When Is Losing $112 Per Passenger Good News?

When you're Amtrak--the nation's passenger rail system and terrestrial version of NASA--when you compare it to the $208 per passenger loss in sleeper cars on the Capitol Limited.

Didn't Bill Clinton end welfare as we knew it? Somebody forgot to tell Amtrak, which is sucking up $1.2 billion in federal gravy this fiscal year and is poised to get $1.82 billion next FY (thanks to those cost-cutting, gov't-starving Republicans).

A new report says Amtrak could cut as much as $230 million in losses a year by, among other things, cutting sleeper cars and canning their POW-camp-level food service.

But if there's something magic about a train, there's something absolutely sacred about $5 for microwaved ham, egg, and vomit biscuits: "When it's dinner time, they expect to be served dinner," says an Amtrak VP.

One question (from someone who's ridden Amtrak in all sorts of situations): How does Amtrak--which has a on-time record that suggests no one in the $3 billion operation carries a watch--know when it's dinner time?

More here.

And in other Amtrak news, the system's version of the space shuttle, the Acela Express, which operates on its Bos-Wash route, is coming back on line. Any bets as to how long before it goes back up on blocks?

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  • ||

    From the same article:

    "None of Amtrak's routes nationwide operates profitably..."

    and

    "This is just a backdoor way of wrecking a $3 billion corporation." -Russ Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers

    If this is the back door, it looks like Amtrak walked in the front door some years ago.

  • ||

    The food's not so bad, it's just that it costs $7.00 for a ham and chese croissant. Also, the liquor bottles are too small and the beer is warm. They just need to have sentient beings staffing the dining cars.

  • ||

    And this is in contrast to the highly profitable Federal Highway Administration?

    Who turn a profit?

  • ||

    and when I say chese, I mean cheese. Oh, there's also something a little post-apocalyptic about the constantly fuzzing-out TVs they have installed in the NYC to Washington line.

  • ||

    That is, who told you transportation systems were supposed to turn a profit?

  • ||

    who told you transportation systems were supposed to turn a profit?

    Who told YOU they had to lose money?

  • ||

    joe-

    First, I want to apologize for suggesting a t-shirt that says "Even joe is right twice a day." The joke was supposed to be about how we have a hard time acknowledging when you're right, but I realize that it came off as an insult about you, and I won't be putting it on any shirts. Since you didn't post again in that thread (as far as I recall) I want to apologize here. (Something tells me that you'll be returning to this thread.)

    Second, I'm curious if you know any figures for how the typical urban mass transit system compares to Amtrak as far as losses per passenger? Nick says that Amtrak's loss per passenger is $112 on average. I wonder how much the typical urban bus system loses per passenger. (Or do they turn a profit from fares? I doubt it, but I don't have the figures to say.)

    Of course, that needs to be weighted by trips taken, but one could work out how many trips the typical Amtrak passenger takes in a year, and work out an annual loss per passenger. Then work out how many trips the average bus passenger takes per year and get an annual loss per passenger.

    What I'm curious about is whether this problem is unique to Amtrak, or whether it's inherent in the nature of public mass transit. No real ideological reason here, just plain curiosity.

    (And to head off objections from other passengers, let me stress that I'm not trying to defend subsidies for Amtrak or any other public transit system. I'm simply curious about how different things compare. One can be curious and still be Ideologically Correct.)

  • ||

    CORRECTION:

    And to head off objections from other passengers...

    I meant to say posters but the word "passengers" was stuck in my head.

  • ||

    Passenger Trains came and went with the horse and buggy. Even here in Europe, if my experience means anything, driving is cheaper most times even at $4.00/gallon and road taxes. It costs like $80 to take a train one way to Munich (about 300 miles from here) and it certainly doesn't cost that much in gas, tolls and parking. I get on trains with like 3 other people in the car with me and have nice pleasant trips wherever (Eurail Pass is so nice). With Ryan Air flights starting at 0.99 and most under $100 roundtrip, its hard to argue for rail anymore. Let Amtrak die. For the love of god, please.

  • Timothy||

    Who takes the train? I mean, seriously, who? Moreover, why would anybody do so aside from some silly nostalgia?

    It's not particularly cheap, it isn't particularly on time, and it isn't particularly pleasant. Fly or rent a damn car, you'll enjoy it more.

    Oh, and close Amtrak down, seriously.

  • Alla||

    thoreau,
    I don't have any exact numbers, but I remember reading an article in the WSJ this year that said the average subway ride (I think in D.C.) actually costs about $19 per passanger. So, if that's correct, it's a big subsidy.

  • ||

    "That is, who told you transportation systems were supposed to turn a profit?"

    If it can't being done profitably, then it isn't adding value, it's destroying value. It's producing a service of less economic value than the resources (both labour and capital) it's consuming.

    It's giving a small subsidy to train travellers at a great expense to taxpayers. Please explain why taxpayers should continue subsidize an organization that destroys economic value.

  • ||

    Who takes the train? I mean, seriously, who? Moreover, why would anybody do so aside from some silly nostalgia?

    Kids running away from home. Plus, people who are going places where they can't have cars and there's no airport nearby (summer camp, college, boarding school, etc.).

  • Jeff||

    I'll have you know that I make the best ham, egg, and vomit biscuits. From scratch. With real vomit, not canned.

  • ||

    Who takes the train?

    I do: I hate flying, long bus rides make me nauseous, and I hate driving. That said, I totally support privatizing Amtrak, because in my neck of the woods (the NE), it can only improve service. I don't have any numbers (or time to research it), but I suspect Amtrak is no more heavily subsidized than the airlines, or even driving. Why there is such an ideological animus around here against train travel -- even in areas like mine where it makes sense -- is beyond me, especially with the nightmare that flying has become recently.

  • ||

    Russ R,

    I suspect that transit proponents would respond that it's providing a cheap means of transit for those without cars, and easing traffic congestion and pollution problems by encouraging others to ride trains to work.

    Of course, we'd probably save money by just subsidizing people who can't afford cars. And after Kelo, what's stopping the govt from easing congestion by building as many roads as they goshdarn please?

  • ||

    Full disclosure: I once took Amtrak from Chicago to Rochester during January. 24 hours for a 600 mile trip.

  • ||

    Rhywun,

    I don't know who you're flying, but it is hardly a nightmare in my opinion.

    I like train travel too, but planes are faster and cheaper in Atlanta.

    Privatising Amtrak would be the nail in the coffin. Hopefully the pieces could be bought up by someone with a better business plan though.

  • ||

    I'll have you know that I make the best ham, egg, and vomit biscuits. From scratch. With real vomit, not canned.

    Is that why Jennifer loves you?


    Unborn Angel...um, I mean, crimethink ;->

    I suspect Amtrak proponents could argue that they are providing value not captured in their revenues, because without Amtrak some areas would not thrive, some profitable trips would be avoided, etc. And maybe they're right. Maybe the economic output of those areas, and the profits of those business trips (or money earned by businesses serving people on pleasure trips) outweighs Amtrak's losses. It wouldn't surprise me.

    If so, then Amtrak needs to (1) raise fares to capture more of that value and (2) improve service so that people aren't turned off by the fare increase. (Yes, I know, ANY price increase will turn SOMEBODY off, basic econ 101, but an improvement in quality can blunt that effect, and sometimes even cancel it out.)

  • Mike||

    I'd be interested to see a comparison of Amtrak per-passenger-mile subsidies compared to the per-passenger-mile subsidies for travel by car and plane. At least with road travel, the subsidy ideally is paid for with gas taxes that are roughly equivalent to user fees.

    And it would be interesting to see a breakdown of subsidies for non-passenger (i.e. freight) usage of each as well.

  • ||

    it is hardly a nightmare in my opinion

    It's a nightmare when I have to stand in line for two hours to get in, when I have to be constantly wondering if any terrorists are sharing my flight, and when it takes another one or two hours to get where I want to go when I get off. Oh, and every goddamn time I fly the turbulence makes me wonder if the "flying" thing is such a good idea after all.

  • ||

    Does anybody know if gasoline taxes are sufficient to cover road spending? Yes, I know, it still wouldn't be an ideal pricing mechanism, there would still be other objections, but it would at least be a self-sustaining system.

  • ||

    Not to worry, thoreau, I got the joke.

    I don't know what a "typical" urban mass transit system is, but cost (I'm not going to go with the base-stealing term "lose," any more than I'm going to talk about how money we "lose" training each Marine) per passenger varies widely from city to city. Amtrak, of course, loses more per passenger because 1) its routes are longer and 2) some of its routes make far less sense than any urban mass transit line I've ever heard of.

    But, like building highways, operating airports, manning lighthouses in the old days, digging canals, and having a Coast Guard, spending on Amtrak exceeds revenues. It's supposed to.

    However, Amtrak's numbers are particularly out of whack. Most urban transit lines are laid out rationally, to serve current or future publics, in a technocratic process. Amtrak is ordered, by Congress, to continue operating lines that don't make any sense at all.

  • ||

    "Who takes the train?"

    I also like the train, for distances between 100 and 1000 miles, in comparison to other methods of travelling. For less than 100 miles, I'll drive. More than 1000 miles I'll fly.

    But in that middle distance, you have the freedom to read, sleep or work, (which you can't do in your car), and you don't have to deal with the hour or so commute to get from the city center to the airport plus the 2+ hour wait until you can finally take off.

    I have yet to suffer the Amtrak experience, but I've spent a fair bit of time taking Canada's equivalent, Via Rail. For a bit of nostalgia (and about $2000) I took the Vancouver - Toronto scenic route last year. Great 3-day cross country trip and first-rate service.

  • ||

    Russ R, does I-95 turn a profit?

    Does having I-95 available for transportation add value to our economy, or destroy value?

    Your model is wrong.

  • Jeff||

    Thoreau: Jennifer loves me mostly for my bile & earwax muffins.

  • ||

    The Amtrak Acela is actually faster from Boston to New York than a flight from Logan to either of NYC-metro area's airports, and then travelling into the city.

    I suspect the same is true of NYC to Balitmore or Washington.

    You can't land planes downtown.

  • Alla||

    But a private bus from Boston to NY is faster and cheaper than a train.

  • ||

    Can someone get numbers on airline bailouts? I think they would dwarf the $1.8 billion for Amtrak.

  • ||

    Alla,

    Seriously. When I was there, NY looked like one huge traffic jam.

  • ||

    Russ R, does I-95 turn a profit?

    Last time I checked the gov't didn't pay and maintain each and every car/truck that ran on I95.

    You are confusing infrastructure (tracks and asphalt) with a company providing a service.

    Your model is wrong.

    As is yours.

  • ||

    But a private bus from Boston to NY is faster and cheaper than a train.

    Cheaper? Yes. Faster? No.

  • Alla||

    It is. But I still usually get there from Boston by bus in under 4 hours. I haven't really looked how long trains take, but I know they're a lot more expensive.

  • ||

    Alla,

    Depends on the traffic, dun't it? Say your bus leaves Boston at 4:30 PM, or gets into NYC at 9:00 AM?

    That's the big downside to buses, either inter- or intra-city.

  • Alla||

    Probably yes

  • ||

    "Last time I checked the gov't didn't pay and maintain each and every car/truck that ran on I95."

    Nonetheless, just on the infrastructure, the government spends a fortune on I-95.

    You seem to be drawing a moral distinction between vehicles and infrastructure, which is all well and good, but doesn't mean much in practical terms.

  • ||

    This is not one of those times when Joe is right. If transportation is valuable, then providing transportation *should* turn a profit. I have a hard time believing that transportation is not a valuable service to me and my fellow human beings. Even if you never left your house, you would still need goods and services to come to you.
    Therefore, the proper question is why are most transportation systems unprofitable? I think most people on this list would agree that it's because government has messed it up with its regulations, controls, and, in Amtrak's case, outright ownership. Passenger rail service was regulated out of existence with silly mandates that ignored economic reality.
    As long as governments have so much control over our transportation systems, we will have a hard time figuring out which forms of transportation are truly the most profitable and worthwhile, although I tend to think that like most markets, a certain amount of variety and niche marketing would exist, even if one form was dominant.

  • ||

    Hear, hear, Max. I hate me some Amtrak subsidies, but not nearly as much as a I hate the bailing out of the airlines.

    joe:

    I think the whole argument is that I-95 should be fully funded by users. We just can't figure out a way to do that. The demand for I-95 is obvious. Amtrak has passengers that are 'tolled' every time they get on the train, and they continue to lose a pile of cash. My fear is that a blase argument to the effect that transport systems are supposed to lose money would mean that there is no basis for comparison and every dingy project is a go on the public dime. I'd like to see some reasonable analysis of the net gains the country gets out of Amtrak. Then, we could tell how legitimate we feel an I-95 comparison might be.

  • ||

    crimethink,

    The government has always been able to take whatever the hell it wanted for roads. Kelo had nothing to do with that.

  • ||

    "does I-95 turn a profit? Does having I-95 available for transportation add value to our economy, or destroy value? Your model is wrong."

    It's impossible to determine if it creates or destroys value until you start charging whatever price the market will bear, and find out whether or not all that revenue covers your costs.

    The price that the market will bear is the only reasonable measure of value created, and your costs are the only reasonable measure of value consumed. If A > B, congratulations... you've justified your economic existence.

  • rox_publius||

    a. no one apoplogize for ripping people. it's what make the internet go round.

    b. this is one of joe's times to be right today. the costs and benefits of amtrak needs to be weighed against the cost of other forms of transportation. it's fair to say that amtrak loses more than highways and provides less benefit (if that is indeed the case), but just saying get rid of it 'cause it costs money is disingenuous unless you also say the same for the interstate highway system (which some here may)

  • rox_publius||

    um...

    or apolgize....

    don't want to do that either

  • ||

    Jason,

    "I'd like to see some reasonable analysis of the net gains the country gets out of Amtrak."

    Now you're talking. You don't often argue the reasonable middle ground, but you're solidly there with this. Some public investment is worthwhile in transportation, but not all public investment in every project will produce enough benefits to justify the outlay. And of course, those benefits go beyond the profitability of the system - it's worth it for the transportation system to be a net cost, if having that system allows other sectors of the economy to achieve greater gains than the transportation system loses. And that's looking at direct economic benefit.

    All too often, you hear one side making absurdly individualist arguments, and the other side completely ignoring the cost, and declaring the benefits they like to be worth any cost. I think your comment gets at the heart of the matter.

    One quibble, though - "Amtrak" is an artificial amalgam. A good analysis would break out each line.

  • ||

    But the argument, rox publius, is that Amtrak provides little or no benefit that is not provided by the interstate highways and various private entities, and happens to lose money in the process.

  • ||

    Sorry - ...may provide little or no benefit...

  • ||

    Russ R,

    My car costs me money. It doesn't earn me a dime.

    Yet it is worth it for me to keep pouring money into my car, because I make more than that much back by being able to get to work.

    "If A > B, congratulations... you've justified your economic existence." Yes, where B = the cost of the transportation system, and A = the revenue from the transportation system + other gains achieved from having that system in place.

    Subjecting the transportation system entirely to the market excludes the second half of B from the eqation, because the private operator of I-95 will never have any way of recouping any of the greater economic growth our country experiences because of its existence.

  • ||

    Here's why transportation can't turn a profit, (this includes air, rail and road). Government is subsidizing all of the competing substitutes, thereby preventing any one from raising prices independently.

    There are too many airlines, and the gov't won't just stand back and let them fold, instead continuing to subsizide the industry with bailouts. Airlines can't raise fares without losing passengers to other bailed-out airlines, or to rail. Railways can't raise fares because passengers can switch to subsidized roads. Until everyone starts paying for the benefits they're getting, the entire transportation industry is going to remain a Soviet-style economic disaster zone. (The one shining exception... urban taxis. A government-enforced oligopoly with no shortage of profits. NYC has 15,500 taxi's and a medallion goes for over $300,000. Making an NYC taxi the most expensive car most people will ever ride in.)

    My solution... outright privatization, an end to subsidies and bailouts, a bunch of business failures, and across the board price hikes. Finally everyone gets what they pay for. How's that for a working model?

  • ||

    Russ R,

    It would make transportation more economically efficient, and stifle growth throughout the rest of the economy to a much greater degree.

  • ||

    joe:

    "My car costs me money. It doesn't earn me a dime."

    Wrong... you've totally ignored opportunity cost. What would all your movements cost you (in lost time and money) if you didn't have the car? Odds are, you opted to pay for the car (and associated costs) because it is the more economical choice, delivering more relative value than the alternative of not owning it.

  • ||

    You seem to be drawing a moral distinction between vehicles and infrastructure, which is all well and good, but doesn't mean much in practical terms.

    Sure it does. The vehicles that run on I95 seem to be doing so without a nice fat gov't subsidy (well, with the exception of the Postal vehicles).

    The gov't has a much more compelling case to say they've got to be involved with infrastructure than they do with providing the services that run on top of that infrastructure. Road and railroad lines touch on issues of right of way and limited land available to build such things. Building such infrastructure, for better or worse, can only realistically be done with major policital involvement. This is not the case, however, with what utilizes that infrastructure. FedEx, UPS, the mountains of shipping and bussing companies companies, etc. not to mention the mountain of individuals who seem to do just ok without a gov't handout.

  • ||

    "It would make transportation more economically efficient, and stifle growth throughout the rest of the economy to a much greater degree."

    And what makes you so sure that 'growth at any cost' is a good thing? There's plenty of economically senseless development going on right now, that arguably wouldn't be done if the market were truly free. But it all creates jobs, right (or consumes valuable labour resources for no discernable benefit)?

  • ||

    It would make transportation more economically efficient, and stifle growth throughout the rest of the economy to a much greater degree.

    Huh? If transportation becomes economically efficient, then that would free up wasted money that could be used elsewhere in the economy.

  • ||

    How's that for a working model?

    I agree. The current system is so convoluted it's hard to figure out what's "worth it" and what isn't. Of course it will never happen, so it's hardly worth talking about (in my opinion).

  • ||

    Subjecting the transportation system entirely to the market excludes the second half of B from the eqation, because the private operator of I-95 will never have any way of recouping any of the greater economic growth our country experiences because of its existence.

    You're still mixing infrastructure with the service provided on top of it. The analogy only makes sense if the gov't owned and operated not only 95 but all of the traffic that rides on it.

  • ||

    I live in the DC area, where Amtrak is supposedly profitable, at least between here and NY.

    To take the trains, it's at least $180 roundtrip.

    To take the bus, it's at least $30 roundtrip.

    Trains run twice every hour. Buses--there's five companies who compete, probably more, run 3-5 times per hour.

    I can't smoke on the train, so why purchase an overpriced drink. The bus'll stop in Baltimore and other places, letting me out briefly, and they're Chinese, for god's sake, so they understand these matters. They also have TVs for every seat (though I tend to read).

    Traffic can be bad on the bus, but train service has declined. Unless I'm carrying a ton of books for a show, in which case it's gas up the Escape and head for the turnpike, guess how I'll travel.

    //Oh, and some of the buses leave from within 5 minutes (walking) of my house.

  • ||

    joe:

    When you say I don't argue the reasonable middle very often, do you mean as compared to people in these parts, or out in the non libertarian world at large? I'm pretty moderate as libertarians go, and I'm mostly interested in consequences. I like to think that I usually argue along those lines.

    It is certainly my preference that both I-95 and Amtrak be self sustaining. I agree that once we have decided that I-95 can exist, there is nothing especially worse about a rail system if it either creates value in some way to offset costs in the same way I-95 does or serves as a more cost effective substitute for an interstate. I don't want the absolute value of subsidy to go up, but I'm open to the argument that we already have a given level of inefficiency, so changing the shape of that inefficiency is not necessarily worse.

    Maybe Amtrak should put that on a tee shirt as a ringing endorsement ...

  • ||

    Amtrak came about in the 1960's when US commercial rail passenger service was dying due to improfitability. The loss of passenger rail was a big deal in the rural South, where car ownership was beyond the means of many poor people. Also, Amtrak didn't discriminate against blacks.

    Bus service was available, but blacks were still relegated to the back of the bus (literally) on non-interstate routes. The feds could only force integrated bus service on interstate routes.

  • ||

    Of course, radical changes in the price of gas - if you believe that sort of thing is possible - could have a huge impact on the relative cost of driving, busses and trains. The tiny number of electric trains in the US (basically, Washington to Boston, plus some commuter trains) at least have the ability to run on coal or nuclear.

  • ||

    Jason Ligon,

    "I'm pretty moderate as libertarians go." Yes, I suppose you are. Similarly, I'm pretty property-rights-friendly as urban planners go.

    I was taking about the population at large.

  • ||

    joe:

    Yuk yuk. I agree with your assessment on both of us, then.

  • ||

    joe:

    Killing growth that isn't sustainable would seem to me to be a lefty's dream, wouldn't it?

    Also, I know it's unusual, but DCA is right downtown, and an NY-DC plane trip is very quick, even accounting for security. It's also cheaper than Acela.

  • ||

    This is an article from about 3 years ago that goes into detail about Amtrak's fleecing of the taxpayer. I won't spoil it for you, but only a government function could manage to employ 55 superfluous VP's. I'm going to have to agree with DC-NY Venturer about the Chinatown Bus. A friend and I took one from Philadelphia to NYC for $10 apiece, and our bus also had the aforementioned TV's for every seat. I remember that there was an uber-campy MST3K-grade looking Asian film on (apparently Chinese) with no English subtitles. There was one man of Asian (apparently Chinese) decsent who watched with rapt attention, and every few minutes he would erupt into uproarious laughter. I don't know if it was the film or the guy, but my friend and I laughed all the way to NYC. Best $10 I ever spent.

  • Lee||

    1.2 billion, that's chump change.

    Delay gets 1.5 billion for his buddies.

    http://www.yubanet.com/artman/publish/article_23241.shtml

  • ||

    Well, you know, a billion here, a billion there, and soon you're talking real money...

  • Ken Hagler||

    Timothy asked, "Who takes the train? I mean, seriously, who? Moreover, why would anybody do so aside from some silly nostalgia?"

    I do for longer trips. I refuse to subject myself to airport "security," and I don't drive, so it's that or take a bus. Buses are fine for shorter trips (and faster than Amtrak), but they're very cramped. For a longer trip it's important to have a private compartment to sleep in.

  • Kevin Carson||

    "Please explain why taxpayers should continue subsidize an organization that destroys economic value."
    --Russ R.

    You might say the same thing about interstate highways, which get a great deal of funding from general revenues, and don't apportion fuel taxes between trucks and cars according to the respective amounts of damage they cause. I believe semi rigs cause something like 99% of all structural damage to the road beds, because of their weight. If the interstates were funded entirely by weight-distance taxes on trucks, I'm guessing the railroads would be reopening old routes as fast as they could lay new track on abandoned rights of way.

    The civil aviation system, also, was built almost entirely at taxpayer expense.

    How about we fund ALL transportation with user fees, apportioned among users according to the cost they impose on the system?

  • ||

    Similarly, I'm pretty property-rights-friendly as urban planners go.

    I believe this, sadly...

  • ||

    One quibble, though - "Amtrak" is an artificial amalgam. A good analysis would break out each line.

    A product of central planning, serving needs which may not exist with means that may not work.

    I believe semi rigs cause something like 99% of all structural damage to the road beds, because of their weight. If the interstates were funded entirely by weight-distance taxes on trucks, I'm guessing the railroads would be reopening old routes as fast as they could lay new track on abandoned rights of way.

    The upkeep of roads might be better funded by ton-mile taxes, but the building of roads is now almost exclusively to serve automobile traffic. Railroads have their own inefficiencies that keep trucks in business for at least some cargo. Trucks are faster cross-country, and railroads have a difficult time protecting perishable cargo (the fruit gets bruised to hell). Trains cannot offer direct dock-to-dock service, and are subject to route-closing mishaps (the truck can easily divert around a flooded section).

    How would we actually implement a user-fee system? If we dismiss the historical land grants (which are over-hyped anyway), rail is already close to such an ideal. But try telling Soccer Mom that her trip around the beltway is now going to cost her $25...

  • ||

    Newsflash: Congress just passed the Highway Bill

    What the news isn't saying (yet):

    Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas got $700 million in earmarks for his district (Bakersfield, CA). This is way WAY more than anyone else,
    even Transp. chair Young from Alaska, who only managed to get a few hundred million or so.

    Article in Bakersfield Californian:

    http://www.bakersfield.com/local/story/5588378p-5562016c.html

    reg. required, use "dailykos" for both (thanks bugmenot.com!)

    House conference reports (this is where they snuck the projects in at
    the last minute):

    http://www.house.gov/rules/109textTEALU.htm

    Under the heading "Title 1 table inserts" the Bakersfield projects are mostly in the first two categories. As we all know Bakersfield IS of national significance...

    Notice these are large PDFs because they're scans, not text. Thus they're not searchable (intentional?)

  • ||

    It's a nightmare when I have to stand in line for two hours to get in, when I have to be constantly wondering if any terrorists are sharing my flight, and when it takes another one or two hours to get where I want to go when I get off. Oh, and every goddamn time I fly the turbulence makes me wonder if the "flying" thing is such a good idea after all.

    Dude, you're supposed to get drunk in the taxi on the ride over. Keep it rolling with a drink or two in the hotel bar, and then hit the plane, get a little bottle of something, and pass out.

    - Josh, gin + planes = win

  • ||

    Seriously, even Greyhound is more comfortable than an airplane.

  • ||

    Wild Pegasus,

    I'll remember that next time :-)

  • ||

    Seriously, even Greyhound is more comfortable than an airplane.

    I'll take a crying baby over the people that I've met on Greyhound any day of the week.

  • ||

    Oh, and many ages ago, when I took my epic Greyhound journey from Milwaukee to Charleston, SC and back (long story), Greyhound's idea of "on time" made Amtrak look punctual by comparison. It was OK in WI, IL, and IN. Starting in KY and TN it just went downhill. By the time we got to SC it was hopeless.

    Oh, and when I went from NYC to Boston in 1998, I set behind a guy who's hair was so greasy that when he rested his head against the window to nap the window started dripping. And I sat in front of a guy who talked about all the violent things he wanted to do to white people.

  • ||

    >Or do they turn a profit from fares? I doubt it, but I don't have the figures to say.

    Public transit systems typically report operating budgets without setting aside a pool of money ("sinking fund") to pay for future capital improvement and replacement. Thus even if they reported a profit, it's a false one because they'd never be able to replace their vehicles and infrastructure. Also, because the federal government subsidizes capital improvements and not operating budgets, transit systems have a huge incentive to promote new vehicles and infrastructure like light rail systems (aka boondoggle) that they cannot afford to operate.

  • ||

    > I suspect Amtrak is no more heavily subsidized than the airlines

    Who is subsidizing the airlines? They pay billions in fuel taxes, landing fees, and gate leases.

  • ||

    >I think the whole argument is that I-95 should be fully
    >funded by users. We just can't figure out a way to do that.

    Sure we can. They're called fuel excise taxes, registration fees, and sales taxes on fuel and vehicles sales. The problem is that much of these funds are funneled into other general fund expenditures or into subsidizing mass transit, instead of taking care of things like I-95.

  • ||

    That is, who told you transportation systems were supposed to turn a profit?

    Congress. The federal law that created Amtrak stated that it was to be "a for profit corporation". In addition, the law said Amtrak was "not to be an agency or establishment of the United States Government", which cannot be said about the Federal Highway Administration.

  • ||

    If the interstates were funded entirely by weight-distance taxes on trucks, I'm guessing the railroads would be reopening old routes as fast as they could lay new track on abandoned rights of way.

    Ding! This would also have the benefit of making the roads commensurately safer without so much semi traffic.

  • ||

    Ditto thoreau on Greyhound. One epic journey is enough to better yourself so you never have to do it again. There is something, i dunno, almost American Gothic horror about the experience. The lunatics, the drunks, that special smell, and the probing of a loosened seat spring in your ass for hours and hours beyond what you were expecting to have to deal with. If I had an iota of writing skill I would've written a horror novel right after the experience.

  • ||

    Dynamist,

    "But try telling Soccer Mom that her trip around the beltway is now going to cost her $25."

    In a rational, user-fee world, urban and regional development would have looked quite different. There would be no reason for Soccer Mom to travel from the wild boonies of Laurel to the wild boonies of Potomic Mills on a regular basis. She, would, however, have to travel into downtown and back, and this would be much easier and cheaper than it is today.

    Lesson: you can't just look at transportation policy in a bubble.

  • ||

    joe: Yes, in a user-fee world we would have built radial developments along rail routes. Just as we did before the auto came into vogue. I like the model of TNDs, but it is tough to support them in a bubble that excludes the autocentric transport policy. You end up with counter-subsidies and state mandates working against the existing road subsidies and deeply-ingrained population habits.

    We have common ground in a desire to kill auto (and air) subsidy. But that brings me back to the Soccer Mom; how do we sell it to her?

  • ||

    There would be no reason for Soccer Mom to travel from the wild boonies of Laurel to the wild boonies of Potomic Mills on a regular basis.

    There isn't -- Arundel Mills has been open for several years now. :)

  • ||

    I don't know how the economics behind this work, but I take a commuter rail train every day between Providence and Boston. They're almost always on time, cost about $6.00 and quite roomy. The MBTA, which runs them, is not in a wonderful fiscal state, but I don't think it's as big a mess as Amtrak. It's cheaper, smoother and more pleasant than taking the bus (and they have tables where you can eat dinner or do work during your commute). The cars are frequently quite full, so there is a definite demand for it.

    I would ride Amtrak trains more often if they didn't cost so damn much. I really don't see, with all the advantages of train travel, why someone can't make them work as cost-effectively as buses.

  • ||

    Mark: MBTA gets over 69% of its revenue from the taxpayers. The train is full because people not riding it are paying most of your fare. It may be better managed than Amtrak, and/or saddled with a less-futile route structure, but it is still a loser.

    Of course, joe can reasonably claim that having the T provides more benefit to the area than the subsidies it sucks down. But is it fair to make somebody else pay for your ride?

  • ||

    Dynamist,

    My fare adds up to $200/mo. for a monthly pass. which includes travel on all MBTA trains and buses. Add my own contributions in the way of taxes, and I pay pretty much what I probably would be paying in monthly installments for an inexpensive car.

    As for whether or not it's fair, I would want to know the amount per tax payer, plus the benefit in reduced congestion (i.e. how much worse would rush hour traffic be without the T? How much more work time would be lost to businesses as people are late to work? I see plenty of people working on their laptops on the train. Not something you can do while driving). I think, although I don't have any data to back this up, that many people who don't use public transport on a regular basis are happy to have it around and consider it as a plus when deciding where to live.

    Regardless, I was responding to those people who were putting down train travel as unnecessary and inferior to privately run bus lines. If someone wanted to privatize the trains, I'm saying there's enough demand that I don't see why they couldn't be made to at least break even.

  • ||

    People who get subsidies love subsidies. Walk the talk and privatize MBTA.

  • ||

    Dynamist,

    We continued to build radial developments along rail after the popular automobile ownership was widespread. The car was an enhancement to the TND regional pattern, not in conflict with it. Except when it came to parking the things in the neighborhoods, and that's a minor design fix.

    The anti-rail ideologues depend on blurring this distinction, and present the alternative to the highway/sprawl pattern as the pre-automotive period. In fact, if you look at places built in the 1920s, they've got TND and railways. No conflict was necessary.

    As for the MBTA, the benefit that accrues to non-riders, the reduction in traffic congestion, is a classic commons problem that a market-based system can't account for. Each of the drivers on the highways achieved a benefit, with a dollar value, from reduced traffic volume during the peak hours. However, any attempt to replace the tax money spend to achieve this benefit via donations from drivers would fail, because of the free rider problem. No one driver failing to pay would break the system, as long as everyone else paid. Yet when they all apply this rational logic, they all end up with less value than if they'd paid.

    Other values promoted by the subsidies - from open space conservation to the redevelopment of urban areas to the minimization of valuable urban real estate being wasted on parking to reduced air pollution - are similarly situated.

  • ||

    And you sell it to Soccer Mom by drawing her a picture of her kids walking to a nearby school, of not having to drive them around as much, of cheaper homes, of shorter commutes, of running into the neighbors at the corner store, and of happy little bambis frolicking in the woods that didn't get turned into subdivisions and office parks.

    You tell her there's a reason older neighborhoods were safer and more neighborly.

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