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Posts from the "Trains" Category

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As Highway and Air Travel Slump, Intercity Train Trips Increase

If your holiday plans happen to include taking the train to another city, you’re in good company. As has been widely reported, Amtrak has broken ridership records throughout the year. A total of 31.2 million passengers boarded Amtrak trains in the fiscal year that ended September 30; that’s an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous year.

As car travel becomes more expensive, trains are growing in popularity. Photo: Viewliner Ltd.

What’s also interesting, as reported by our friends at All Aboard Ohio, is that as more people opt for intercity trains, highway driving is dipping and air travel is losing ground.

Over the past 12 years, Amtrak ridership has grown 46 percent [PDF]. Meanwhile, highway travel — excluding freight — is down 7 percent over that time. Total plane boardings grew just 3 percent over the same period, compared to U.S. population growth of 12 percent.

All Aboard Ohio’s Ken Prendergast points to the increased costs of driving as a major factor:

The costs of driving rose 54 percent from 32.5 cents per mile in 2000 to 50 cents in 2010. It climbed higher in 2012, to 55.5 cents per mile.

Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman credited increased investments in the nation’s passenger rail system with propelling the trend. With funding from President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail initiative, routes like St. Louis-to-Chicago and Detroit-to-Chicago are undergoing significant improvements that are likely to entice additional passengers.

Boardman also cited the popularity of WiFi service, available on more and more trains.

Commenting on the trend earlier this year, the New York Times pegged the hassles that come with flying — increasing delays, more stringent security measures, and rising costs — as another factor.

And while the Times focused on Amtrak’s most highly traveled route — the Northeast Corridor, which saw a 4.8 percent ridership jump — it’s also worth noting that many lower-profile lines enjoyed similar, or in some cases even larger, percent increases.

The number of passengers on St. Louis-to-Chicago routes went up 11 percent last year. North Carolina’s Piedmont corridor, serving Charlotte and Raleigh, enjoyed the highest annual increase in the system, at 16.2 percent. Even long-distance routes saw impressive growth. On the Texas Eagle, between Chicago and San Antonio, boardings were up 12.8 percent to almost 338,000 [PDF].

Amtrak takes a lot of heat — especially from the current House of Representatives — because it’s subsidized. But clearly, Amtrak is providing a service that — for a variety of reasons that don’t seem likely to reverse themselves anytime soon — a growing number of Americans find appealing.

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Explaining the Psychological Appeal of Rail Over Buses

An often-remarked-upon phenomenon in the transit world is the preference, perceived or otherwise, for rail over buses. But this tendency has not been well understood.

A pair of recent European case studies delved into this issue, and their findings help illuminate the psychology behind what many have observed. In the first study, set in Germany, 63 percent of subjects preferred a regional train system over an equivalent bus system, given a hypothetical choice with all other factors being equal. Meanwhile, in a second study set in Switzerland, 75 percent preferred trams to buses — even given identical service levels.

Of note, researchers found preferences for rail travel were “rather irrational” and “highly loaded with emotional and social attributions.” The largest factor explaining the favoritism was “emotional attributes,” like nostalgia, accounting for 38 percent of the bias in Germans. Meanwhile, concrete factors like differences in seat structure or the merits of a fixed guideway accounted for only five percent each.

Even very high-quality bus systems were not immune from the emotional effect, the report noted, but the researchers pointed out that negative perceptions faded as familiarity with better bus systems increased.

According to the report, almost all daily transit users preferred train travel. Younger people showed a particularly strong preference for rail. And the preference for train travel increased with education, but not income.

Researchers cautioned that because modal preferences are so profoundly influenced by cultural and emotional factors, the findings may not be generalizable to other cites or countries.

Read more…

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The Last Mile: How Bike-Ped Improvements Can Connect People to Transit

Whether it’s just a short walk down the street or a five-mile bike ride, the journey between home and station is a major factor in people’s decision to take public transit.

Bike-share can bridge the last mile for public transit. Photo: Flickr/Arlington Country

For the transit officials and livability advocates gathered at the Rail~Volution conference this week, that key piece of the journey is known as the Last Mile. Frequent service and affordable fares, on their own, won’t entice people to make that trip. The route to the station also has to appeal to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Every transit trip is a multi-modal journey, pointed out Alan Lehto, director of project planning for TriMet in Portland, at the start of a panel yesterday. “Everybody who rides transit is a pedestrian or cyclist on at least one end of their trip,” Lehto said. “Getting people to and from the station is fundamentally important.”

But that aspect of transit is often overlooked. In fact, look no further than Portland itself, Lehto said. In a recent study, TriMet evaluated all 7,000 bus and transit stations within the region and found major gaps in bike-ped accessibility. “We realized that 1,500 of those don’t even have a sidewalk,” Lehto said.

Ensuring that transit stations are served by adequate pedestrian infrastructure is the bare minimum required to connect people to transit. Making the Last Mile truly appealing takes more than laying down sidewalks and adding a few bike racks.

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Taking Greyhound? Papers, Please.

Transportation options for undocumented immigrants are becoming narrower and narrower in the U.S. Whatever you may think of immigration policy, there are about 11 million people living in the shadows in this country who have ever fewer ways to get around.

Should immigration agents use buses and trains as a place to catch undocumented immigrants? Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Immigration agents have been boarding Greyhound buses to nab undocumented immigrants, according to a story in Sunday’s Miami Herald. Anecdotal evidence from immigration attorneys and detainees shows that public transportation is becoming a favorite place for agents to hunt down immigrants:

“I am definitely seeing a large number of people stopped by Greyhound,” said attorney Sara Van Hofwegen… On one recent visit to the BTC in Southwest Broward, Van Hofwegen spoke to 12 detainees. Five of the 12 were apprehended on a Greyhound.

“I’d say Greyhound cases make up about 20 percent of our clients now,’’ said Juliet Williams, an assistant with the law offices of Kantaras & Andreopoulos, with offices in Central Florida. “That is much more than we’ve usually seen.”

She estimates the firm has seen an increase in Greyhound apprehensions of about 25 percent in the past two years.

There is no longer a single state in the union that will issue a drivers license without asking any questions. But has the crackdown over the past few years stopped people from driving? Of course not. It just means that many are driving without accountability, and without paying.

But even if they do stop driving, no matter: ICE will just catch them on buses and trains.

Read more…

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Biden’s Homage to Amtrak

The nation's Amtrak rider-in-chief, Vice President Joseph Biden, has penned an op-ed for the rail network's monthly magazine entitled "Why America Needs Trains."

15blog_biden.jpgThe Vice President and his wife share a tender moment -- on the Acela. (Photo: NYT)

Biden doesn't get too political in the piece, eschewing calls for more Amtrak funding in favor of a paean to the "emotional connection" he experienced riding the rails during his 36-year congressional career.

But the vice president, who has taken on a central role in the White House's high-speed rail push, closes with a strong endorsement of inter-city trains as pollution reducers:

Consider that if you shut down Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, it is estimated that to compensate for the loss, you'd have to add seven new lanes of highway to Interstate 95. When you consider that it costs an average of $30 million for one linear mile of one lane of highway, you see what a sound investment rail travel is. And that's before you factor in the environmental benefits of keeping millions and millions of cars off the road.

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The Washington Post Features Rail Hack Job

This is the big problem with Ed Glaeser's New York Times posts purporting to analyze the costs and benefits of a high speed rail system.

Despite Glaeser's acknowledgment that his "back-of-the-envelope calculation" doesn't "[represent] a complete evaluation of any actual proposed route," the posts are sure to be read and regurgitated by rail opponents uninterested in having an actual debate on the merits of high-speed rail investments.

Today, the Washington Post's lame excuse for an economics columnist, Robert Samuelson, used numbers from Glaeser's analysis in writing an extremely regrettable piece arguing that investments in high-speed rail are misguided. But this is no honest entry into the discussion of how best to invest in transportation infrastructure. It's a hack job, plain and simple.

Samuelson begins by complaining about Amtrak subsidies, but he can't be bothered to address what those subsidies actually suggest about the competitiveness of fast, intercity rail. On the corridor where service most closely resembles true high-speed service, Amtrak runs an operating profit.

It gets much worse from there. Samuelson argues against rail on the basis of population density, writing:

What works in Europe and Asia won't in the United States. Even abroad, passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable because geography and energy policies differ.

Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it's 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can.

This is embarrassingly bad analysis. America's overall population density includes vast expanses of land in the west where few people live and where high-speed trains won't be built (have a look at the administration's map of proposed routes here and note how many low-density states are not expected to get service).

The proper point of comparison is the population densities of metropolitan corridors where lines will be built. A child could understand the point, and yet Samuelson, out of ignorance or deliberate obtuseness, doesn't get it.

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Glaeser Goes Out With a Whimper

For those just tuning in, economist Ed Glaeser has been writing a four-part series on the potential costs and benefits of high-speed rail at the New York Times' Economix blog. He began three weeks ago with an introduction. The following week he addressed direct costs and benefits from a hypothetical line, and last week he attempted to gauge the environmental benefits of high-speed rail construction.

The whole of the analysis has been highly flawed (see my earlier criticisms here and here). It is overly simplistic, excludes important variables, and relies on faulty assumptions.

Glaeser has quite nearly admitted as much, arguing that he chose the hypothetical Dallas-Houston route -- which is not in the administration's plan for a high-speed network -- in order "to avoid giving the impression that this back-of-the-envelope calculation represents a complete evaluation of any actual proposed route."

But it doesn't take a close read to see that Glaeser wishes to demonstrate that rail investments do not make economic sense. He has not been particularly charitable in acknowledging the shortcomings of his work, and he has therefore left his readers with a very misleading picture of the probable outcome of construction of a high-speed rail system.

I have continued to hold out hope that he'll improve his analysis along the way, but as of today we have the final chapter -- on high-speed rail's potential reshaping of the American economy -- and it, too, is embarrassingly bad.

In his earlier posts, Glaeser did not take population growth into account -- a rather large failing while analyzing a piece of infrastructure we can expect to last for decades. This time around he aims to defuse this criticism by writing:

These numbers suggest that costs will exceed benefits each year by $524 million if the rail line has 1.5 million customers, and by $401 million if the region’s rail demand has a huge rate of growth and attracts three million riders.

It's worth recalling where those numbers come from. Read more...

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Ed Glaeser’s Rail Fail

The story so far: Ed Glaeser recently began an effort to assess the costs and benefits of constructing high-speed rail lines at the New York Times' Economix blog. Last week, he posted his first substantive take on the issue, an attempt to estimate direct costs and benefits from a hypothetical line between Houston and Dallas.

dal_lrt_pax_deboard_Akard_stn_v2x2_DART.jpgDallas' DART transit system. (Photo: Light Rail Now)
This effort was riddled with errors. First among them was the choice of route: a Dallas to Houston line that doesn't appear on the administration's plan for high-speed rail construction.

In this week's post he responds to that complaint by saying he picked a "mythical" 240-mile span between Dallas and Houston "to avoid giving the impression that this back-of-the-envelope calculation represents a complete evaluation of any actual proposed route" -- which should lead one to wonder exactly what he's doing here.

He's unwilling to put his figures on the line as representing a complete analysis, and yet he's fairly immodest in detailing his conclusions. He at least owes his readers an assessment of what is being left out, how important it is, and how its inclusion might alter his findings.

Glaeser's analysis assumes no population growth -- he bases ridership on current metropolitan populations -- and no shift in mode share over time, despite the fact that both Houston and Dallas have rates of transit ridership well below similar-sized cities (suggesting that with growth, transit's share will increase) and are rapidly constructing new systems to facilitate greater transit use.

If one adjusts anticipated ridership figures to correct for these errors, and if one uses a more realistic figure for the value of business traveler time, then benefits appear to come quite close to or exceed costs of construction.

Today, Glaeser seeks to estimate the environmental and congestion benefits of high-speed rail, and he quickly stumbles into error once again. Once more, he fails to take into account population growth, despite that variable's crucial importance to this analysis.

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Senate Starts Climate Push With Nods to Jobs, Energy, and Transportation

7_6_09_climate_change.jpgTotal U.S. emissions in 2007, with transportation in blue at right. (Photo: FHWA)
The Senate is taking its first public steps toward combating climate change -- and while the U.S. DOT was absent from this morning's hearing, the chiefs of the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency reminded lawmakers that transportation must play a key role in any emissions reduction plan.

Under questioning from Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), who lamented that "transit hasn't gotten the attention it needs in America," both Energy Secretary Steven Chu and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson agreed that climate legislation should help promote alternatives to single-passenger car travel.

Jackson even low-balled the carbon footprint of the nation's transportation choices, describing cars, trucks, and aircraft as "about 20 percent" of total U.S. emissions when the total number is closer to one-third (see above chart).

Many of those fuel-burning trips, Jackson said, are commuters who drive alone "often because they have no choice," making transportation reform a "quality of life" issue as well as an environmental one.

Chu seconded his fellow Cabinet member: "Increasing public transportation use, especially in urban areas, would do a lot in terms of decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions." Moreover, Chu added, rail is not just a way to move people more sustainably -- moving goods via freight rail can achieve fuel efficiency greater than 400 miles per gallon, blowing trucks out of the water.

The nod to transportation during today's hearing signals that the Senate may not relegate transit and smart growth to the third- and fourth-fiddle roles that they played in the House climate bill. Indeed, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who will take the lead on Senate climate legislation, recently advised transportation reformers to "work with me on my global warming bill."

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Missing the Point on High-Speed Rail

Ed Glaeser is a fantastic economist. He has done magnificent work analyzing the economics of urban growth and written indispensable papers on the connection between housing regulations and migration.

But when the man picks up his pen to write a piece for public consumption, he tends to take complete leave of his senses. I realize that this is a common affliction among economists, but Glaeser suffers from a severe case of the syndrome.

In a Friday piece in the Boston Globe, Glaeser takes on the administration's push to fund construction of high-speed rail corridors around the country. In doing so, he combines the cognitive failures of every amateur train hater with a serious lapse in critical thinking.

He begins by making two very valid points: transit agencies are currently suffering serious and unfortunate shortfalls, and transportation funding generally is allocated where it's least needed -- to states with low levels of population, population density, and congestion.

But then he rapidly goes off the rails. Glaeser writes:

Now the administration wants Americans to envision high-speed rail lines in the wide-open spaces of Texas.

For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center.

Of course, Texas has four of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan areas, all within a few hundred miles of each other -- an ideal distance for high-speed rail. Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are currently home to some 16 million people, and those metropolitan areas have added 3 million people since 2000 alone. Congestion is an issue within those metropolitan areas and will continue to worsen as they grow.

Not only is it entirely appropriate to build transportation infrastructure with future growth in mind, it's imperative. America's current sprawling growth pattern resulted in no small part from the mass construction of interstates and highways, which drew suburbanites to previously unsettled areas.

Moreover, Texan metropolitan areas are working to accommodate future growth in a denser fashion by building miles of metropolitan transit systems. Transit and rail are complementary technologies, each of which will increase the return on investment of the other.

Glaeser's errors continue. Read more...