I recently spent a week visiting friends in Los Angeles, and I quickly learned a basic fact about that city: rail transit works, cars don’t.
Every time we tried to go somewhere by car on L.A.’s famous freeways, we ended up taking forever because of stalled traffic. The time of day did not matter, although weekends offered an improvement. We were able to use the HOV-2 lanes, which also helped. But even with those lanes, going anywhere on a weekday was a nightmare. My friend’s marina is about 40 miles from his house. One weekday, using the HOV lanes, the trip took us 90 minutes inbound and two-and -a half hours home. The latter would have been longer but with the freeway going nowhere we got off onto arterials. Those were lightly trafficked. Unlike us easterners, when the freeways jam up, the locals just sit there. Using arterial streets and roads does not seem to occur to them.
In contrast, whenever we used rail transit, the journeys were speedy and relaxing. It was my first time on Metrolink, and I was impressed. The trains were on time and fast, the equipment was in good shape and off-peak the ridership was strong.
Metrolink does something other commuter rail authorities might want to emulate, to the benefit of their riders. Each Metrolink ticket contains a chip that gives a one-day, unlimited-ride TAP card, the card for L.A.’s subway and light rail lines. It made riding Metrolink a great deal. We saved more on light rail fares than the Metrolink ticket cost. I was greatly surprised that our combined ticket/TAP card was good the whole time we were in the city; I thought it might be valid for an hour or two, like a transfer. Score one for Metrolink for offering great value.
In the city we took advantage of the light rail lines. Again, then trains were in good shape and well-patronized outside the peak hours. My earlier experience of disorder on the Blue Line, a problem the system’s leadership acknowledged, do not recur, although we rode only in the immediate downtown area.
The transit critics did everything they could to block the creation of rail transit in L.A., swearing before the gods that people they would never give up their cars. Well, many of them have, because on the freeways the cars don’t move. L.A.’s rail transit does move, and people ride it in large numbers. Over and over, the critics’ predictions of failure prove wrong. Why does anyone take them seriously?
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC
The November 24th New York Times carried a front-page story titled, “Hated Words Subway Riders Are Hearing More: ‘Sick Passenger.” It is not just in New York City that transit riders (mostly rail) are encountering this problem. It is everywhere, and it is growing. The Times reported that in New York,
Sick passengers have accounted or about 3,000 train delays each month this year . . . a figure that has grown drastically in recent years, from about 1,800 each month in 2012, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
I don’t have figures for other cities, but I suspect the trend is similar. The interesting fact is that say, 30 years ago, this problem was rare. I rode Washington’s Metro every day back then, and I rarely had a train delayed for this reason (or any other; Metro was reliable in those days). I suspect that if we went back to the 1930s or 1940s, we would find it never happened. Transit operators then had the common sense not to let one person delay thousands.
The delays can be substantial, over half an hour, and they affect not only the hundreds of riders on the train where a passenger has a problem, but many of the trains lined up behind that one. Absent a convenient crossover or third track, all those trains are also stopped. The delays can then ripple through the system for hours – – all because of one person.
These delays are unacceptable, and also unnecessary. The problem is current procedure, which is to pull the train with the sick passenger into the next station and hold it there until medical personnel can arrive and attend to the individual. Just the arrival can take half an hour, and more time is usually lost before the EMTs can remove the person from the train.
There is a better way. Transit systems should adopt a policy whereby the trains continue on to the nearest stop where medical personnel can be waiting when it gets there. Time will still be lost as EMTs remove the individual from the train, but all the time spent waiting for them to arrive will be saved. More, because the train will continue on farther than at present, there will be more opportunities to put it in a pocket track. That would reduce the delays to follow-on trains, perhaps even eliminate them.
I can already hear the response of transit authorities. “Our lawyers won’t let us do that. It would increase the danger somebody could sue and collect, because some sleaze-bag lawyer will encourage them to charge that they suffered more than they would have if the train had stopped at the nearest station.” As is so often the case, we see here the desperate need for tort reform.
But again, I think there is an answer. If the city or cities the transit system serves were to pass this policy as legislation, the transit agency’s back would be covered. They could say, “We were just following the law.” Don’t like it. Get City Council to change the law.
I’m sure the mewling “advocates” for the bungled, the botched and the bewildered will howl if cities do their duty and pass legislation along the lines I’ve suggested. In their eyes, a “victim” has some right to whatever he wants; while the thousands of people trying to get to work or home from work have none (they’re not “disadvantaged”).
Tell ‘em to go to hell. Ever more frequently messing up transit systems’ operations, often during rush hours, for one “sick passenger” is absurd. There is a better way, one where the sick passenger gets professional assistance just as quickly as he does now. The only losers are the lawyers.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
So, just why do we in America need Amtrak or an equivalent organization? All developed countries possess robust passenger train networks, some more modern than others. The economic benefits of dense intercity passenger rail networks have been clearly documented. The ability of business to maintain and expand contacts across the country is greatly enhanced by this connectivity (the effect has been documented in Europe and China). Connectivity also benefits ordinary citizens in countless ways. Amtrak contributes to expanded mobility, providing an affordable alternative to the automobile and airplane for travel between cities and from smaller communities to larger ones (and vice versa). A healthier Amtrak would provide more destinations and a higher frequency of service, along with competitive journey times, to successfully compete with the automobile and the airlines.
Amtrak serves many communities that have no other options. The airlines and intercity bus companies have been steadily reducing the number of cities and towns they serve, despite massive federal subsidies funneled to the airlines to serve smaller communities. The retrenchment of intercity bus service has resulted in entire states being left without service.
It really is quite simple. The future will (must) be multimodal. Our over reliance on the automobile and, to a lesser extent, the airlines, for long distance travel is already resulting in chronically overcrowded highways and clogged airports. Relief must come from bolstering other modes of transportation or implementing policies that reduce the overall need for travel in the first place. Our current direction is unaffordable and our efforts to expand highways to relieve congestion has not worked (and likewise unaffordable).
Studying the past instructs us on how to approach the future (and avoid past mistakes). That is a constant conservative position. Losing sight of how we got to this point means we will blindly continue to choose the wrong policies. We once possessed a comprehensive intercity passenger rail system connecting all parts of the continental United States (to and between communities large and small) with frequent, efficient, and affordable service. This system was operated by private railroads and was profitable until the government began pouring funds into highway building and, later, underwriting the airline industry. As the highly regulated private railroad industry had to contend with government funded roads and subsidized airline travel, intercity passenger rail unsurprisingly began to wither (freight traffic suffered too until it was freed from strangling regulation). The Interstate Highway program and the cancellation of the mail carrying contracts by the Post Office Department were the final blows. The private railroad industry finally convinced Congress (and the Nixon Administration) in 1971 to gather all remaining passenger rail operations under a government corporation (RailPax, then Amtrak). Most expected, indeed assumed that intercity passenger rail would melt away quietly. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Instead, from 6 million passengers in 1971 to 30.9 million in 2014, Amtrak ridership has blossomed, especially since the mid-1990s.
It is no secret that the current institutional setup at the federal and state levels favoring the automobile (and the trucking industry) is antiquated and archaic and in desperate need of reform. Perhaps the short term funding of the federal transportation re-authorization bill wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Federal transportation programs desperately need updating and extensively reformed rather than mindlessly pumping additional revenue into programs that prioritize the wrong activities. The defenders of the status quo (the oil and automobile industries, the concrete/asphalt industry, the construction companies, trucking interests, etc.) want to protect the current system of funding and administering our transportation modes because it benefits them. It also perpetuates the inequities and distortions that bring us unwanted/unneeded infrastructure. Studies have documented that many state DOTs continue to invest the bulk of available funds into roadway expansion while shortchanging maintenance, even as traffic counts decline or remain flat on a per capita basis.
Yes, Amtrak is subsidized, the naysayers scream time and time again, as if that alone disqualifies Amtrak from having the right to exist. What they choose to ignore is that ALL modes of transport are subsidized in this country (that is, roads, transit, intercity passenger rail, airline travel, barge transportation, etc.). A recent Texas Transportation Institute study documented that no road in the state of Texas generates enough revenue from the gas tax to cover construction, operation and maintenance. With regard to subsidization, the federal expenditure for Amtrak amounts to about .03 percent of the 2014 federal budget, or about $1.4 billion. By contrast, Great Britain, a country with a population 1/5th the size of the United States, subsidizes its intercity passenger rail network to the tune of $6 billion plus annually.
Intercity passenger trains are one of the safest modes for travel in the United States. In fact, train travel is about ten times safer than driving. Here, too, providing a viable alternative to the automobile is good policy.
The Amtrak system operates 44 intercity passenger routes over a 21,000 mile network worked by 300 intercity and commuter trains. In addition, hundreds of daily commuter trains operate over a number of Amtrak routes, largely in the Northeast Corridor. Fifteen train routes are over 750 miles long and are classified as long distance. Twenty-nine routes are shorter and are labeled corridor services. Many of these corridor services are or will be fully funded by the states, as per the PRIIA of 2008 (and re-authorized in 2015). Otherwise they will be discontinued. Expect that battle to continue. The anti-Amtrak forces operate at the state level too.
Increased emphasis on intercity rail passenger rail will bring added incentive for and pressure on cities to improve and expand their own connecting transit systems to allow intercity rail passengers to easily reach their final destinations (“the last mile”). After all, the train station is the intermediate destination, not the final one.
The utility of Amtrak also has an important national defense component. When the commercial airline industry shut down in the aftermath of 9/11, Amtrak continued to operate its nationwide network without interruption, providing key mobility options to many desperate citizens in one of the nation’s darkest hours. Had the Department of Defense needed to move units on an emergency basis, Amtrak was available.
Finally, the attached chart clearly debunks the cry that many critics make, that is, “nobody rides it.” Au contraire, Amtrak trains are actually thriving. More and more Americans are voting with their feet (and wallets) on how they feel about Amtrak.
The mindless assault in the U.S. Congress on Amtrak smacks not only of ideological rigidity but also reflects the influence of those interests that do not want intercity passenger rail to succeed.
Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Washington, DC
AMTRAK CORRIDOR SERVICE STATISTICS (2014)
[Includes Services > 300,000 Annual Ridership]
|Route||Type||FY 96 [unless otherwise noted]||FY14||Percentage Increase in Ridership FY 14 over FY 96|
|Northeast Regional||NEC Spine||5,417,308||8,100,776||50%|
|Acela [*]||NEC Spine||2,473,921||3,545,306||43%|
|Pacific Surfliner||Short Distance||1,565,162||2,681,173||71%|
|Capitols [**]||Short Distance||456,769||1,419,134||211%|
|San Joaquins||Short Distance||567,390||1,188,228||109%|
|Lincoln (Chicago-St. Louis)||Short Distance||254,581||633,531||149%|
|Downeaster [***]||Short Distance||245,135||514,708||110%|
|Albany-Niagara Falls-Toronto||Short Distance||N/A||410,344||N/A|
|Shuttles (New Haven – Springfield)||Short Distance||329,125||370,895||13%|
|Washington-Newport News [****]||Short Distance||434,453||344,335||-21%|
|Illini &Saluki (Chicago-Carbondale)||Short Distance||84,915||315,963||272%|
|Ridership Totals: FY 1996 -2011||14,094,633||24,332,717||73%|
|[*] Full Year Acela Service in FY 2002|
|[**] Full Capitol Corridor Service initiated in Dec 1991|
|[***] Full Downeaster Service initiated in Dec 2002|
|[****] While ridership on the Wash-Newport News train dropped to 344,335 in FY 14, Amtrak and the state of Virginia inaugurated two new services: Wash-Richmond & Wash-Norfolk which carried a combined 342,974. All three services are now carrying 100,000 more annual passengers than the previous single Wash-Newport News service.|
|Amtrak Fiscal Year runs from Oct – Sep|
|Note: Chart only includes corridor services exceeding 300,000 passengers per year|
|Amtrak Total [Corridor Services > 300,000]||14,094,633||24,332,717|
|Amtrak Total Ridership||18,294,792||30,921,274|
|FY 96||FY 14||Percentage Increase in Ridership|
|State & Other Corridors (all services)||7,010,941||14,731,993||110%|
|Long Distance Trains||3,821,696||4,543,199||19%|
|This Chart Prepared by The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation|