Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

"Help stop the Great Train Robbery!" excursion, 25 June

14. June 2005 • Murph
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The SEMG (Southeast Michigan Group) Sierra Club, Transit Riders United, and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers are holding a ride-in from Pontiac to Kalamazoo and back on 25 June to show support for continued federal funding for Amtrak:

Join members of the SEMG Sierra Club, Transportation Riders United (TRU) ,and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers on Saturday, June 25, 2005 for a day long excursion from Pontiac to Kalamazoo to show support for full Federal funding of AMTRAK (proposed Federal budget cuts would virtually assure an end to passenger rail service in the State of Michigan).

We will meet at the Pontiac AMTRAK station (free parking available) at 10am for a press conference/rally after which we will board the 11:05am train bound for Kalamazoo with stops in Detroit, Dearborn and Ann Arbor. After a 2 hour layover in Kalamazoo we will return to Pontiac by 8.55pm…join us for the whole trip or just part of the journey as your time allows!!!
We will leaflet and converse with passengers at each stop along the route, urging them to contact their legislators to oppose any Federal budget cuts to AMTRAK!!!

According to AMTRAK’s latest surveys, Michigan ridership is up 15% from last year, serving over 600,000 passengers per year and employing 133 Michigan state residents. Rep. Joe Knollenberg (MI) chairs the House Transportation Subcommittee for the Appropriations Committee in Washington, DC. If there is only one action you can take, please phone, email or FAX (letters may be subject to security delays) his office before a committee vote scheduled for June 15 to let him know you want increased funding for AMTRAK. (FAX number (202) 226-2356 or email: Rep.Knollenberg@mail.house.gov as well your own national and state legislator since state funding is also at risk.

Intercity rail travelers emit up to 3 times less pollution per passenger mile than automobiles and 6 times less than by air. Support of Amtrak would help reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce our impact on global warming.

Help spread the word to your family, neighbors & friends!!! Don’t allow George Bush and his Congressional allies to pull the plug on AMTRAK by taking away Federal support!!

Don’t Delay; Amtrak has given us a discounted group rate- use code x733 when purchasing your ticket (approx. $34 round trip Pontiac to Kalamazoo). The code does not work for Amtrak’s website www.Amtrak.com. To use the discount code you must call 800-USA-RAIL no later than June 15 in time to mail your ticket or be subject to an additional Fed Ex charge since the Pontiac station does not have an agent. Or buy your ticket at a staffed Amtrak station in Detroit, Dearborn or Ann Arbor.

Please purchase your ticket as early as possible as space may be limited. Please R.V.S.P. Ed McArdle 313-388-6645 or ecoed@netzero.net so that we can notify Amtrak to make special arrangements.

For more info; contact Ed at above or Transportation Riders United (TRU) 313-963-8872 or mwhims@detroittransit.org.

For those not interested in driving to Pontiac and taking advantage of the wonderful free parking available, but would like to pick up the tour in Ann Arbor, the eastbound leg passes through Ann Arbor at 12:48pm, and return is at 6:47pm.



  1. Intercity rail travelers emit up to 3 times less pollution per passenger mile than automobiles and 6 times less than by air.

    Up to?

    I wonder—if the trains are underutilized, do they provide any actual pollution benefit—or are they really less fuel-efficient per passenger mile because there aren’t enough passengers? And if the train is used at capacity most of the time, why should a big federal subsidy be required to keep the service going?

    It seems to me that the need for subsidies at least suggests that the Amktrak routes in Michigan are neither economically efficient nor environmentally beneficial in actual practice. Or am I missing something?

    (I wonder the same about AATA buses, BTW. At typcial ridership levels, are they really even environmentally beneficial? Or are they, in effect, big diesel stretch limos for a few passengers on most routes most of the time?)
       —mw    Jun. 14 '05 - 06:20PM    #
  2. The need for the passenger train subsidies is largely a result of the need to cover the costs of the infrastructure that it uses. No other mode of transportation is expected to cover such costs so directly. If planes, trucks and cars users had to pay the full costs of the roads and airports that they require to move, they too would have to be subsidized to be economically affordable. They are subsidized of course, it’s just not as obvious as the subsidies for trains.
       —John Q    Jun. 14 '05 - 06:42PM    #
  3. The need for the passenger train subsidies is largely a result of the need to cover the costs of the infrastructure that it uses.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s true. My understanding is that Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks—the freight companies do, and that they make much heavier use of them than Amtrak does (and that the freight haulers are profitable on those same lines which they actually have to pay to maintain).

    In any case, that’s a side issue from the question of whether Amtrak trains are actually fuel-efficient, low pollution methods of transportation given actual rather than theoretically optimal levels of ridership.
       —mw    Jun. 14 '05 - 08:53PM    #
  4. mw, many Amtrak trains run full, or close to it. I’ve taken the Empire Builder (Chicago to Spokane/Seattle/Portland) a few times, and it’s been full every time to the point of being standing-room only for short pieces of the trip. The Pontiac-Chicago line is usually full on the weekends by the time you get to Chicago, and I’ve had weekends where I wanted to buy tickets and couldn’t. The Northeast Corridor (+ Acela) is often full, especially on the New York-Philly leg.

    As far as your question about fuel-efficiency, I haven’t seen the studies cited, so I don’t know the methodology. I do know that there have been very real (“real” like “academic, peer reviewed”) studies on the matter, and not just something some rail advocate came up with on a napkin. I’d expect that such studies took into account things like average passenger miles per locomotive mile and average passenger miles per automobile mile. You could probably figure out exactly what the number means – rather than attacking what it was simplified to in a press release – if you cared to.
       —Murph    Jun. 15 '05 - 08:34AM    #
  5. “My understanding is that Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks—the freight companies do”

    That’s partly true. In some cases, like in the NE Corridor, Amtrak does own the tracks. But even where they lease the tracks, they still have to help cover the costs to maintain and upgrade the lines. How many trucking companies “lease” the roads that they drive on?
       —John Q    Jun. 15 '05 - 09:21AM    #
  6. Amtrak also does some track maintenance. Freight trains can handle lower quality tracks than Amtrak wants for reasonable speed, and so Amtrak occasionally begs permission to do some capital improvement.
       —Murph    Jun. 15 '05 - 10:08AM    #
  7. A study by Lancaster University in England says that train travel may actually be more damaging to the environment than travel by car.

    From an article in the scotsman.com:
    ”... researchers published work which they say shows that rail travel can be more damaging to the environment than road or air travel.

    The Lancaster University research found that if you are journeying from Edinburgh to London by standard Intercity train with all the seats taken, you will be using slightly more fuel per passenger – about 11 litres of fuel per passenger compared to about ten litres – than you would if you made the same journey by car, with all the seats occupied. ”

    Full article here.

    Please note that they were comparing trains to diesel-engined cars, not gasoline-engined cars.
       —tom    Jun. 15 '05 - 10:15AM    #
  8. Amtrak is also speed limited on lines of track it doesn’t own, even if the trains could operate faster safely. There’s a short stretch (IIRC) between here and Chicago that Amtrak actually owns and they speed up on that stretch considerably…
       —Scott Trudeau    Jun. 15 '05 - 10:20AM    #
  9. Exactly. One of the biggest obstacles to the addition of more and quicker services between Pontaic, Detroit, Ann Arbor and points west, is the amount of singletrack. If just one westbound freight train is late, it can hog the stretch of singletrack and delay eastbound trains, and vice versa. MARP:”marp.org” has been looking into the causes of this and talking with Amtrak on how to negotiate the the complex web of freight, industrial, privately-owned tracks, etc. to improve on-time performance (which generally is not too bad.)

    Fortunately, the Scotsman article alludes to other issues that balance out the various costs. Yes, pollution is a very important issue that should be ameliorated and sadly, train tech has lagged because the collective focus has been on cars for so long.

    Also, it’s unclear whether the study compared ALL passengers rather than just a family of 4. So if 100 train passengers choose to drive, there will be somewhere between 25 and 100 cars on the road. Those cars take up more space, creating congestion, reducing the efficiency of their drive, increasing stop and go driving, lowering fuel efficiency, increasing pollution. These adverse outcomes also affect the other cars and drivers on road beyond the original 100, multiplying the effects.

    Then of course one must compare the total costs of maintaining the personal-vehicle-roadway-infrastructure versus the rail system. Much to consider.
       —Chris F    Jun. 15 '05 - 11:09AM    #
  10. How many trucking companies “lease” the roads that they drive on?

    Well, in effect, they all do, don’t they—large commercial trucks pay an annual tax. Smaller vehicles pay for roads by per-gallon fuel taxes.

    Many Amtrak trains run full, or close to it. I’ve taken the Empire Builder (Chicago to Spokane/Seattle/Portland) a few times, and it’s been full every time to the point of being standing-room only for short pieces of the trip. The Pontiac-Chicago line is usually full on the weekends

    But what about non-peak times? And does ‘full’ mean a train running at peak efficiency? Or is the train actually pulling only a fraction of the coaches it could pull—and if that’s the case, what’s the effect on per-passenger fuel economy?

    What I’m getting at is Amktrak, as it currently exists, really doing anything of significance to make our transportation system more fuel efficient and less polluting? Or is it just a stand-in for a hoped-for future?
       —mw    Jun. 15 '05 - 11:49AM    #
  11. mw, that’s an easy one.

    You will find no rail advocate who will claim that Amtrak is the perfect rail system. Currently, Amtrak has nearly negligible impact on society-wide energy use, air pollution, congestion, etc. (Except on the Northeast Corridor, where it has large effects on congestion.) If we allow Amtrak to disappear, though, we will never have a rail system that has a non-negligible impact on those things. (Additionally, we will lose the impacts that it has in the NEC, and also the equity-based impacts that it has in other areas of the country.) When we decided to build I-94, we didn’t close US-12 to do it. When DTW wasn’t large enough, we didn’t abandon it and build an entirely new airport. (When we built DTW in the first place, we didn’t close City Airport.) Why is it different for rail? Why must we scrap the existing system entirely and start over from scratch if we’re dissatisfied with it? That seems to be the path you’re heading down.

    Screw “An Apollo Program for energy independance.” Where’s our “National Interstate and Defense Highways Act for rail”?
       —Murph.    Jun. 15 '05 - 12:23PM    #
  12. “MARP:â€?marp.orgâ€? has been looking into the causes of this and talking with Amtrak on how to negotiate the the complex web of freight, industrial, privately-owned tracks, etc. to improve on-time performance (which generally is not too bad.)”

    “Not too bad”? Maybe I just happen to have been stuck on the worst amtrak routes, or something, but I’d characterize their on-time performance as abominable.

    The Chicago-to-DC train that I take to visit my parents is usually a couple hours late, occasionally as much as 4 or 5 hours late. I got the impressions that sort of thing wasn’t unusual.

    I take the train whenever I can, generally like it a lot, and I hope we keep it around. But Amtrak’s pretty weird to deal with sometimes.
       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 15 '05 - 12:46PM    #
  13. Good point; M(ich)ARP
    just looks at the Michigan routes. I just recently joined NARP (national) and am interested to see what kinds of positive pressure they (can) apply in terms of improving ontime performance as well as advocacy. Most delays I’ve experienced have been modest, but everyone once in a while it’s a doozy (see aforementioned singletrack issues.)

    I find it somewhat ironic that passenger travel switched to roads, and freight followed (trucking), but when one tries to switch back to passenger rail, freight still gets in the way. I thought they were all using trucks now! ;-)
       —Chris F    Jun. 15 '05 - 01:05PM    #
  14. I had a visitor from Peru here last week who took the train to DC to visit relatives. It left Toledo 2 hours late, and then stopped in Pittsburgh where all the passengers were loaded onto busses and driven to DC. He finally arrived in DC 4 hours late. Rather than go through that ordeal again, he flew back here.
       —tom    Jun. 15 '05 - 01:11PM    #
  15. My experience has been that Amtrack trains run on time, or close to it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

    Every Amtrak train I have ridden on in recent years has been full, and I don’t think those were at peak times. Most routes seem to only run one train a day anyway, so the peaks, if any, are seasonal.

    It’s true that a few full coaches (when a train could pull many more) may not represent optimal energy use. But coaches can be added or subtracted to meet demand, increasing capacity and efficiency per-train and systemwide without much side effect. Meanwhile, adding more cars (or buses) to rush hour roads and bridges increases congestion and slows everyone down, reducing efficiency systemwide, increasing air pollution and raising costs.

    In general, the amount of travel is increasing faster than the population. Shouldn’t we prefer a model that can handle growth to one that is choked by growth?
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jun. 15 '05 - 01:18PM    #
  16. Would anyone be interested in attending the rally/protest in Benton Harbor that day? I can drive from the Kalamazoo stop and back.

    more info
       —Mark    Jun. 15 '05 - 01:37PM    #
  17. “Well, in effect, they all do, don’t they—large commercial trucks pay an annual tax. Smaller vehicles pay for roads by per-gallon fuel taxes.”

    No, they don’t. Do you think those fees come anywhere near to paying the cost to construct and maintain the roads and interstates?
       —John Q    Jun. 15 '05 - 01:49PM    #
  18. Amtrak is often close-to-on-time, but not something that you want to count on. I’ve seen the Ann-Arbor-to-Chicago be nearly three hours late in either direction.

    Of course, I’ve never heard of Amtrak being delayed by rain for three hours, such that I missed my connecting flight and had to stay overnight in MPLS, or by snow, like my flight to Puerto Rico that was delayed 4 hours, then cancelled, or losing my luggage on about 1/3 of trips.

    There was a statistic in the NYTimes a month or so ago, I believe, that upwards of 50% of late-hours that Amtrak suffers are caused by freight trains.
       —Murph.    Jun. 15 '05 - 03:13PM    #
  19. I’ve taken Amtrak to Chicago and back four times in the past two years, and it was late both ways on two of those occasions. One of the delays was caused by a suicidal man who stepped in front of the train somewhere between Dearborn and Ann Arbor. Because of the police investigation and the replacement of the engineer, who was (understandably) too shaken to continue, the train was 3 1/2 hours late. I don’t what caused the other delays.

    It would be interesting to compare on-time arrival statistics between Amtrak and the airlines.

    I agree with Larry, we should prefer a model that can handle growth. I’m not sure Amtrak, as presently constructed, is that model.
       —tom    Jun. 15 '05 - 03:39PM    #
  20. It’s really ridiculous how frequent suicide-by-Amtrak is. And, since the engineer really can’t do a thing about it, they just have to sit and watch their train run somebody over – Amtrak policy, as I understand it, is that engineers shall be immediately relieved after such a trauma, even though that often means driving in another engineer from a few hours away.
       —Murph.    Jun. 15 '05 - 03:51PM    #
  21. Murph: If we allow Amtrak to disappear, though, we will never have a rail system that has a non-negligible impact on those things.

    Are you really convinced that given how long Amtrak has been twisting in the wind, it has the potential to grow into a transportation system that matters? The experience in the Northeast corridor with ‘Accela’ doesn’t inspire confidence.

    Between Detroit and Chicago, with or without Amtrak, the tracks and right-of-way aren’t going anywhere. I think we might have a better shot if Amtrak gave up the route and a private concern took a crack at it.

    John Q: Do you think those fees come anywhere near to paying the cost to construct and maintain the roads and interstates?

    Do you have data that shows they don’t?

    Larry: Shouldn’t we prefer a model that can handle growth to one that is choked by growth?

    Can Amtrak really handle growth without a proportional boost in subsidies? IF not, could we really afford to have Amtrak carry more passengers?
       —mw    Jun. 15 '05 - 04:38PM    #
  22. I think we might have a better shot if Amtrak gave up the route and a private concern took a crack at it.
    This has been suggested many times, especially in the face of decreased public funding for Amtrak, and it might work, as in the UK, except for a few obstacles:

    The private companies that own and manage traffic on the current rails are loathe to deal with any passenger carrier but Amtrak. Any newcomer to the scene would have to do what Amtrak has to: negotiate routes and times and demonstrate a proven skill and safety record (Amtrak may be late, but it’s quite safe). Apparently it has taken a long time to build up the current working relationship, and whenever privatization is mentioned, the rail owners response is “fine, then build your own track, because you’re not using ours until you’ve proven you won’t jeopardize our operations.”

    A private operation won’t necessarily address the aforementioned equity issues, at least not without subsidy, and remember, all transportation is subsidized. Transit does fairly well with its tiny slice of the funding pie, while roadways require far more funds for maintenance. So even a private firm would have to interact with state and federal funding.

    If a private firm had the will and resources to run a better job, I’d be the first on it. But just as Amtrak faces many structural inequalities currently, so would a private firm.

    I think best place for a private operation would be in addressing unmet needs. Detroit-Toledo, AA-DTW-Detroit, etc, much as toll roads supplement the US highway system. If a private line came in and supplemented the existing structure, it could grow and when the time is right, begin to take over Amtrak or parts if it’s shown that it would be better.
       —Chris F    Jun. 15 '05 - 05:10PM    #
  23. “I think we might have a better shot if Amtrak gave up the route and a private concern took a crack at it.”

    We had private passenger rail service. It ran from the 1800s until 1971 when Amtrak was formed. Almost every railroad had abandoned or was ready to abandon their passenger service because of the costs required to keep that service running. What’s changed since then?

    “John Q: Do you think those fees come anywhere near to paying the cost to construct and maintain the roads and interstates?

    Do you have data that shows they don’t?”

    We need to look no further than the Ann Arbor City budget. Look at how much of the City’s budget goes to roads and the percentage of that which comes from property taxes. That amount which comes from property taxes is a direct subsidy.
       —John Q    Jun. 15 '05 - 05:13PM    #
  24. We need to look no further than the Ann Arbor City budget. Look at how much of the City’s budget goes to roads and the percentage of that which comes from property taxes.

    But that’s not really relevant. City streets would be necessary even if there were no airports or interstates and everybody took the train instead of driving to Chicago.

    What we really want to know about are roads that are alternatives to Amtrak’s rails—do fuel taxes cover the cost of the interstates, U.S. and state highways?
       —mw    Jun. 16 '05 - 09:43AM    #
  25. i’m so glad a post about rails have prompted this much debate…all i got to say is:

    if my non-driving ass has to pay for these damn gas guzzlers funding saudi terrorism with my tax dollars, then they have to pay for my mass with theirs…fair?

    sticking it to the house of saud,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Jun. 16 '05 - 10:29AM    #
  26. mw,

    Built form is not independant of transportation – the two have an interdependant relationship, rather than transportation responding to built form. (Even though the majority of transportation “planning” has involved response to built form, or to anticipated built form.)

    A population that relies on trains or other such modes to get between cities will have less reason to own a car, and be more likely to seek housing and jobs in areas that are walkable and served by local transit.

    Take UMich students as an example. If you could get between any two cities (say, of 20k+ people) in Michigan by train, quickly and reliably, plus get to Ann Arbor from Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, Indianapolis by train, I assert that a significant number of students would consider that in their decision whether or not to bring a car to Ann Arbor with them. This would factor into their choice of housing. If they were getting to and from Ann Arbor without a car, they would look at getting around within Ann Arbor without a car. Assuming this behavior were supported by, say, the UM Off-Campus Housing website giving “nearby transit” route maps with every property students looked at, you would end up with students more likely to live in areas well served by transit and less likely to live in areas that were totally car dependant. Fewer cars in town, less demand for parking, less demand for 5-6 lane throughways, less wear on local streets, more support for local transit, more pressure for developers to create compact, walkable activity centers rather than miles of strip malls and office “parks”.

    So, yes, local streets are relevant to the discussion of intercity rail, and vice versa. It has long been my opinion that the number one thing Ann Arbor needs in order to be more pedestrian-friendly is to have transit to the airport, like every civilized city in the world.
       —Murph    Jun. 16 '05 - 11:14AM    #
  27. “But that’s not really relevant. City streets would be necessary even if there were no airports or interstates and everybody took the train instead of driving to Chicago.”

    The question isn’t whether City streets are necessary – we had streets long before we had cars. The question is whether those costs are subsidized by taxpayers, which they are, and whether they are relevent to getting people from point A to point B, which they are. How do the trucks get from the interstate to their destination?

    “Do fuel taxes cover the cost of the interstates, U.S. and state highways?”

    Obviously not or we wouldn’t have the fights in Congress about which states are getting their “fair share” of transportation dollars.
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 11:34AM    #
  28. How do the trucks get from the interstate to their destination?

    Irrelevant again—how do trucks get from rail freight terminals to their destinations? Same problem in both cases. Or were you going to run tracks to every business loading dock ;)

    Obviously not or we wouldn’t have the fights in Congress about which states are getting their “fair share” of transportation dollars.

    I don’t see how that follows. It is obviously possible for taxes to be sufficient overall (or even more than sufficient) and for some states to still argue about whether they were getting shortchanged relative to other states. Or whether the Feds were shortchanging everybody by not sending the fuel tax money back to be spend on roads.

    In fact, it’s my understanding that some portion of fuel taxes are used to subsidize rail, bike-paths, and other forms of transportation and recreation. For example, a quick google turns up this:

    Recreational Trails Program (RTP)

    This money comes from federal fuel taxes under TEA-21 and is administered by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (M-DNR) with the consent of the RTP Advisory Board.

    http://www.mmba.org/archive/mg/html/rtp_rif.htm

    Now, I like mountain bike trails, and I don’t object to this use of money, but it appears that excess fuel taxes are being used to subsidize other things rather than the other way around.
       —mw    Jun. 16 '05 - 12:00PM    #
  29. Ah, yes, the dreaded funding morass.
    do fuel taxes cover the cost of the interstates, U.S. and state highways?
    No. They are subsidized by other taxes, including income and preperty.

    However, and this is where it gets confusing, the govt is required to dole out a portion of revenue from fuel taxes to transit, bike trails, etc. And worse, while they are supposed to, govt often pays out less than is mandated by various funding bills. This is a major issue of contention for transit advocates. And don’t forget that transit does pay into the system as it consumes oil. The amount paid (back) to transit by fuel taxes is miniscule compared to what the highway infrastructure gets in subsidy from the “general fund,” so to speak, so simply shuffling the numbers around doesn’t solve the problem.

    One factor that exacerbates the situation is that fuel taxes, while a large percentage of the price/gal, are still way too low for what they need to fund. But it’s politically disastrous to propose raising the fuel tax, and now that the price of oil (pretax) is going up rapidly, it’ll be even harder to bring the fuel tax to a sensible level that actually pays for the infrastructure it partcipates in.

    So yes, fuel tax subsidizes a token amount for transit, but all our other taxes susidize the highways much more.
       —Chris F    Jun. 16 '05 - 12:21PM    #
  30. Construction of freeways was (and some road and bridge construction still is) subsidized 9:1 by the federal government. The $1 came from state gas taxes, the $9 from the federal treasury, i.e., from income taxes.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jun. 16 '05 - 12:29PM    #
  31. Take UMich students as an example. If you could get between any two cities (say, of 20k+ people) in Michigan by train, quickly and reliably, plus get to Ann Arbor from Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, Indianapolis by train, I assert that a significant number of students would consider that in their decision whether or not to bring a car to Ann Arbor with them.

    I’m deeply skeptical—because we already ran that experiment. In the first half of the 20th century, it was possible to get to get just about anywhere in the state (and country) by rail. And cars were, during those decades, much more expensive and dangerous and much less reliable and comfortable. And unwalkable neighborhoods had not yet been built. And there were not yet any high-speed, limited-access highways, so you had to slow down to go through every little town. And people were accustomed to train travel, and it even retained quite a lot of status and romance (see North-By-Northwest—filmed right near the end of the passenger rail era).

    Yet even under those conditions, people abandoned rail travel in favor of auto travel in droves to the point where, by the mid 60’s, all the passenger rail companies were facing bankruptcy.

    For long distances, people strongly prefer to fly. For short and intermediate distances, they strongly prefer to drive. Based on this history, it seems to me that it would take a combination of huge carrots and enormous sticks to force convince people to give up their cars and get back on the trains.
       —mw    Jun. 16 '05 - 12:31PM    #
  32. “Irrelevant again—how do trucks get from rail freight terminals to their destinations? Same problem in both cases. Or were you going to run tracks to every business loading dock ;)”

    That’s not the question – no part of the rail network is subsidized by the taxpayers. On the other hand, an important component of the road network is subsidized by taxpayers. That subsidy hides the true cost of using that network to users of the network. If users had to pay the full costs of using the roads, they might use alternative modes of transportation, like trains, to reach their final destination.
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 12:33PM    #
  33. “For short and intermediate distances, they strongly prefer to drive.”

    This ignores the importance of commuter rail in many large cities. Without commuter rail, places like Wash. DC, NYC, Chicago could not function because it would be impossible to get everyone who wants to live in the suburbs and get to the City into the city by car. Where commuter rail is available and it operates well, people use it. Is it any surprise that the cities where people still live and work have good commuter rail systems and those where people are leaving in droves do not (Detroit).
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 12:45PM    #
  34. “I’m deeply skeptical—because we already ran that experiment. In the first half of the 20th century, it was possible to get to get just about anywhere in the state (and country) by rail. And cars were, during those decades, much more expensive and dangerous and much less reliable and comfortable. And unwalkable neighborhoods had not yet been built.”

    This is not an accurate representation. Rail lines—trolley and interurban—were allowed to deteriorate from the first decade of the twentieth century (at which point they were already aged). In addition, unwalkable suburban neighborhoods go back before the turn of the century for the wealthy and at least as far back as the twenties for the working classes (see Brightmoor in Detroit).

    Local and regional rail never really had an equal shot versus the slick and increasingly cheap auto; long distance rail competed well with airlines for nearly 50 years.
       —Dale    Jun. 16 '05 - 01:04PM    #
  35. As discussed endlessly in another thread, people are leaving Detroit for many reasons besides the lack of commuter rail. Many growing cities, especially in the Sunbelt and Southwest, do not have commuter rail systems. So the absence of one does cause people to leave “in droves”.
       —tom    Jun. 16 '05 - 01:06PM    #
  36. I meant to say “So the absence of one does not cause people to leave ‘in droves’”.
       —tom    Jun. 16 '05 - 01:50PM    #
  37. I’m not claiming that the lack of commuter rail is the only cause of flight from Detroit. But it would be interesting to compare those urban centers that have prospered or held their own and those that have not and see which have good commuter rail systems and which do not. As for the Sunbelt and Southwest, many of the major cities are now adding rail-based transportation to their transporation infrastructure (Denver, Orlando and Phoenix are just three examples)
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 01:50PM    #
  38. Where commuter rail is available and it operates well, people use it.

    Yes. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Amtrak and the Detroit-Chicago route. And even commuter-rail is less and less relevant to typical commuting patterns (which are no longer predominantly suburb-to- central city, but have become increasingly suburb-to-suburb).

    Construction of freeways was (and some road and bridge construction still is) subsidized 9:1 by the federal government. The $1 came from state gas taxes, the $9 from the federal treasury, i.e., from income taxes.

    Even if true about the original construction that’s beside the point now. The interstate system exists. At this point the question is fuel taxes vs ongoing expenses. Table 1 on pg 78 here:

    http://www.realtor.org/SG3.nsf/files/TranSection2.pdf/$FILE/TranSection2.pdf

    Suggests that only at the local level are roads paid for mostly out of general funds. Otherwise, most of the money comes from gas taxes and vehicle taxes and fees.

    This also makes it clear that fuel taxes could be raised enough that those taxes plus vehicles taxes would pay whole bill without a huge effect on overall gas prices. Doubling the state and federal gax taxes from $.40 to $.80 would about do it.

    no part of the rail network is subsidized by the taxpayers. If users had to pay the full costs of using the roads, they might use alternative modes of transportation, like trains, to reach their final destination.

    I don’t see that a $.40 increase in fuel taxes would induce many to use alternative forms of transport. And Amtrak is heavily subsidized. If passengers had to pay the full cost of taking the train to Chicago, they’d be less likely to do that. Paying the full cost of that train ride would add a lot more to the price of the ticket than doubling federal and state gas taxes.

    Rail lines – trolley and interurban – were allowed to deteriorate from the first decade of the twentieth century (at which point they were already aged). In addition, unwalkable suburban neighborhoods go back before the turn of the century for the wealthy and at least as far back as the twenties for the working classes (see Brightmoor in Detroit).

    But why did voters allow the trolley lines allowed to deteriorate? Why, if they stood no chance against the ‘slick’ automobile then, do you think they’d do much better now that the automobile is ten times slicker? And yes, the first suburbs were built in the late 19th century, but there were relatively few people living in them. And it depends on what you consider ‘walkable’. I consider Burns Park walkable—others would consider it suburban.

    long distance rail competed well with airlines for nearly 50 years.

    50 years? 50 years before passenger rail ran into deep trouble was during WWI. Thirty years maybe (say from the mid 30’s to the mid 60’s). But competing against DC3s ain’t the same as competing against 757s.

    In the end, I expect congress will restore the funding as they have every time before. It’s just not that much money compared to the entire U.S. budget. And even though Amtrak handles a negligible fraction of long-distance transport, it’ll probably be kept on life support indefinitely.
       —mw    Jun. 16 '05 - 03:15PM    #
  39. “And even though Amtrak handles a negligible fraction of long-distance transport, it’ll probably be kept on life support indefinitely.”

    Whether it’s a negligible amount or not, clearly there’s some important constituency being served by Amtrak, otherwise it would have died a long time ago.
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 03:38PM    #
  40. mw,

    And all of your arguments directly contradict your previous statement:

    “Between Detroit and Chicago, with or without Amtrak, the tracks and right-of-way aren’t going anywhere. I think we might have a better shot if Amtrak gave up the route and a private concern took a crack at it.”

    So how do any of your previous comments square with the idea that any private company is going to want to attempt to make a go of it or could be economically successful doing so?
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 03:43PM    #
  41. mw—streetcars were not originally city-owned, they were privately built and maintained. Towards the end, many companies stopped investing money in infrastructure and just milked the fares. Still profitable for a time, but not competing long-term.

    In the case of Detroit, one company (after uniting several small companies) held the city-wide franchise and got into a dispute with the city about raising fares. They decided not to invest anything in the lines and just ran old cars on old tracks for many years. Some in the city put together a plan to buy the system but pro-business interests foiled it.

    This deterioration of tracks and cars is all set against the context of the rapidly growing auto industry—one method of travel has crappy cars and frequent delays; the other, hyper-modern method is unlike anything you’ve ever known before and every year more of your friends are able to buy an auto. Which do you choose?

    Also, some suburbs may be walkable—until the teens it was not necessarily a contradiction. However, it is incorrect to say that few people lived in them. By 1900 half of Boston’s population was suburbanized—any recognizable large city (NY, Philly, SF, Chicago) was the same. I’m not knocking every form of the suburbs—just ones which mandate one form of transportation.

    Rail, if given equal (or proportional) funding to cars, would compete if not win, because of the widely recognized environmental advantages. Also, trains were and are just as slick as cars when they see investment.

    I wholeheartedly recommend Sam Bass Warner’s books as background. Seriously.
       —Dale    Jun. 16 '05 - 03:46PM    #
  42. And for the conspiracy minded:

    http://www.answers.com/topic/general-motors-streetcar-conspiracy
       —John Q    Jun. 16 '05 - 04:10PM    #
  43. It’s not just original constrcution, it’s continued maintenance and expansion. The table and accompanying information actually show that there are even more untapped sources for appropriate funding.

    If Amtrak is so underserving of funds, why propose raising the gas tax? I think most people who share this opinion would be against raising the gas, or any, tax, especially in the current energy market.

    I’m all for raising it because it would do several things: cause gas revenue to pay for more (but still not all) of the infrastructure it depends on, increase funding for transit, and best of all, cause consumers to make more realistic market decisions with regard to where they choose to live, work and play. The prevalence of car-only culture is fueled, pun intended, by the depressed price of gasoline.

    As to the loss of commuter rail and interurbans, “voters” did not approve it. A nice hybrid system with cars, rail and interurbans was in place until the automakers, ironically fearing that transit would reduce the market for their product, began an aggressive campaign against them in both the marketplace and government. In the case of publicly run systems, General Motors had an even better idea: we’ll buy up your fleet of streetcars and switch them with this new thing, that we just so happen to sell, a bus! Given their political influence at the time, the consent of the governed was not an issue.

    The even greater irony is that now, contrary to popular belief, the automakers are not at all threatened by the prospect of future expanded transit options. This is partly because their dominance is already assured, but largely because they are not as ideologically opposed as they were back then.
       —Chris F    Jun. 16 '05 - 04:20PM    #
  44. The “GM conspiracy” has been largely debunked by urban historians. feel free to search H-Urban for informed discussion.
       —Dale    Jun. 16 '05 - 04:33PM    #
  45. Dale, I think the wikipedia entry above shows that the ‘conspiracy’ angle is more of a misconception of interpretation about what happened. GM did not act alone, and was aided by other social changes that definitely moved in a non-equity direction, so it wasn’t some Evil Conspiracy. But they did act aggressively, and used their market dominance unfairly.

    We never really got to see the 2 systems live together in tandem, and now are transit advocates trying to argue for a hybrid system, not the abolition of cars and highways, but one with choices in which the true social and economic costs are bourne more fairly.
       —Chris F    Jun. 16 '05 - 04:45PM    #
  46. Personally, I much prefer train travel to airline or auto, but train travel can be a pain and some routes are better than others. In general, there are fewer problems going West than East (going to Denver is an easy, relaxing trip from Ann Arbor, going to Portland Maine is not), but still, one derailment in Nebraska can cause huge delays. Another problem with train travel is the schedule even when everything is running smoothly. For instance, we are considering a trip to Idaho via Amtrak. It arrives at our stop in Idaho at midnight which is not too much of a problem, but the only train back to Chicago leaves at 3:00 am. We will probably still do it, but trying to schedule hotel check-outs and rental car dropoffs becomes a bit of a logistical nightmare. Our culture has really moved away from train travel and it will take some doing to make it work well again.

    Of course, many countries manage to have highly functional rail travel and I think we could also if we chose to do so. If we focused more on rail travel, there could be many upgrades which would result in fewer delays and better schedules. Many people point to the sheer size of the US as a reason rail travel is less feasible here, but traveling in parts of the Midwest and West is actually still easier via rail than any other form of transportation. Of course, promoting rail would mean we would have to focus less on automobile traffic, which is clearly an un-American thing to do.

    On a somewhat related note, the Special Collections Library at U-M houses the Transportation History Collection, which is a collection of “printed and visual materials on transportation technology and travel.” The earliest date is 1588, but most are from the 19th and 20th century and railroads are the focus. Many (most?) of the items are digitized and available to view here.
       —Juliew    Jun. 16 '05 - 05:16PM    #
  47. John Q: So how do any of your previous comments square with the idea that any private company is going to want to attempt to make a go of it or could be economically successful doing so?

    Only in the sense that I think that private companies would provide better service on those routes where trains can be run economically – the northeast corridor is certainly one of those (and Amtrak’s record with Accela has been poor). The Detroit – Chicago corridor may be one as well, I don’t know. But as long as Amtrak is there, nothing else can happen. A profitable enterprise might expand – an enterprise that requires ever more subsidies to provide more service won’t. As we’ve seen, it is lucky just to maintain.

    Dale: Towards the end, many companies stopped investing money in infrastructure and just milked the fares. Still profitable for a time, but not competing long-term.

    Yes, well companies and industries operate that way when either they can’t afford to invest or when they think investing doesn’t make sense and running an operation as a cash-cow is appropriate. Example – Kodak and Fuji continue to produce photographic film, but how much do you think they’re investing in film R&D compared to, say, 20 years ago?

    Chris F: If Amtrak is so underserving of funds, why propose raising the gas tax? I think most people who share this opinion would be against raising the gas, or any, tax, especially in the current energy market.

    Because I’d rather see the full cost of road maintainence paid for by user fees. I wasn’t suggesting raising the taxes to provide more funding for Amtrak ;)

    As to the loss of commuter rail and interurbans, “voters” did not approve it.

    I didn’t mean by referendum. I meant that they didn’t vote for politicians who promised to do everything possible to preserve the street-cars and that no politicians probably ran on such a platform because they were aware it had little appeal.

    People switched to cars because they could. People prefer private cars for lots of very good and obvious reasons – they operate on your schedule, they go exactly where you want to go, and they depart from your house. You don’t have to queue up for anything. There’s no chance that all the tickets will be gone. They’re comfortable and quiet. You won’t have to sit next to somebody you’d rather avoid. You can bring all your stuff with you – your kayaks, your mountain bikes, your dogs.

    People are just not going to willingly give this up unless they have to—not unless they can’t afford to drive or unless the convenience of the car is negated by congestion and lack of parking. And clearly even congestion and parking problems don’t have that much effect.
       —mw    Jun. 16 '05 - 08:53PM    #
  48. actually, mw, on your last point, as richard florida points out (bow down to florida, bow!!) one of the things that is drawing younger people from the suburbs into cities is, among other things, mass transit…

    mw supports saudi terrorism,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Jun. 16 '05 - 10:18PM    #
  49. mw, I absolutely agree with your points about the appeal, flexibility and advantages of cars, and it sounds like we agree on user fees/gas tax (and even transit pays into that via fuel purchases, so it follows that they would still get a return on that revenue ;) But you’re creating a false dichotomy that it’s somehow cars/roads vs. transit. Noone’s saying “abolish cars,” just “don’t abolish rail.” We need both, we had both before and we can have both again.

    What I, and others here, have been saying is that our choices have been reduced artificially for historical and political reasons. Amtrak “sucks” because transit was cut down in the past.

    Cars/roads have “supremacy” because the true costs are subsidized, not just in taxes and fuel but in infrastructure and social segregation—sprawl housing supports car-only isolation, while density allows for cars or transit/interaction.

    Now what meager funding transit gets is in danger because an administration ideologically opposed to transit is saying, “hey, why can’t you compete?” while continuing to kick it while it’s down. Not exactly a fair fight.

    (And again, why should anyone be “ideolgically opposed” to transit? Is it really so powerful that it threatens anyone’s business model? (Oil, cars, roads, sprawl housing, etc.))

    In a sensible funding strategy, cars/roads would pay their fair share, but transit would given its share of planning and development resources that it so far has been cut out of. Transit is still likely to be subsidized, but our society has generally seen this as a good thing, because it brings in intangible revenues of its own: it supports equity for those who cannot afford to buy into the car/roads lifestyle, it reduces congestion for those who still need or choose to use car/roads, it enhances quality of life for riders, encourages exercise, etc.

    We both have expressed interest in privatization of transit, but before we get there, we have to preserve what’s left and rebuild. In fact, because Amtrak was conceived as a consolidation, it’s likely that private firms could subcontract but benefit from coordination at a national level (as in the UK). What’s frustrating about the proposed cuts is that ridership is up 15% in Michigan alone, so obviously the market is saying, “hey, we want more transit.”

    Therefore, I hope to see you on Saturday the 25th, supporting Michigan Amtrak routes, so that in the future we can have a better, hybrid system.
       —Chris F    Jun. 17 '05 - 12:18PM    #