The West from a Car Window is the title of one of the 19th century books on my bookshelf. The “car” in question is a railway car, not that insubstantial quadricycle, the automobile. If you had asked a 19th century visitor how he traveled, he would have replied not “on the train” but “on the cars.”
In early January, I journeyed up the West Coast, from LA to Seattle, by train and other public transportation. Here are a few observations from that trip.
With a friend and his nine-year old son, I took the Coast Starlight from LA to San Francisco. Bad dispatching made us run about an hour late – – as the conductor said over the train’s PA system, “You can’t spell stupid without UP” – – but it was a scenic run and faster than if we had driven, since snow closed Interstate 5 for eighteen hours. When everything else shuts down, the trains usually still run.
Both my friend and his son loved the train. Accustomed to flying, they could not get over how much more comfortable the train was, yet also cheaper (we were in coach). It was the boy’s first real train trip, and he cannot wait for more. He was astonished and delighted by the freedom of the train. Instead of having to sit in a small seat, belted in, he was allowed to go everywhere on board; the only rule we laid down for him was “Don’t get off.” He made new friends, enjoyed the lounge car, saw wonderful views out the big windows and dinner (with us) in the dining car. From the age of eight, I took all-day journeys by myself on the train, and there were few things I enjoyed more. Boys still love trains and always will.
We spent a weekend in San Francisco, a city my friend had often visited by car. We got transit passes and saw the city by cable car and streetcar. At the end of the day Saturday, he said to me, “I never really saw the city before at all. It was just traffic and the hunt for parking. I noticed far more today than in all my previous trips.” Add another convert to the merits of rail transit.
Together, San Francisco’s cable cars and streetcars (the F Line on Market Street) make an important point too many transit professionals overlook: equipment need not be modern to provide good service. The cable cars were almost always crowded (the nine-year old was ecstatic when he found you can ride on the running board; it made a better ride than any amusement park, despite the $6 fare). The streetcars, Peter Witts and PCCs, were also often full. The F line carries over 20,000 people per day. As conservatives know, what worked then will work now, and not just in transportation. The older is often also cheaper, better looking and more fun. San Francisco’s PCCs painted in the colors of other cities that had them add real beauty to the streets, which modern LRVs are not likely to match.
Sunday night I did something that, 80 years ago, thousands of Americans did every evening. That night, I was probably the only one. What was it? I took the streetcar to the night train. The last conservative left on earth will still be doing things like that, lest old traditions fail.
Waking in my comfortable roomette on the Coast Starlight just after we entered Oregon, running early, I enjoyed the west from a car window at its best. The day was clear and crisp, temperature above zero, with fresh snow clinging to the pine trees. Snow muffles the sounds of the train, so you seem to be riding on a magic carpet. And magical it was: I had views of the mountains normally vouchsafed only to intrepid outdoorsmen, as I lay warm and comfortable in my bed. Now that’s civilization!
The next day, a friend and I took the Talgo from Portland, mostly because I wanted to see the Cascade Corridor in operation and get first-handed impressions of the Talgos. These Spanish-designed trains did not do well when tried in this country in the 1950s, mainly because ride quality was poor. That has changed. Our ride to Seattle was smooth and comfortable, much more so than Amfleet. Also, unlike Amfleet, the windows are large.
Our train was the first of the day from Portland north, and it was well patronized. Because the Talgos are slow, it felt like we were going faster than we were. Top speed is 79 m.p.h, because the Cascade Corridor has rightly focused on average speed and trip time, not top speed. Within a minute of leaving the station in Portland, we were running at a good speed, something common in Europe but rare in America, where passenger trains crawl endlessly through cities. That is how higher speed rail works, and it makes much more sense, outside of the Northeast Corridor, than does high speed rail with its enormous costs. The Cascades Corridor and its Talgos are exactly what my region, the Midwest, needs on corridors such as Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati. Thanks to one-term Governor Kasich, we won’t get it anytime soon.
In Seattle, we rode both the light rail line and the new streetcar line. Seattle’s light rail is fast and comfortable; the Kinkisharyo cars are remarkably smooth and quiet. The line runs mostly south of downtown mostly through what appears a downscale area, and because the stations are widely spaced. I am skeptical about how much effect it will have on re-development. Time will tell.
Seattle’s new streetcar line, in contrast, is clearly designed to bring development, and I expect it to do so. The areas is runs through are largely parking lots, and I would bet the libertarian transit critics that in ten years those will be gone, replaced by much more valuable high-density buildings. The streetcar line will pay for itself many times over.
We rode the streetcar at about 5 PM, and saw the new line already performing a classic streetcar function, local collection and distribution. At that hour, almost all ridership was inbound, toward the city center, not outbound. I would wager that most of those passengers – – the single car was quickly full – – were transferring to other modes – – trolleybus, ferryboat, commuter train or light rail – – to continue their homeward journeys. By offering convenient, pleasant collection and distribution, the streetcar makes all those other modes more attractive to more people. That is how a good transit system works.
We retuned to Portland the next day, again on the Talgo, but found that this trainset did not ride as well as that of the day before. A train crewman told me different sets ride differently. I suspect the reason may be maintenance: the Cascades Corridor has no protect sets, so it must be difficult to maintain trains to an adequate level. We were also an hour late, reminding us of the curse of American passenger rail travel, uneven quality of service.
Mt final day out west began with a gracious tour of Oregon Ironworks’ new streetcar subsidiary, United Streetcar, which is building the first new streetcars constructed in this country since the last PCCs were built in 1952 (for San Francisco). We quickly saw that this is no mere assembly operation. United Streetcar begins by cutting and bending the basic metal that forms the car frame. It is really building streetcars, not just putting kits together. With fourteen streetcars in various stages of construction, we had visions of the happy days at places like the Kuhlmann car works in my home town of Cleveland (the factory complex still stands, missing the “K” in the sign on the main building’s roof). The build quality of the cars we saw under construction appeared to be excellent. United Streetcar deserves to succeed in its bold venture to build streetcars for our small if growing market, and I very much hope it does.
After United Streetcar, Julie Gustafson took me on and a friend on a tour of Portland’s new extension across the river to Portland’s Eastside Industrial District. Portland’s eastside has a bit of the “wrong side of the tracks” feel to it, and the streetcar is clearly a development tool. I suspect it will be successful, as the original loop through downtown Portland was. Like its predecessor, the new line was built at a reasonable price of about $13 million a mile. It will eventually connect with the old line at its southern end as well as its northern end, which will make it much more useful to riders.
That new connection will be via a new bridge over the Willamette River which is being constructed mainly for light rail, at a horrendous cost of about three-quarters of a billion dollars. I’m sorry, but as a conservative, that price sticks in my throat. I have no doubt that if the bridge were for highway traffic, it would cost a similar amount. But can’t we find less expensive ways to build bridges? Do other countries pay that much for a light rail/streetcar bridge? Although the bridge is designed to accommodate light rail, streetcars, pedestrians and bicyclists (and various permits were required by a variety of agencies with waterway jurisdiction, no doubt adding to the cost), I wonder if cheaper alternatives were considered? And while we are on the subject of saving money, must we ‘beautify’ new streetcar lines with “public art” that mostly resembles abandoned, rusting Soviet radar antennae? Yes, I know its Portland, where up is down and black is white. But ugly is still ugly.
My variety of car windows provided a week’s worth of enjoyable views of the west, far more than I could have gotten through an automobile’s windshield. We sometimes forget that is what rail offers that little else can: pleasurable travel. Here’s hoping our country’s future includes more of it, in place of the miserable “efficiency” offered by equally miserable utilitarians.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
The most basic fact about public transportation the libertarian critics and many conservative ones ignore is that trains and buses are not fungible. Many rail transit riders have a car available and can drive. If you give them a bus instead of a train, that is what they will do. The libertarians’ argument that all should be bus, not rail, is really an argument for more cars, highways and driving. It would be nice if they were honest about it.
The most recent evidence that train and bus riders are different comes from a Los Angeles Metro survey. LA Metro released the results of their annual survey of riders. The survey shows that:
- 45% of train riders, but only 25% of bus riders, had a car available to make their trip ((ten year averages).
- The average income of train riders is $26,250; for bus riders, the figure is $14,423.
- 16% of bus riders are white or Asian, compared to 28% of train riders.
LA is not demographically a city favorable to making the case that train and bus riders are different. It is heavily Hispanic and poor. Similar surveys taken by other transit systems around the country show significantly higher percentages of train riders are white or Asian, upper-income and riders from choice, i.e., have a car available for the trip but choose to take transit instead. Nonetheless, the pattern still holds: LA’s bus riders are poorer, more often black or Hispanic and more transit dependent than train riders.
The scam of substituting buses for trains as a way to force people to drive is an old one. It goes back to a meeting called by General Motors in 1923, which eventually led to National City Lines (NCL). But it was a scam then and it remains a scam now. Trains and buses carry different people and serve different purposes. They also have different operating costs, with rail making more efficient use of labor. When a group of people keeps running a scam that was exposed long ago, what should we think of them?
William S. Lind is Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Arlington, VA
Pigs are flying, the sky is green and down has become up. Even more miraculously, the Reason Foundation has put out a paper on rail transit that is not completely unreasonable. The Rapture must be close at hand.
Despite a typical Unreason title, The Streetcar Swindle, Samuel L. Scheib’s recent paper on reason.com is an intelligent and informative look at streetcars. Usually, anything from the Reason Foundation simply dismisses all rail transit. Scheib’s paper does not. It acknowledges the historic importance of streetcars, writing that “You would have to go all the way back to the invention of the wheel . . . to find a transport technology that made a more significant impact on the lives of regular folks.” It praises Germany’s Stadtbahnen, which we know as Light Rail. It notes that some recently-built streetcar lines, both in this country and in Europe, have been successful. It even discusses one way to make streetcar lines work, in a paragraph worthy of quoting in full:
The highest and best use for a streetcar system is to connect dense student housing, a university, a functioning downtown, and regional shopping venue, hospital, or other large attractor in a community of about 100,000. Athens, Gainesville, Norman, and Bloomington are ideal for this type of alignment (as is Lansing, which opted to build a bus rapid transit system). We already have models for how to do this kind of service: Le Mans, Orleans, and Reims [France] carry between 35,000 and 48,000 tips daily on systems that have between 6.9 and 11.2 miles of track. These streetcars – - called tramways there – - not only serve universities and downtowns but also take advantage of the tram’s small footprint by wending between buildings, using rights of way that are useless to larger mass transit vehicles or automobiles.
Of course, in the end Mr. Scheib’s paper comes out against streetcars. I doubt the Reason Foundation would have published it otherwise. Specifically, it opposes using streetcar lines for urban development or re-development. Scheib writes, “Nostalgia is the main power source of the streetcar craze. How else do we explain the use of historic reproductions and expensive old Birney and PCC streetcars (WSL: which cost a lot less than modern streetcars) in so many systems? Still, these projects roll on a pair of rails called ‘downtown development’ and ‘tourism’.”
Oddly, Mr. Scheib’s first example of such misuse of historic streetcars is San Francisco, where it has been wildly successful. The city’s F-line, which uses Peter Witts from Milan and vintage American PCCs (among others), now carries in excess of 20,000 riders daily. Most are local residents, not tourists.
Mr. Scheib also acknowledges the success of the Portland Streetcar. In doing so, he reveals his fundamental error: he does not understand streetcars’ transportation purpose. He writes of Portland, “The urban street cred of Portland notwithstanding, even there the streetcar is not really mass transit. The Portland Streetcar’s raison d’etre is, like the Tampa TECO line’s, downtown development and tourism, not transportation.”
Mr. Scheib in effect argues that unless a transit system moves people from the suburbs to the central city and back, it is not transportation. Quoting Florida State University professor and TRB Light Rail Committee chairman Gregory Thompson, Mr. Scheib writes, “ ‘an effective light rail or streetcar has to be operated like a subway, but most modern streetcars are not.’ “
This confuses two transportation functions and two transit modes. The functions are line-haul, suburb-to-city movement and local transportation within the central city. Each is served by a different mode: light rail for line-haul and streetcar within the CBD. Both functions are necessary for a city to succeed.
It is useful here to furnish an updated chart based on the study Paul Weyrich and I wrote (which is a chapter in our book Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation), “Bring Back the Streetcars!” The chart was originally titled “Differences between Light Rail and Streetcars,” and the updated version shows why Mr. Scheib and Professor Thompson are wrong.
|Right-of Way||Uses a variety of rights-of-way, mostly exclusive (at grade, tunnel, elevated, etc.)||Mixed traffic but can also use a variety of rights-of-way|
|Materials||More extensive construction||Less elaborate specs|
|Overhead Wire||Large, high performance multi-section articulated vehicles built for MU operation||With or w/o simple articulation; can be modern or vintage style|
|Vehicles||Large, high performance multi-section articulated vehicles built for MU operation||With or w/o simple articulation; can be modern or vintage style|
|Stations||Variable, from simple stops to substantial stations to accommodate multiple LRVs||Simple stops with sign “Streetcar Stop”|
|Labor||Efficient use of labor||Efficient use of labor|
|Capital Cost||Should not exceed $30-40 million/mile||Should average less than $20 million/mile|
|Functions||Line-Haul; Distribution||Distribution; Located in the urban core|
|Route Length||Usually 10 miles or more||Less than 10 miles|
|Peak Use||Rush hour||No real “peak” ridership; distributed throughout the day|
|Main Users||Commuters||Local traffic, i.e., urban dwellers, shoppers, etc.|
Based on chart in “Bring Back the Streetcars!” in Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.
In effect, streetcars are pedestrian facilitators. Mr. Scheib acknowledges the central role pedestrians play in the life of cities, writing that “Proprietors need pedestrians to access their businesses; for them the money for urban circulators would be better spent on bringing people to the urban core or improving the streetscape.” But these elements are all necessary to encourage pedestrian traffic; they are not alternatives to each other. Streetcars’ role is to make it easy for pedestrians to get around downtown by carrying them for distances too long for Americans to walk. Ideally, the streetcar is either fare-free or with a ticket validity of several hours in the CBD, so pedestrians have no hesitation about getting on and off frequently.
Of course, since this is a Reason Foundation publication, it has to repeat the old canard that streetcars and buses are interchangeable. Mr. Scheib quotes Professor Thompson as saying, “The (contemporary) streetcar is like a bus on rails, but it has no advantage over a bus.” From the standpoint of urban development, it has an absolutely critical advantage over a bus: middle class people with disposable income like riding streetcars but most will not ride a bus. To thrive, cities need more than just “pedestrians.” If those pedestrians have little or no disposable income, their presence may blight a city rather than help it. Cities need pedestrians who buy in shops, eat in restaurants, and go to shows. Those people want streetcars, not buses.
Mr. Scheib writes,
There is nothing inherently wrong with streetcars as transit. The problem is how they are deployed. The original streetcar systems were largely straight-line routes serving the central business district. The point was to get people to the CBD, where they would move around on foot.
That statement is correct. But that was then, and this is now. Today, that function of moving people from where they live to the CBD is performed best by light rail or commuter rail. Streetcars are now primarily a mobility facilitator within the CBD, which is a transportation as well as a development function. We still want people to walk in the CBD, but today’s Americans are less willing to walk than were their forefathers. Streetcars fill the resulting gap. That is why 60-plus cities now are constructing or planning streetcar projects, and why they are smart to bring back the streetcars.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation