Category: Studies

Reason Releases Fraudulent Report Criticizing XpressWest

In response to the forthcoming FRA loan application by XpressWest (the rebranded Desert Xpress) for its high-speed rail line from the edge of the Los Angeles metro area to Las Vegas, Reason published a report claiming the project would fail. Coauthors Wendell Cox, who cowrote a fraudulent report about Florida HSR, and Adrian Moore, argue that costs will be higher and ridership lower than expected, leading to operating losses and bankruptcy. I still have some doubts about XpressWest’s business plan, but Cox and Moore skirt or ignore the real problems, and instead choose to attack it using numbers that are distorted and at times completely made up.

The smoking gun that something nefarious is going on is the attempt to remodel ridership in terms of competition with cars and planes. In table 2 on PDF-page 20, the report shows door-to-door travel times by the different modes to Las Vegas from various origins in Southern California, including Victorville itself, Riverside (80 km and a mountain pass away), and Los Angeles (130 km away). The assumption, which is for the most part correct, is that passengers drive to the airport or train station and need to factor in congestion, and the explicit assumptions on access time are spelled out in table A-1. The zinger is that while station and airport access times are computed by taking the free-flow Google Maps travel time and adding a congestion cushion, the assumed door-to-door travel times for people driving assume free-flow travel – and even this required me to pick a particular (albeit reasonable) location on the Strip that is closer in than the Google Maps point labeled Las Vegas.

For examples, the travel times by car given from Victorville, Riverside, and Los Angeles are 2:56, 3:47, and 4:20. Those are approximately equal to the free-flow travel times to the Palazzo on the Strip. Needless to say, traffic is not free-flow in Southern California. As of this writing, on Friday at 4:15 pm Pacific Time, Google Maps gives me a travel time of 4:23 from Los Angeles to the Palazzo free-flow but 5:13 in current traffic; figure the extra 50 minutes make it 5:10 over the 4:20 given in the study. The door-to-door travel time for a train from Los Angeles is given as 5:04 to Vegas and 4:04 from Vegas, the difference coming from not needing to budget as much time for the possibility of traffic and arrive extra-early. In other words, including realistic rush-hour conditions, driving is not 14 minutes faster than the train on average in each direction, but 36 minutes slower.

In addition, the report slightly overstates the train’s travel time, as 1:40. The environmental impact statement claims, on PDF-page 39 of FEIS chapter 2, that 150 mph electric trains (the alternative that has since been selected) will take 1:24. While this is an ambitious average speed for this top speed, it is achievable for a nonstop train. Subtract 16 minutes from train time and now driving all the way from Los Angeles is 52 minutes slower than the train. As an additional check on the model, Cox and Moore assume travelers must arrive at the train station 20 minutes before departure, in addition to the congestion cushion. This is not observed in HSR systems in such countries as France and Germany, where open station design means people can arrive a few minutes before departure. Figure 5 minutes and now driving is 1:07 slower than the train.

Let us now step back and examine the general argument of the report. Cox and Moore argue the following: there is a tendency for costs to escalate (as examined by Bent Flyvbjerg) and for ridership to fall short of predictions (they call it the International Average Error Forecast but supply no reference and give no indication of the computation involved, and given the above zinger regarding travel time nobody should trust this). The ridership model has flaws, and a series of sanity checks argue that ridership will fall far short while costs will escalate. It is therefore better, they claim, to expand I-15 instead to deal with rush hour capacity.

At every step of the way, the report makes substantial errors. Cox seems aggressively uninterested in the actual causes of cost escalation and ridership shortfalls, following Flyvbjerg’s note in his original paper that cost escalation can come from many sources but it is fairly certain that there will be some cost escalation in a megaproject.

We can do better, and examine recent HSR projects. In Spain, some meet projections and some do not. For example, the Madrid-Barcelona corridor was 25% below projections in 2010, and appears to have fallen farther behind in 2011 – but in 2008 the line was only 4% behind projections, and with a deep recession and 20% unemployment, Spain can be excused for having less economic activity than projected at the height of its bubble. Likewise, in Taiwan and South Korea the HSR lines have fallen far below projections made in the 1990s, when their economic growth was extremely fast – but even those projections failed a sanity check: Korea thought it would get more HSR riders than the Sanyo Shinkansen, which looks reasonable based on city sizes until one remembers that the Sanyo Shinkansen also connects to Tokyo at one end and the KTX does not; Taiwan had estimated similar ridership, even though its largest city, Taipei, had not many more people than the Sanyo Shinkansen’s distant-second largest city and only one third as many as Sanyo’s largest, Osaka. In contrast, French lines tend to overshoot projections, as can be seen in the above link for Taiwan.

In all cases it can take a few years for ridership to build up: Taiwan took 2 years to achieve profitability after depreciation but before interest (and is now profitable even after interest after a refinancing at a lower interest rate), which Cox and Moore spin as “The project suffered an accumulated loss of two-thirds of its private investment in the first 2.5 years of operation.”

Las Vegas did have a bubble, and is slowing down now, although it is nowhere near the level of depression Spain is in. The report in fact mentions that growth in hotel rooms and travel to Las Vegas has stalled (although part of it is due to the national recession, rather than a Nevada-specific crash). It comes close to mark, but even here it fails to note possible similarities and differences with case studies of shortfalls. However, since the report attacks not just projected 2035 growth but also base-case ridership for 2012, it does not deserve this charity, even as here it skirted a real problem rather than completely missing it.

To criticize the actual model, on PDF-page 34 Cox and Moore attack it for surveying a sample of 400 people and asking them if they would ride the train. They attack the general approach of stated-preference, without giving any reference for why it is bad (they include one sentence of criticism), and then offer the following platitude: “It would seem that a prediction of ridership using a ‘less than trainload’ sample would be insufficient on which to make multibillion dollar decisions.” This is not serious analysis; this is the same criticism that led people to disbelieve that George Gallup could forecast elections by polling just a few thousand voters. The relevant paragraph from the ridership model that they could does mention that 400 riders means they results are “less precise than the reported analysis indicates,” but the same passage says later, which they do not quote, that the problem comes from having polled only 51 air travelers, where they would like 150-200 people per mode. Fortunately they polled 300 drivers, and it is auto/rail mode split forecast that is hard, while air/rail is a fairly straightforward function of travel time – see figure 1 of an EU air/rail report.

Now, in lieu of the ridership model that the report criticizes, it offers sanity checks. These are normally a useful check on wildly inaccurate estimates, and if done in the 1990s would have made it clear Taiwan was not going to have 180,000 riders a day, and even its present-day traffic of 110,000 is a miracle. Cox and Moore offer two sanity checks. First is the aforementioned comparison to car and airplane travel time; that one can be disposed of due to fraudulent numbers. Another is a comparison to the Acela between New York and Washington. If the Acela only gets 2 million riders per year, they argue on page 35, how can Victorville-Las Vegas get 9 million?

Of course, people who have taken Amtrak know that the Acela is only about one-third of the ridership on the Northeast Corridor, and the time travel difference between Acela and Regional trains is small enough that the distinction is one of branding and service class. Amtrak claims on PDF-page 41 of its Northeast Corridor Master Plan that 70% of the corridor’s riders (of whom there are 11 million) are on the New York-Washington segment, so that’s already nearly 8 million, not 2 million. Further, the Acela is a slow train – its average speed, 130 km/h south of New York, is not much better than that of the legacy express trains that the TGV replaced; the average speed of the Regional is worse. To argue that XpressWest is just like Acela, Cox and Moore do not offer a serious model of the effect of access and egress times on ridership, but instead issue platitudes about a train that stops 40 miles outside the city.

To see how professionals model ridership, see for example Reinhard Clever’s thesis (the relevant pages are 26-33) as well as a short note of his regarding last-mile connectivity. Transfers, he argues, are less onerous at the origin end of the trip than at the destination end: if they must transfer, 55% of riders prefer to do so at the origin end, 22% in the middle, and 22% at the end. Likewise, commuters in auto-oriented suburbs of transit cities (the example given is Toronto) drive long distances to park-and-rides, but balk at transferring from the city-center station to the subway. Normally the origin end is likely to be the smaller city, but in the case of XpressWest, Las Vegas is the destination rather than the origin. As a result, it is unrealistic to expect significant ridership from Las Vegas residents traveling to Los Angeles (and XpressWest is not assuming any), but quite realistic to expect riders to go in the opposite direction.

Finally, the cost overrun projection is fraudulent. As Cox did in the report about Florida, on PDF-page 40 he is comparing a simple line in a freeway median to the Central Valley segment of California HSR, a line with substantial viaducts and grade separations. To his credit, he no longer includes the 11-point rubric of his Florida report, which overemphasized relatively small components of the cost like electrification and underemphasized civil infrastructure. Instead, the report just says it’s unrealistic to expect cost to be lower than in the Central Valley, without further explanation except that the Central Valley is flat; the need for plenty of grade separations and viaducts is not mentioned.

This could be attributed to a simple mistake, but in fact footnote 76 argues based on the simplicity of the terrain and the ample space in the median that widening I-15 will be cheap, only $1.6-2.5 million per lane-km ($2.6-3.9 million per lane-mile) in both directions. No connection is made with the fact that a grade-separated median is not available to California HSR. In fact California is planning to widen Route 99 from 4 lanes to 6 at $6 billion (PDF p. 22); it is unclear to me how long of a stretch of 99 is under consideration, but the full length including segments north of Sacramento is 640 km, of which about 240 appears to be already 6-lane, which would make the cost $15 $7.5 million (it would include freeway conversion, but the same issue with grade separations is true of California HSR and has been the primary driver of cost overruns in the Central Valley). The construction cost difference between the Central Valley and XpressWest is a factor of 2; perhaps it’s Cox and Moore who, in assuming one ninth to one sixth one fifth to one third the per-km cost of CA 99’s Interstate conversion, are lowballing costs for their own favored project, and not XpressWest. (Update: I misread the footnote, and the cost contained therein is $1.6-2.5 million per unidirectional lane-km.)

No other argument is presented that costs will run over, except that according to Flyvbjerg they might. Since the projected costs are well within California’s per-km cost if one omits the viaducts, tunnels, and grade separations, we can assume that costs are likely to stay under control. In fact the cost escalations on international HSR lines have typically come from heavy tunneling, which is less predictable than at-grade construction. The at-grade lines in France have stayed within budget. In Norway the 50% cost overrun of the airport train was centered on a difficult tunnel. German lines run over too, but have significant tunneling as well, and the recent overruns in Korea (subtracting the first phase, comparing cost projections from 2010 and 2000 shows a 40% overrun) were in the nearly-50%-in-tunnel second phase. But in Japan, as far as I can tell recent Shinkansen construction is on-budget despite heavy tunneling, and the same is true of AVE construction in Spain. Tunnels, we can conclude, are riskier than at-grade construction; in fact the biggest risk for at-grade construction, as seen in the California HSR project, is that viaducts or tunnels will be needed due to further engineering or environmental work, and running alongside a freeway minimizes the chance.

Because the study’s attempts to model cost and ridership are so weak, it should not be considered a serious challenge to XpressWest. Cox has had a troubled relationship with the truth in the past, and there is no argument he won’t make, no matter how ridiculous, to argue for the superiority of car travel over rail and mass transit. It’s actually the strong arguments that he fails to make – for example, regarding a possible comparison between Las Vegas and overheated East Asian Tiger economies. (For the record, I think Las Vegas is going to come out solid in such comparison.)

It is in reality quite easy for HSR to make enough money to cover above-the-rail expenses, and even track maintenance is quite cheap at about $125,000 per double track-km, but covering interest expenses is harder. Despite the canard that only the LGV Sud-Est and the Tokaido Shinkansen have paid back their interest, sourced to as far as I can tell just one person and reproduced by Cox and Moore on PDF-page 43, in reality multiple intercity railroads are profitable even including interests. This includes all three main island Shinkansen operators in Japan, SNCF, and DB. The belief that they are not comes from two sources: in Europe, conflation of subsidized commuter lines with profitable intercity lines, which are usually run by the same national railroads, and in Japan, the fact that the government wiped the accumulated operating deficit debt of Japan National Railways after splitting and privatizing it, but not Shinkansen construction debt (see references here).

So if Reason is so wrong, and XpressWest will likely meet both ridership and cost projections, what are my problems? In one word: uncertainty. Projected XpressWest revenue, on PDF-page 54 of the ridership model, is about $500 million per year in today’s money. Long-term inflation-protected federal debt is unusually cheap right now and this could make XpressWest a prudent investment – as of the time of this writing, the US can sell 30-year inflation-protected bonds at an interest rate of 0.5%, or $32 million on a $6.5 billion loan. HSR margins in Europe are low, but in Taiwan the margin in 2009, excluding interest, was 25%, which is enough (that said, despite falling far short of expectations, Taiwan HSR has very high ridership for what it is, and of course lower ridership means lower margins independently of interest rates).

But 0.5% interest is for safe investments, and infrastructure is not a safe investment. The claims that costs would run over and ridership would fall short are probably going to be proven wrong if construction goes through, making the project a success, though not a smashing success. But if the reduction in Las Vegas’s growth proves permanent and not just one recession, or if casino gambling declines, or if station access time proves more important than previously assumed in the model, or one of many other things that could go wrong, operating profits will decline.

This is what Cox fails to understand when quoting Flyvbjerg. Flyvbjerg talks about an average cost overrun – but more than that, he is concerned with risk. Many projects stay within budget or run over just a little, but a few cost several times as much as the original estimate. Telling the Big Digs and East Side Accesses apart from the Madrid Metro extensions is hard, and this is why it’s not appropriate to compute interest rates based on the borrowing costs available to the federal government.

At a riskier rate of return, things are troubling, as Paul Druce notes: he compared revenue estimates to the 30-year T-bill interest rates as of last year (3.75%), and found that operating margins would need to be above 25% until 2031 to maintain profitability. XpressWest is now looking for a larger loan than Paul assumed, but at a real rate of return of 2 or 3%, interest would indeed bite into the cost. If the project is that risky, it should therefore not be funded. That said, European transit projects tend to go ahead with a benefit-cost ratio higher than 1.2, which is certainly true of this project.

So the question is twofold. First, whether it’s sensible to lock in low interest rates and fund projects that would not be able to pay back their loans at the interest rates of a fast-growing economy. Second, how risky the project is. The first question is easier: on a pure cost-benefit analysis, the federal government can afford to lose a few billion dollars on a small number of bad investments, as long as it makes it up with enough successes, and this makes the net financial cost of the project to the government low (but positive, since it bears downside risk but does not benefit from the upside except indirectly through taxes); on top of this, precisely because the High Desert and Nevada are in deep recession, this project has additional economic benefit. The recession won’t last forever, but it exists now and will probably continue for the duration of construction.

I believe the answer to the second question is that it’s of moderate to high risk. The risk of cost escalations is low because the right-of-way is already secured and there is no difficult civil infrastructure. The risk of ridership shortfalls is more substantial – ridership estimates, especially of road/rail mode shares, have an inherent uncertainty, and on top of that the recession could cause permanent damage to Las Vegas. In addition, the strong Friday peak of travel to Las Vegas means that more rolling stock and station infrastructure will be needed relative to ridership than elsewhere, driving down operating margins.

The most troubling part of the project is that growing ridership will require a connection to Los Angeles, and because it requires a difficult mountain crossing, XpressWest is not interested in paying for it. Its current plan is to wait until California HSR opens to the LA Basin, and then link up with a line from Victorville to Palmdale. This is the real cost risk, and not the notion that at-grade rail construction is going to present the same difficulties as urban viaducts and mountain tunnels. In particular, California HSR will need to reconsider how to get from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, and the alternative that links with XpressWest goes through Palmdale, which appears to be more expensive by a few billion dollars than a straighter route through the Grapevine and Tejon Pass.

Since there is no hope for fast enough recovery that interest rates will rise, forcing early investment, it’s fine to wait. I would seriously suggest that the FRA delay decision until after the election, and if the Democrats win control of both the White House and Congress, wait a few more months until there is or is not a federal bill to fund HSR. The important thing to do is avoid biasing California toward an alternative that costs it several billion more dollars for the benefits of the XpressWest operation. Although California seems set on Palmdale, it is feasible that the amount of money Congress will make available for it in six months is enough for an initial operating segment if and only if it switches to the cheaper Grapevine alignment, and then the plan should be to try connecting XpressWest to the LA Basin much later, through tunnels through Cajon Pass. (In fact, if there is any way to get a cost estimate quickly, I would propose that, to see if it’s a reasonable alternative to Palmdale.)

If it’s a yes or no decision then I’m leaning toward yes, but not at any cost. If there is serious competition for other rail projects with higher or less risky benefits, then they should be funded ahead of XpressWest. If the decision biases California against the Grapevine, and the amount of funding available to it (from a separate pot of money, as it’s not asking for an FRA loan) is such that Palmdale would force unconscionable compromises elsewhere, then to protect the more important California HSR project XpressWest should be delayed even at the cost of potentially missing the window in which it can be funded.

But despite my doubts, it’s not a high-speed train to nowhere. It’s a high-speed train from the edge of a large metro area to a major leisure travel destination, and the cost of borrowing is so low that the federal government can expect to make its money back in ordinary circumstances. There is enough cushion against a ridership shortfall that the ordinary uncertainties expected are a small deal, and although a very large shortfall is likelier than for, say, the Northeast Corridor, it’s not probable enough to warrant denying a loan application. If Reason succeeds in canceling the line, it will join Florida HSR as a line that could have had great promise but succumbed to lobbying and fraud.

The Recession Won’t Last Forever

The article about New York State’s decision to discontinue studying high-speed rail between New York and Buffalo is by itself not terribly surprising. Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.

The study released by the state sandbagged actual HSR on cost grounds – it did not provide any further analysis, and in two ways (lower average speed than most HSR lines, and a requirement for tilting) stacked the deck against it – but instead looked into medium-speed rail, with top speed of 110-125 mph, which is frequently misnamed HSR in the US. This, too, is not surprising. State DOTs have no idea how HSR works, and tend to make mistakes, not know how to do cost control, and so on.

What’s most surprising is the explanation for why not to do anything substantial: as one of the HSR proponents quoted in the article complains, “The State of New York is worried about making ends meet; the economy is not doing so great. That’s the reason in the short term.” Taking his argument at face value, the state is refusing to advance study of an HSR line because economic conditions are bad now, a decade or more before such line could even open.

The recession won’t last forever; if it does, there are bigger things to worry about than transportation. Other than immediate reconstruction projects, for which the environmental reviews are fast-tracked, major projects take years to do all the design and environmental studies. California has been planning HSR since the late 1990s. It intended to go to ballot in 2004, and after delays did so in 2008. HSR is scheduled to break ground later this year, assuming the state does not cancel the project. An HSR project for which planning starts now will start construction after the economy recovers not from this recession, but from the next one.

The recurrent theme in the article is the state’s preference for mundane over flashy projects, but rejecting HSR shows the exact opposite.Starting planning now costs very little. In fact, the best thing any state agency can do is keep planning multiple big-ticket project contingencies pending an infusion of money; this way, it can dust off plans and execute them faster if there’s a stimulus bill in the next recession. That’s long-term planning. Refusing to advance construction because it won’t start until long after Cuomo’s Presidential run in 2006 2016 isn’t.

Of course, the same goes in the other direction. Too many people, building on Keynesian stimulus ideas, want massive infrastructure spending now as a public works program. For example, Robert Cruickshank (and in comments, Bruce McF) argues for long-term benefits coming from the stimulus effect. Although construction in 2012-3 would have an impact, a multi-decade project spanning periods of both growth and recession should not rely on estimates of job creation solely from periods of recession. On the contrary, economic costs and benefits should be based on a long-term multi-business cycle trend.

I propose the following principles for interaction between business cycles and very long-term investment:

1. Assume your project will be undertaken in a period of close to (but not quite) full employment, in terms of both funding sources and economic effects, unless you specifically intend to advance construction in a recession.

2. If you want to use a recession to lock in lower interest rates, higher job impacts, or lower construction costs, make sure you have a shovel-ready project, or else try to advocate for better staffing at the requisite regulatory agencies well ahead of time so that they can fast-track it.

3. Treat fiscal surpluses coming from an economy at full employment as one-time shots rather than an ongoing situation that can be used for regular spending or tax cuts. Growth doesn’t last forever, either.

The Rockaway Cutoff

When I went to an IRUM meeting nearly two years ago, the participants crowed about the possibility of restoring rail service on the Rockaway Cutoff. New York urban planner and technical activist David Krulewitch recently posted his proposal in a comment, showcasing multiple ways of reusing it for faster connections between Midtown and the Rockaway branches of the A, serving JFK and/or the Rockaways. Although the possibility has raised excitement among most local transit activists (some of whom have posted fantasy maps in the various subway forums including such an extension), I’m more skeptical.

First, the potential for JFK service is limited. The reason is that the Rockaway Cutoff only reaches Howard Beach, making it just a faster version of the A. The AirTrain is technologically incompatible with any other transit system in the region: it’s a vendor-locked Bombardier technology, of the same type used on the first two SkyTrain lines in Vancouver, in which the trains are driverless and propelled by linear induction motors placed between the tracks. This system allows trains to climb steeper than usual grades, and the maximum grade used on the AirTrain is 5.5%, considerably more than the usual for a normal subway or regional EMU (though less than the absolute maximum).

In addition, the needs of the mainline regional system and the subway are different from those of an airport people mover. A people mover needs very high frequency at all times, which is why such systems are normally driverless. In contrast, most subways are not driverless, and I do not know of a single mainline railroad that is driverless. Driverless operation requires some serious upgrades to electronics, and those upgrades are pointless if used only on a single line. If instead the JFK connection has a driver, then frequency will necessarily be very low, since there isn’t too much airport demand, and this will depress demand even further.

Although the current AirTrain system suffers from the lack of a one-seat ride to Manhattan, the situation is not too bad. Jamaica offers a very frequent LIRR connection to Manhattan at all hours, and Howard Beach offers a frequent if not fast connection to Brooklyn. This requires multiple transfers to reach most destinations, but this is not a major problem for locals who are traveling light. It’s a bigger problem for locals with luggage and even more so for tourists, but a one-seat ride to Penn Station, as proposed in LIRR connection proposals, is not too useful since most hotels are too far north. Even Grand Central is at the southern margin of Midtown proper.

For an honest estimate of how much demand there is, let us look at airports with very good transit connections. At Charles de Gaulle, 6 million passengers board at the RER station per year, 20% of airport traffic, and another 3 million use the TGV. At Frankfurt, 11% of passengers use the S-Bahn, and 15% use the ICE. Neither airport has a subway connection. Heathrow, which does have an Underground connection, has a total of 13 million Underground boardings and alightings, 20% of traffic (see data here); I do not know the ridership of the two mainline rail connections to Central London, but a thesis studying air-rail links puts the mode share as of 2004 at 9%. Assuming the train usage in Paris, New York could expect JFK to see 4.6 million boardings, or 9.2 million boardings and alightings; assuming that in London, New York could expect 13 million. The AirTrain’s current ridership is 5.3 million. Although the extra ridership would be useful at low cost, the higher cost of allowing mainline or subway trains to use the AirTrain tracks may be too high.

More importantly, 13 million passengers a year – an upper bound more than a median estimate in light of Frankfurt and Paris’s lower ridership – do not make for very high frequency by themselves, and therefore JFK could at best be an anchor rather than the primary ridership driver. Airport-only trains would be quite lonely; one of Krulewitch’s proposal’s most positive aspects is that it never even mentions premium express services such as Heathrow Express, which tend to underperform expectations as passengers prefer to ride cheaper local trains. Thus, not only would it be expensive to do an infrastructure and technology retrofit to permit direct Midtown-JFK service, but also the market for it would not be very large.

This brings us to the second possible market: the intermediate stops on the Rockaway Cutoff. They may seem useful, but in fact the development is elsewhere. Observe the land use maps of Queens Community Boards 6 and 9, which host most of the Cutoff: along the Cutoff’s right of way, the primary uses are single-family residential, with only a little commercial. Moreover, the commercial development is often very auto-oriented, for example at Metropolitan Avenue. Indeed, the only proposed station with significant dense development is Rego Park, which is on the LIRR Main Line and could be restored without restoring an entire line. Rezoning near the other stations is possible, but why not rezone near existing subway stations first?

In general, development in the US along linear corridors follows arterial roads, not railroads that haven’t seen passenger service in many decades. In the area in question, the primary north-south commercial artery is Woodhaven Boulevard; for service to the intermediate areas, the proposal should be evaluated against a light rail line on Woodhaven, providing local service from Queens Boulevard to Howard Beach and hitting multiple subway transfer points but not the airport.

The third market posited, fast service to the Rockaways, is the weakest. The stations in the Rockaways are some of the least busy in the subway system, with only a few hundreds of thousands of annual boardings each. They only support 15-minute service, with half of the A trains terminating at Ozone Park; since there are two Rockaway branches, the less busy only gets a shuttle except at rush hour, when there is enough demand for a few direct trains. Even with 15-minute service, it’s expensive to serve an area so far away with a flat fare; until a series of fare unifications, the subway charged a higher fare to stations in the Rockaways.

The problem with the Rockaways is that stations are too far from Manhattan and too lightly populated for it to be otherwise. Moreover, service along the LIRR to Penn Station using the Cutoff is about 18 km long measured from the intersection of the Cutoff with the A at Liberty, and service along the R is 16 km to Lexington and 19.5 to Times Square; service along the A is about 21.5 km long to Penn Station and 22 km long to Times Square, longer but not very much so. The main advantage of the R is that it hits Midtown proper better, rather than skirting it on 8th Avenue, but there’s practically no speed advantage – about 6 kilometers of travel distance and 2 station stops, translating to perhaps ten minutes.

As appealing as sending a single local subway service from the Queens Boulevard Line along the Cutoff to serve the Rockaways and give direct service to every branch, there would be a large demand mismatch; moreover, service to Forest Hills, which has nearly twice as many riders as all Rockaway stations combined, would be degraded.

LIRR service to the Rockaways could be better, but only if it’s modernized. The way it’s run today – infrequently, not very quickly, and expensively – it has no appeal. Far Rockaway has 4,500 weekday boardings on the subway (with a travel time of 1:06-1:14 to Times Square), and 158 average of boardings and alightings on the LIRR (with a travel time of 0:50-1:00 to Penn Station). Cutting another ten minutes from the LIRR travel time to Far Rockaway isn’t going to change anything as long as operating patterns remain as they are.

But if operating patterns are modernized, is there a point in service along the Cutoff? It saves very little distance measured to Far Rockaway: 21 vs. 24.5 km. It’s more useful farther west in the Rockaways, but those are less useful areas to serve – those are the areas with the lowest subway ridership, whereas Far Rockaway’s ridership is merely below average. Although the ridership would not be as pitiful if LIRR charged subway fares for in-city service and provided reasonably high speed and frequency, and it could be studied further as a case of an in-city S-Bahn line, there are more worthwhile S-Bahn destinations on the LIRR, for examples southeastern Queens, Hempstead, Bayside, and Great Neck. The main problem is that the Rockaway Beach branch would still have too little ridership to justify high frequency, and the round-robin proposal would have the same frequency-splitting effect on the stations except Far Rockaway and its immediate vicinity as running two separate branches; each station may have frequent service, but half the trains would take too long.

Finally, the three above-described markets – JFK, neighborhoods between Rego Park and Howard Beach, and the Rockaways – cannot all be served at the same time. The intermediate neighborhoods are free, but it’s impossible to serve both JFK and the Rockaways without an additional branching, reducing frequency even further. This means that the two markets can’t be combined to create more powerful demand. It’s one or the other – either the 13 million boardings and alightings one could optimistically expect of JFK, or the 4.5 million boardings times an appropriate growth factor one could expect of the Rockaways. Neither is high by S-Bahn standards; measured in ridership per terminus excluding short-turns, the least busy RER line, the RER C, has 20 million riders per terminus.

Because of the low potential ridership of the Rockaway Cutoff, I suggest New York transit advocates look elsewhere first. Service to JFK could be beefed up with sending surplus Amtrak trains to Jamaica for an interchange, and service to the Rockaways first with modernizing regional rail and second with having it take over the Far Rockaway branch of the A if there’s demand. If there’s higher than expected growth in demand, then the Cutoff could be activated, at as a low a cost in 15 years as today. But for now, the low cost of activating the Rockaway Cutoff comes hand in hand with low benefits.

Transfer Penalty Followup

My previous post‘s invocation of Reinhard Clever’s lit review of transfer penalties was roundly criticized on Skyscraper City Page for failing to take into account special factors of the case study. Some of the criticism is just plain mad (people don’t transfer from the Erie Lines to the NEC because trains don’t terminate at Secaucus the way they do at Jamaica?), but some is interesting:

This is what the paper says:

Go Transit commuter rail in Toronto provides a good example for Hutchinson’s findings. In spite of being directly connected to one of the most efficient subway systems in North America, Go’s ridership potential is limited to the number of work locations within an approximately 700 m radius around the main railroad station. Most of the literature points to the fact that the ridership already drops off dramatically beyond 400 m. This phenomenon is generally referred to as the “Quarter Mile Rule.”

Let’s look at WHY that is. If you live North of downtown and work North of about Dundas Street, it is probably faster for you to take the subway to work. So people aren’t avoid the commuter train because it imposes a transfer, but just because the subway is faster. Same thing if you live along the Bloor-Danforth line. Toronto’s subway runs at about the same average speed as NYC’s express trains. If one lives east or west of the city along the lakeshore, they are going to take the GO Train to Union Station and transfer to the subway to reach areas north of Dundas. I really doubt these people are actually “avoiding” the GO Train, though if there is evidence to the contrary I’d like to see it.

Toronto also has higher subway fares than NYC.

The issue is whether the subway and commuter rail in Toronto are substitutes for each other. My instinct is to say no: on each GO Transit line, only the first 1-3 stations out of Union Station are in the same general area served by the subway, and those are usually at the outer end of the subway, giving GO an advantage on time. Although the Toronto subway is fast for the station spacing, it’s only on a par with the slower express trains in New York; on the TTC trip planner the average speed on both main subway lines is about 32 km/h at rush hour and 35 km/h at night.

Unfortunately I don’t know about GO Transit usage beyond that. My attempt to look for ridership by station only yielded ridership by line, which doesn’t say much about where those riders are coming from, much less potential riders allegedly deterred by the transfer at Union Station. So I yield the floor to Torontonians who wish to chime in.

Update: a kind reader sent me internal numbers. The busiest stations other than Union Station are the suburban stations on the Lakeshore lines, led by Oakville, Clarkson, and Pickering; the stations within Toronto, especially subway-competitive ones such as Kipling, Oriole, and Kennedy, are among the least busy. Some explanations: the subway is cheaper, and (much) more frequent; Toronto’s GO stations have no bus service substituting rail service in the off-peak, whereas the suburban stations do; Toronto’s stations have little parking.

Congestion, Freeways, and Size, Redux

As a followup to my previous post about the TTI’s new congestion report, I finally did a multivariate regression analysis, with the dependent variable being cost and the independent variables being size and freeway lane-miles per capita. Such an analysis reduces the regression coefficient between freeways and congestion even more, to -42.5 from the uncontrolled -233. More interestingly, if we log all numbers (population, congestion cost, and freeways), the regression coefficient becomes a positive 0.02 – that is, adding freeways is correlated with making congestion a little worse.

Of course, it’s not literally true that adding freeways makes congestion worse. There’s a correlation if we look at the variables in some way, but it’s not going to have any statistical significance. Therefore tweaking variables slightly can make a correlation go from weakly positive to weakly negative.

In univariate regression, we can think about the square of the correlation as the percentage of the variance that is explained by the regression line. Freeway lane-miles per capita explain 3.8% of the variance in congestion (and logging either variable makes this number smaller); with 101 urban areas surveyed, it’s statistically significant, but barely so. But after controlling for population, this proportion drops to 0.7%. Thus, any sentence of the form “adding one freeway lane-mile per thousand people only cuts $42.5 from the annual congestion cost per capita” is inherently misleading: the correlation is so weak that some cities can reduce congestion without building the requisite amount of roads, or building any roads at all (for example, nearly all American cities in the last five years, congestion having crashed in the oil price boom and the recession), while others can keep building but see congestion increase (for example, Houston since the 1980s, and even today).

It goes without saying that such analysis is not going to appear in the TTI report itself. The TTI gets funding from APTA and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. It pays lip service to congestion pricing as a solution to congestion, and instead talks a lot about building public transportation and even more about building freeways to keep up with demand. American cities may be building freeways faster than their population growth, but cities that enact no traffic restraint and just pour concrete can expect demand to grow faster than population as people become more hypermobile.

Congestion and Size

The Texas Transportation Institute has just released the latest version of its much-criticized Urban Mobility Report. Although the conclusions and recommendations made by the TTI tend to reflect its funding sources (APTA, American Road and Transportation Builders Association), the underlying data seems sound, and suggests conclusions orthogonal to those made by the report. In addition, looking at the correlations more closely suggests obvious hazards coming from any simplistic analysis of linear regression. It even showcases how we could use data dishonestly and lie with statistics. So let’s take the data that’s relevant right now and see what we can conclude ourselves.

First, the size of an urban area is a very strong correlate of its level of congestion. The linear correlation between size and per capita congestion cost is 0.71. The correlation increases to 0.8 if we take the log of population and the log of congestion, or if we consider congestion in the absence of public transportation; in both cases, it comes from the fact that New York is far below the population-congestion regression line.

Now, more freeways do not really lead to congestion reduction. There’s some correlation between freeway miles per capita and congestion per capita, going in the expected direction, but it’s weak, -0.2, and while it’s statistically significant, the p-value is an uninspiring one-tailed 0.025. Looking at a scattergram doesn’t make any nonlinear relationship obvious.

Moreover, size is a correlate of both congestion (0.71 as above) and freeways (-0.23). This is fully expected: literature on cities’ economies of scale (here is a story of one controversial example) suggests that congestion and the economic activity causing it grow faster than linearly in city size while the amount of required energy and infrastructure grows slower than linearly. I open the floor to anyone with more powerful tools than OpenOffice Calc to do multiple regression; again, the sanitized data is here.

Even without controlling for population, freeways are not a very strong correlate. The regression coefficient is -233: increasing the number of freeway miles per thousand people by 1 (the range is 0.13-1.4, with few large metros above 1 or below 0.35) reduces the congestion cost per capita by $233 per year, also uninspiring.

The regression number alone can be used as a dishonest trick when arguing on the Internet. If we overinterpret weak correlations, we can declare that the only way to decrease congestion is to build an unrealistic number of freeways, and thus declare the problem unsolvable. Of course, for most cities we can find other cities of comparable size with much less congestion and without enormous amounts of asphalt – this is why the correlation is so weak. But a good hack should not bother himself with such caveats to talking points.

So if making an urban area larger makes it more congested, independently of and much more strongly than all else, should we give up on cities? Well, no. Assuming no change in traffic policy, congestion results from more economic activity. It then becomes straightforward to institute congestion pricing. It’s no different from how big cities can use their resources to hire more cops to deal with the crime that could result from extra interactions between people. On top of this, in very large cities, mass transit becomes a serious option: this not only reduces the amount of congestion per capita, but also removes many people from the highways to the point that congestion becomes irrelevant to their daily lives, except perhaps through higher transportation prices, which they can fully afford given the extra wealth.

Another thing to consider is that most American cities have added more freeways than people since 1982, the first year for which TTI data is available, while also becoming much more congested. If a simple relationship between freeway miles per capita and congestion held, it would be robust to these changes over time. Of course, traffic has grown even faster, leading the main report to showcase on PDF-page 21 how congestion increased the fastest in regions where road demand outgrew supply the most. But this raises the question of whether the main issue is one of demand, rather than one of supply. This is not just an issue of size: the log-log regression coefficients with cost and time is 0.42, i.e. doubling an urban area’s population will raise its per-driver congestion cost and travel delay by a factor of 2^0.42; since 1982, the average urban area on the list has seen its population grow by a factor of 1.46 and its travel delay per driver grow by a factor of 2.85 = 1.46^2.77. Cost has grown even faster, because of higher value of time.

That said, quantity of freeways does not equal quality (from the drivers’ perspective, of course, rather than the city’s). On paper, Greater New York has added freeway lanes about 9% faster than people over the last thirty years. In practice, none has addressed the major chokepoints within and into the city itself, where traffic is worst. Of course, commutes involving Manhattan are overwhelmingly likely to be done on public transportation, but diagonal commutes within the city are more likely to be done by car than on transit.

On a parenthetical note, the units of comparison here are TTI-defined urban areas. TTI’s belief about urban area population growth trends is sometimes at odds with that of the Census Bureau, but the raw population numbers are close enough. More important is the question of what to do about urban areas that are really exurbs of larger areas, such as Poughkeepsie-Newburgh and the Inland Empire. My first instinct was to lump them in with their core metro areas, but their congestion level per capita is not high. Their commutes are long, but not very congested for their size. Finally, although most correlations here are with congestion cost, the correlation numbers with travel delay and excess fuel consumptions are very similar; the one exception I’ve checked, for which I have no explanation, is log-log congestion-fuel correlation (0.84, with regression coefficient 0.73).

Defrauding the Public on European Rail Profits

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) penned an op-ed defending his attempt to strip California high-speed rail of all funding. In the usual litany of complaints about the deficit, he referenced a 2008 study by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General claiming that European passenger railroads lose money but keep those losses off-books. The study is fraudulent. It does not specify a methodology, which means it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly the numbers don’t match actual reality; however, some hints are provided by the following claim:

1. Public Funding to the Train Operating Companies may be accounted for as revenue, and

2. Public Funding to the Infrastructure Managers enables them to charge “user fees” to the Train Operating Companies that may be significantly lower than the actual infrastructure maintenance expenses.

Ad 1, it is not difficult to separate transport income from public funding. The balance sheets often state the source of income clearly. Most public funding comes from operating regional trains under contract, which SNCF and DB keep separate from their core intercity business, which is profitable. A minority of public funding is subsidies for social services, for example state-mandated discounts to active-duty troops, the elderly, and the unemployed; a libertarian would instantly recognize such mandates as taxes and deduct them from the subsidies. See for example page 30 of SNCF’s books, which clearly shows the majority of public funding (not counting RFF, which is nominally private) is from local sources, for operating commuter rail.

It is true that regional rail is heavily subsidized in Europe, but the same is true in the US. But in the US there’s far less national railroad involvement in commuter rail than in Europe, so comparing Amtrak to every train that has an SNCF logo is disingenuous. Worse, the study picks and chooses which Amtrak trains to compare European trains to: it ignores the long-distance trains, and in one figure (p. 13) only compares the Northeast Corridor to European networks and ignores the state-supported corridors, organizationally the closest thing to the TER or DB Regio in the US.

Ad 2, the choice of how to set the track access fees is a political one, and often the political choice is to set the access fees high. In France, in anticipation of open access RFF has recently raised tolls to far above track maintenance costs, effectively moving all French rail profits from SNCF to RFF and preventing competing companies from making a profit on the popular Paris-Lyon segment. Even in 2006, the toll on Paris-Lyon was €14.60 per train-km, the highest of all European lines although, because it has the most traffic, its maintenance cost should be the lowest per train-km.

A 2008 study of the costs and benefits of HSR in Europe published by the OECD and International Transport Forum finds that the maintenance costs per single-track-km in Europe average €30,000. This is €82 per single-track-km per day; to find the appropriate cost per train-km, divide by the number of daily trains in each direction. The LGV Sud-Est’s 2006 tolls would cover that average maintenance cost in just six daily runs; maximum frequency on the line is ten trains per direction per hour. Of the five or six lines on the list of rail links and their tolls that are HSR, the average toll is €10 per train-km. Of course this excludes depreciation and interest, but at least on the LGV Sud-Est, depreciation is quite low since the line was cheap to construct, and the construction bonds have already been paid. SNCF’s complaint that it’s being milked by tolls far above maintenance costs seems correct.

Of course, RFF’s books are more than just maintenance costs. They’re also debt accumulated by SNCF when it was run far less efficiently than today. Much like with JNR, this debt may have to be absorbed by the state, leading to predictable claims of subsidies. In reality, all this would do would be retroactively subsidize losses from decades ago. This is exactly what happened with JNR: the state absorbed the debt coming from operating losses, but required the JR companies to take over the Shinkansen construction debt, see pp. 46 and 88 of this document on privatization.

That this study has been picked up by Heritage, Reason (p. 7), and others as evidence that high-speed rail will lose money is not surprising – those organizations are paid by industry groups including the Koch Brothers and Reason spreads disinformation about trains – but for Amtrak to mislead the people who are footing its bill is inexcusable. It is probably not a matter of incompetence. Amtrak’s claim that every railroad in the world receives public funds is very unlikely to be an honest mistake. Claiming that Japan absorbed Shinkansen debt could be an honest mistake – I only found the aforementioned privatization document while looking for sources for my privatization post. But claiming that SNCF keeps public funding hidden from view when in fact it clearly states it receives regional funding for regional rail requires actively searching for reasons to tar SNCF. The alternative possibility that Amtrak included commuter rail in the calculation merely turns Amtrak’s claim from an outright lie to intentional misleading.

Amtrak’s Office of the Inspector General most likely knows what it’s doing. Nominally it’s independent of Amtrak, but if Amtrak dies, it will have nobody to supervise. Amtrak is losing money when its peer first-world railroads make money, it’s under siege by Republicans who point to those losses as a reason to private and dismember it, and it has no intention of reforming. The only way out of this conundrum is to defraud the public about peer first-world railroad practices, and I believe that this is exactly what the OIG did here. Amtrak’s existing services are sufficiently well-patronized that they have special interests behind them; therefore, feeding Reason’s propaganda is not an existential threat. But House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica’s calls for fundamental change could resonate with Republicans and moderate Democrats, and this could mean the end of Amtrak. It’s rational to lie to the public that it’s impossible to do better.

What is not rational is public acceptance of this. Heads should have rolled about this document. All involved should have resigned or been fired. Mica should have suspected shenanigans and invited both the authors of the study and officials from SNCF and DB for a hearing. Amtrak proper of course embraces the results and continues along its merry way, but I expect no better from it anymore. What I do expect is that the public in general and rail advocates in particular will be as livid as I am about being defrauded.

Skewed North Shore BRT/LRT Proposal (Hoisted from Comments)

The MTA produced an alternatives analysis for transit service on the North Shore of Staten Island. The study contains zingers and various factors making the cost many times higher than it should be, but the agency response to all comments is Decide, Announce, Defend. Commenter Ajedrez reports from a public meeting on the subject on Second Avenue Sagas:

I went for part of the meeting (from about 18:30 to 19:45), and this is a rundown of what happened:

* They discussed the updates from the last meeting. They eliminated the ferry option (that didn’t even make sense), and they eliminated the heavy rail option.

* The people were given the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. This one woman (the same woman from last time) ranted on and on about something historical at Richmond Terrace/Alaska Street that would be destroyed if they paved over it.

Then a few more people made some comments, and I asked why they eliminated the heavy rail option (for those of you who are wondering, I was the kid in the yellow jacket and blue/black striped shirt. Then again, I was the only kid in the room)

* Then we went to the back to talk with the people from the consulting firm. I discussed the heavy rail more in depth, and asked why it was needed if the West Shore Light Rail would supposedly cover the Teleport. I then made a couple of suggestions for the short-term (reverse-peak S98 service, my S93 extension, cutting back more S46s to Forest Avenue) and I gave them the name of a person at the MTA who they could contact.

To elaborate on my statement about heavy rail, they said that they took it completely off the table. It just amazed me that they originally had a ferry line as one of the options, but they didn’t even have heavy rail as an option south of Arlington.

Let me think, you have an abandoned rail line (and a heavy rail line at that), and you want to put a ferry line there. What sense does that make? I could understand maybe having the ferry supplement the rail line, but doing that would have the whole thing go to waste.

I said that the current SIR is heavy rail and the South Shore is more auto-oriented than the North Shore. And I said that it provides better integration with the current SIR (they said they could put light rail in the Clifton Yard, but it’s probably automatically cheaper if you don’t have to retrofit the yard). And I also said that there’s higher capacity than light rail, so in case there’s growth, it is better equipped to handle it

So they said “Well, it was too expensive (because one of the goals was to serve the Teleport) so we didn’t even consider it.” And then they said that SI doesn’t have Brooklyn-type density to support heavy rail (but somehow the South Shore does?). And if you limit it to light rail, you’re actually limiting SI’s growth potential. Think about it: before 1900, Brooklyn had some streetcar lines, but not a whole lot of ridership. When the subway was extended, the population exploded. But if they just extended some streetcar lines from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the population would be nowhere near the 2.5 million it has today.

And then they said “Oh, well during the last meetings (which I attended, so I know they’re not being completely truthful) people expressed a sentiment for light rail”. They didn’t. They expressed a sentiment against a busway, There’s a difference. They didn’t say “Oh, it shouldn’t be heavy rail”. They just said they want rail rather than buses.

I mean, the argument I should’ve made (besides the ones I already did) was the fact that there was heavy rail there before, and the population was smaller back then. I think it’s pretty obvious.

And when I made that statement, everybody was surprised at how young I was (16). One woman said “You should be the one studying this project”, and they actually tried to avoid responding to me (they were like “Thank you. Next question”, and then everybody said “But you didn’t answer his question”, and that’s when they made up the response about expenses)

Besides the wretched DAD attitude, the cost projections and the route choice doesn’t even make sense. The proposal is to use the abandoned B&O right-of-way along the North Shore, from St. George to Arlington, and then cut over to South Avenue and serve West Shore Plaza. Here is satellite imagery of South Avenue: observe that it is almost completely empty.

Here we have a line that consists of 8.5 kilometers of abandoned trackage, which can be restored for service remarkably cheaply, and 5.5 of an on-street segment, which tends to be much more expensive to construct. Compare the costs of regional rail restoration in Germany or Ottawa’s O-Train with those of French LRT lines (including Lyon’s cheaper line). In addition, the areas along the abandoned trackage are of moderate density by non-New York standards, while those along South Avenue aren’t even suburban. And yet, the MTA is convinced that the per-km cost of an option that terminates at Arlington is higher than that of an option that goes to West Shore Plaza ($56 million/km vs. $41/km).

While the cost range proposed is only moderately high for light rail – the French average is a little less than $40 million/km – this is misleading because of the nature of the lines. French tramways tend to be on-street, involving extensive street reconstruction. Sometimes they need a new right-of-way along a boulevard or a highway. In contrast, the North Shore Branch is a mostly intact rail right-of-way, which means that the land grading and the structures, the most expensive parts of any rail project, are already in place. It shouldn’t cost like a normal light rail project; it should cost a fraction.

On top of this, to inflate the cost, the MTA is talking about a train maintenance shop. It says a light rail option allows merely modifying the maintenance shop for the Staten Island Railway. Not mentioned is the fact that SIR-compatible heavy rail would allow the trains to be maintained in the same shops without modification, to say nothing of leveraging New York City Transit’s bulk buying to obtain cheaper rolling stock.

The O-Train’s cost – C$21 million for 8 km of route – included three three-car DMUs, piggybacking on a large Deutsche Bahn order; judging by the cost of a more recent expansion order from Alstom, a large majority of the original $21 million was rolling stock. New York should be able to obtain cheaper trains, using its pricing power and sharing spares with the SIR. The electrification costs would add just a little: electrification can be done for €1 million per route-km, and in high-cost Britain it can be done for £550,000-650,000 per track-km (p. 10).

For an order of magnitude estimate of the cost of a well-designed SIR-compatible North Shore Branch, we have, quoting my own comment on SAS:

For an order-of-magnitude estimate of what’s needed, figure $20 million for electrification, $5 million for high-platform stations, and $25 million for six two-car trains plus a single spare. Go much higher and it’s not a transportation project, but welfare for contractors.

In retrospect would add about $10-20 million for trackwork, since the line is abandoned. On the other hand, fewer trains could be used: I was assuming 10-minute headways and a 25-minute travel time to Port Ivory; with 15-minute headways and a travel time under 17.5 minutes to Arlington, which is realistic given subway speeds (the MTA study says 15), only three trains plus a spare would be required.

On a related note, the loading gauge excluding station platform edges should be rebuilt to mainline standards, to allow future regional rail service to replace the SIR. Eventually Staten Island is going to need a long tunnel to Manhattan or Brooklyn if it’s to look like an integral part of the city, and once such a tunnel is built, it might as well be used to provide RER-style service across the city.

In contrast, the MTA proposal has no concern for cost cutting, and looks like lip service to the community. It’ll be an especial tragedy if the line is permanently ripped up to make room for a busway, which will likely underperform and turn into a highway. The contractors are going to get well paid no matter what: the busway is cheaper, but not by an order of magnitude. It’s just the riders who will not have good transit on Staten Island’s North Shore.

Disappointment 2050

The political transit bloggers are talking about the new RPA/America 2050 report on high-speed rail published by the Lincoln Institute, which recommends a focus on the Northeast and California. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate description of the report. Although it does indeed propose to start with the Northeast and California, that’s not the focus of the report; instead, the focus is to argue that HSR is everything its boosters claim it is and then some more, and demand more money for HSR, from whatever source.

Look more closely at the section proposing to focus on New York and California. Although the authors say the US should prioritize, minimal argument was offered for why these are the best options. The report shows the map from the RPA’s study on the subject, which proposes a few other priorities and isn’t that good to begin with (it grades cities on connecting transit based on which modes they have, not how much they’re used). But it says nothing more; I’d have been interested to hear about metro area distribution questions as discussed on pages 113-5 in Reinhard Clever’s thesis and pp. 10-11 of his presentation on the same topic, and alignment and regional rail integration questions such as those discussed by the much superior Siemens Midwest study, but nothing like that appears in this report.

The report then pivots to the need to come up with $40 billion for California and $100 billion for the Northeast Corridor, under either the RPA’s gold-plated plan or Amtrak’s equally stupid Vision. The RPA first came up with the idea of spending multiple billions on brand new tunnels under Philadelphia, which was then copied by the Vision, and wants trains to go through Long Island to New Haven through an undersea tunnel. Clearly, cost-effectiveness is not the goal. Since the methodology of finding the best routes is based on ridership per km, offering a gold-plated plan is the equivalent of trying to connect much longer distances without a corresponding increase in ridership, which goes against the original purpose of the RPA study.

Together with the neglect of corridors that scored high on the RPA’s study but have not had official high-speed rail proposals costing in the tens of billions (the SNCF proposal and the above-mentioned Siemens report are neither official nor affiliated with the RPA), the conclusion is not favorable. The most charitable explanation is that the RPA was looking for an official vehicle to peddle its own Northeast HSR plan but actually believes it has merit. The least charitable is that the RPA wants to see spending on HSR megaprojects regardless of cost-effectiveness.

The treatment of other issues surrounding HSR is in line with a booster mentality, in which more is always better. Discussing station placement, the report talks about the development benefits that come from downtown stations and the lack of benefit coming from exurban stations, as nearly all stations on LGVs are. It does not talk about the tradeoff in costs and benefits; others have done so, for example the chief engineer of Britain’s High Speed 2, who also talks about other interesting tradeoffs such as speed versus capacity versus reliability, but the report prefers to just boost the most expensive plan.

More specifically, the report contrasts CBD stations, suburban stations, and exurban stations. In reality, many stations are outside the CBD but still in the urban core with good transit connections, such as Shin-Osaka, Lyon Part-Dieu, and 30th Street Station, but those are implicitly lumped with beet field stations. This helps make spending billions on tunnels through Philadelphia, as both the RPA and Amtrak propose, look prudent, when in reality both Japan and France are happy to avoid urban tunneling and instead build major city stations in conveniently urban neighborhoods. In fact, Japan’s own boosters and lobbyists crow about the development around such stations.

In line with either view of the report’s purpose, the literature it studies is partial. Discussing the effect of HSR on development, it quotes a study about the positive effect of HSR on small towns in Germany on the Cologne-Frankfurt line, but not other studies done in other countries. For example, in Japan, the effect of the Shinkansen on the Tohoku and Joetsu regions was decidedly mixed. The report also quotes the positive story of Lille’s TGV-fueled redevelopment, which was not replicated anywhere else in France, where cities just passively waited for infrastructure to rescue them. But instead of talking about Lille’s program of redevelopment, the report contrasts it with failed development cases in cities with exurban stations, never mind that no city achieved what Lille did, even ones with downtown stations, like Marseille. It’s not quite a Reason-grade lie, but it’s still very misleading.

Finally, the section about how to fund the $100 billion Northeast system and California’s $43 billion starter line has suggestions that are so outlandish they defy all explanation. The authors propose the following:

1. Raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon or more. Several cents could be devoted to passenger rail.

2. Add a $1 surcharge on current passenger rail tickets to produce approximately $29 million annually.

3. Shift from a national gas tax to a percentage tax on crude oil and imported refined petroleum products. RAND estimated that an oil tax of 17 percent would generate approximately $83 billion a year. Five billion dollars of this amount could be dedicated to passenger rail.

Of these, proposal #2 is by far the stupidest. Amtrak receives subsidies; to tax tickets is to propose shifting some change from the left pocket to the right pocket. Why not go ahead and propose to reduce Amtrak’s subsidy by the same amount and require it to raise fares or improve efficiency?

But proposals #1 and 3 are equally bad. Wedding train funding to a steady stream of gas taxes has been the status quo for decades; the result is that APTA is so used to this unholy marriage that it opposed a climate change bill that would tax gas without diverting the funds back to transportation. (That by itself should be reason for good transit advocates to dismiss APTA as a hostile organization, just one degree less malevolent than Reason and Cato and one degree less obstructionist than the FRA.) And if it were a wise long-term choice, if it were politically feasible to add to the gas tax just to build competing trains, the US political climate would look dramatically different, and instead of talking about focus, we’d be talking about how to extend the under-construction Florida HSR line.

A report that was serious about a mode shift from cars to cleaner forms of transportation would not talk about 15 cents per gallon; it would talk in terms of multiple dollars per gallon, as gas is taxed in Europe and high-income Asia. The best explanation I can think of for the funding mechanisms is that the RPA has internalized the tax-as-user-fee model of ground transportation, one that has never worked for cars despite the AAA’s pretense otherwise and that won’t work for anything else.

The overall tone of the report slightly reminds me of Thomas MacDonald’s Highway Education Board, with its industry-sponsored “How Good Roads Help the Religious Life of My Community” essay contests. It reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s “win, win, win, win, win” columns even more – which is unsurprising since I think of Friedman as the archetypal booster – but when this boosterism applies not to a policy preference but to spending very large amounts of public money, I begin to suspect that it’s advertising rather than optimism. Friedman for all his faults crows about American and Indian entrepreneurs inventing new things rather than about extracting $100 billion from the Northeast to pay for unnecessary greenfield tunneling.

Therefore, good transit activists should dismiss this report, and avoid quoting it as evidence that prioritizing is necessary. This was not what the RPA was preaching back when it thought it could get away with proposing more, and the rest of the report is so shoddy it’s not a reliable source of analysis. There may be other reasons to focus on those corridors, but the RPA did not argue them much, instead preferring to literally go for big bucks.

Quick Note: Comfort

While reading a thesis about tilting trains, I saw a comparison of passenger comfort on different modes of transportation. This includes the following graph (p. 30), which the thesis sources to a study of motion sickness in US children and teenagers:

The scale is originally 0-3: this study polled a sample aged 9-18 and asked whether they feel nauseous on any of the above modes, where 0 is “never” and 3 “always.”