trains than that, without any consequences.

But part of the opposition has come from a blunder made by All Aboard Florida. From the beginning, they have insisted that they would have stops only in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. That has meant much of the Florida coast would just have to watch the trains go whizzing through, unable to ride the. Not surprisingly, when people receive no benefit from something, they are inclined to oppose it.

The good news in the Palm Beach Post is that All Aboard Florida is now re-thinking that position. The paper wrote in its lead story,

All Aboard Florida is signaling its willingness to build additional stations between West Palm Beach and Orland, offering to initiate ridership and environmental studies for communities that identify possible locations.

This is smart for two reasons. First, by offering the possibility of service to more communities, it will undercut the NIMBYs. Second, if the new trains are to make money, they will need to serve as many communities as possible. Most train riders are not end-point to end-point. Non-stop trains have usually failed financially. Amtrak tried running non-stop Washington to New York and soon gave it up because those trains carried too few people. All Aboard Florida’s plan does include Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, but even so most of the route would have no service. This is not likely to work.

What drove All Aboard Florida to plan only two intermediate stops was a requirement to schedule Miami-Orlando in less than three hours. But there is an old, tried-and-proven way to do that and still serve more intermediate points: run both express and locals. With 32 trains a day, that should not be difficult.

Florida East Coast Railway has been a pioneer and an innovator since the days of Henry Flagler and his railroad to the sea. By bring back the privately-operated passenger train, FEC is again innovating, in a way that would make Mr. Flagler proud.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Destination: San Diego

February 20, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I recently fled the Cleveland winter for the happier climate of San Diego traveling as God intended by train. The trip was enjoyable, as trips by air are not. Even off-season the sleeping cars were largely full, a sign others are seeking alternatives to airlines that spit in their customers’ faces. All the crews were very good, a change from Amtrak experiences past. Westbound everything was late, the Southwest Chief by nine hours into LA. But sudden attention by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to the problem of freight interference seems to have thrown the fear of Mammon into the railroads, as the return trip both the Chief and the Lake Shore Limited ran early. It will be interesting to see if that continues.

The future of the Southwest Chief lies on a knife’s edge because BNSF runs little freight over the old Santa Fe main line. I don’t know why, because their new main line through Texas is congested. In any case, BNSF wants Amtrak to kick in money for track maintenance, which Amtrak doesn’t have, meaning it has turned to the states for help. All have agreed except New Mexico, but if it does not come on board the whole project collapses and the Chief dies. Riding the route both directions shows the heavy dependence of communities along the line on the train, as without it they have no connection to the outside world but driving vast distances, sometimes under dangerously bad weather conditions. Pray that New Mexico comes through.

I cannot pass over the one stupid blunder by Amtrak that is reminiscent of its worst old days. One of my sleepers had just been reconditioned, and idiotically they eliminated the volume control on the speaker in the bedroom as part of the rebuild. What were they thinking? I was almost asleep when “Conductor to the dining car” blasted me awake. Almost asleep again when “announcements” started, again at deafening volume. Could someone kindly inform whoever is in charge of sleeping car rebuilds that we buy sleeper space to sleep, not to listen to a loud squawk box that suggests we are traveling in North Korea?

I finally arrived in San Diego. The San Diego Trolley is one of that city’s amenities and I made good use of it. I bought a three-day pass, once I found the downtown office, which was not easy because signs put it a long way from where it is actually located. I had ridden the Blue and Orange lines before, so I focused on the new (to me) Green Line. The concierge of my very nice Gaslamp District (and restaurant district) hotel, The Horton Grand, told me See’s Candies had closed their downtown store (why?) but that I could easily get to another of their outlets by taking the Green Line to Fashion Valley Mall. She was right, and I made the trip by trolley on and on foot more easily than I could have driven and parked. If friends or family know of See’s, don’t plan on coming home without some.
A three car train (typical consist on the system) pulls into San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot (William S. Lind Photo)

I then took the Orange Line to La Mesa and looped back on the new-construction segment of the Green Line. The engineering and the ride are spectacular, reminding me of Italian highways through the Alps. So was the price tag for its construction. It is built to heavy rail, not light rail standards. Was that made necessary by the terrain? I do not know the area well enough to judge. Has it priced itself out of the market, in terms of more extensions? I would not be surprised, although an extension has recently been approved (the 11 mile project, dubbed the Mid-Coast extension, extends the Blue Line to the University City area north of San Diego). The higher construction cost per mile, the fewer miles we can build. It seems the philosophy behind San Diego’s first line to the Mexican border has been forgotten.

My Green Line train had mechanical problems which brought periodic emergency stops – – the doors seemed to be the difficulty – – and it was taken out of service at the Santa Fe depot. All the trains I saw had two new low-floor Siemens cars fore and aft sandwiching an older high-floor Siemens/Duewag, an obvious U-2 descendent. The new cars rode well and have a classic Railfan seat where you can see forward, but the high-floor cars had more leg room and more comfortable seats. Why does transit equipment design so often take two steps forward and one back? Americans are not getting smaller. If you give them transit equipment that is not comfortable, they will drive.

A three car train with an older U-2 (Siemens-Duewag) LRV sandwiched between two brand new S70 Siemens LRV’s on a Green Line viaduct in San Diego’s Mission Valley (William S. Lind Photo)

When it was time to head home to Cleveland and snow, I was easily able to walk the short way to the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and take the trolley to the Santa Fe depot. That saved me a taxi fare and reminded me why cities with good public transit are more pleasant to visit than those without.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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