March 12, 2011
The Problems With Passenger Rail

A New York Times story looks at why the Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail project lost political support.

The story of the line?s rise and fall shows how it was ultimately undone by a tradeoff that was made when the route was first selected.

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

These cities were too close together to have air service between their airports. It would have stopped many times. So the time savings over driving would have been small.

The fantasy for passenger rail advocates is Europe. But in reality the fantasy does not even exist. In much more densely populated Europe with large government subsidies for passenger rail and other mass transit cars still account for most miles traveled. The UK government report on transportation referred to above contains a chart in chapter 2, "Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003", that speaks volumes about mass transit in Europe:

Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003

Only in Switzerland is more than 10% of passenger miles from rail. In the far less densely populated USA we can't get anywhere near those levels of mass transit penetration.

I like railroads. My first trip between America's coasts was on an Amtrak train. Trains are cool. I love to watch them lumbering by. I used to live next to a train track and did not mind the sounds of their passing. But if one's goal is to reduce reliance on oil (and that need seems urgent given fairly stagnant world oil production and yet large non-OECD oil consumption growth since 2000) then one has to consider the marginal costs of cutting demand for oil in all the ways it could be cut (e.g. more hybrids, lighter weight material in cars, bikeways, technology to allow trucks to run automatically in groups on highways to cut wind resistance).

Multi-billion dollar passenger rail projects should not be undertaken just because they've got all their permits lined up and a few politicians and passenger rail enthusiasts are excited. Resource limitations and a $1.6 trillion US budget deficit call for setting a high bar of expected benefits for taxpayer-funded transportation spending.

Just sticking with rail obvious changes in government policies could shift more freight traffic to rail. Rail in the US saves oil by pulling freign away from less energy efficient trucks on the road (while saving lives just as passenger rail can). A 2009 study for the Federal Railroad Administration found that trains are 1.9 to 5.5 more fuel efficient for freight movement than trucks.

For all movements, rail fuel efficiency is higher than truck fuel efficiency in terms of ton-miles per gallon. The ratio between rail and truck fuel efficiency indicates how much more fuel efficient rail is in comparison to trucks. As illustrated in Exhibit 1-1, rail fuel efficiency varies from 156 to 512 ton-miles per gallon, truck fuel efficiency ranges from 68 to 133 ton-miles per gallon, and rail-truck fuel efficiency ratios range from 1.9 to 5.5.

That link contains more about the causes of differences in rail and truck fuel efficiency than most of you want to know. One factor influencing train fuel efficiency is whether a train route allows double stacking. Well, if the US government wanted to shift more freight traffic to trains it could offer to pay part of the costs of lifting bridges or reworking tunnels (e.g. with accelerated depreciation of investment costs) to accelerate the trend toward more double-stacking. Also, more crossings could be reworked so that trains and cars get separated by bridges. Doing this will speed up freight rail (while saving lives). Faster speeds would both cut rail freight delivery times and increase the total shipping capacity of rail lines. This would cause a shift of more time-critical freight to rail. Not as fun as a high speed train ride. But probably far more cost effective as a way to both cut oil usage and highway deaths.

Many passenger rail advocates are uninterested in trade-offs between different ways to spend taxpayer dollars. But there's another approach that might work with a subset of them: passenger rail's role as an energy saver is far from clear.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded ? the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

?Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,? says the DOE. ?On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.? Moreover, the report adds, ?if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat ? making overall energy savings even more problematic.?

Add in the regulatory demands for higher car efficiency and rail's energy efficiency advantage for moving people becomes even less clear when Prius-level vehicle fuel efficiency becomes the norm. Another source finds poor energy efficiency from light rail.

Since I see reduction in oil usage as far more urgent than reduction in overall energy usage electrified passenger rail could still provide an advantage over gasoline-powered cars. But how long will it take for a passenger rail system to pay back the energy that would go into its construction? Also, it is not clear in the year 2011 whether car battery costs will come down fast enough to remove that advantage from electrified passenger rail. My guess is that electrifying freight rail makes more sense than building out a massive infrastructure of passenger rail in a country with a fairly low population density.

By Randall Parker at 2011 March 12 08:54 AM 

Comments
bmack500 said at March 13, 2011 9:50 AM:

Wow.
The Cognitive deficiencies... You've just turned into a complete jerk, Randall. That wasn't called for. Feeling a bit superior, are we?

Goodbye.

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