The “Sick Passenger” Problem

January 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

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

Why DO We Need Amtrak?

December 14, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

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


           [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%
Keystone Short Distance 276,571 1,326,450 380%
San Joaquins Short Distance 567,390 1,188,228 109%
Empire Short Distance 762,060 1,119,959 47%
Hiawathas Short Distance 320,188 799,638 150%
Cascades Short Distance 303,719 782,519 158%
Lincoln (Chicago-St. Louis) Short Distance 254,581 633,531 149%
Downeaster [***] Short Distance 245,135 514,708 110%
Wolverines Short Distance 375,129 477,157 27%
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%
Carolinian Short Distance 228,207 302,601 33%
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
NEC Spine 7,462,155 11,646,082 56%
State & Other Corridors (all services) 7,010,941 14,731,993 110%
Long Distance Trains 3,821,696 4,543,199 19%
Total 18,294,792 30,921,274 69%
Source: Amtrak
This Chart Prepared by The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation



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

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