Thoughts on Amtrak

Unfortunately, this is not the train we rode.

Somewhat unbelievably, it’s taken me 30+ years to ride Amtrak.  I’m not sure if that says something about it’s viability, or something about my lack of cultural experience.  You be the judge.

After riding the Empire Builder to Chicago and back for the Memorial Day weekend, here are some initial thoughts:

  • Once you ride this route, you’ll yearn for high speed rail.  If it were only an hour or two faster, it would be competitive with the automobile and thus much more attractive.  I’ll leave the cost-benefit discussion of that upgrade for smarter folks and later posts.
  • It’s better than air travel (at this distance). No security checks, no arriving early at the airport, and much less of a cattle car feeling.  Seats are large, legroom is ample, and there is an observation car where a National Park Service employee gives you a guided tour of the landscape.
  • It’s slow. You just have to be ready for that.  It took 9.5 hours on the way down, because we left a little late and freight trains blocked us on a number of occasions.
  • I wouldn’t want to ride it overnight.  While comfortable, sitting in any seat overnight is not pleasant.  The looks on the faces of passengers getting off at Minneapolis from points west in the early morning confirmed my feeling.  A sleeper car would be a must.
  • The food is actually pretty good.  Just stay away from the prepackaged stuff in the cafe car.  Beer is even reasonably priced.
  • Arriving downtown is great, especially in Chicago.  The CTA system is one of the most uncomfortable transit systems I’ve ever ridden, so stepping off Amtrak downtown and avoiding the blue line from O’Hare is great.
  • It has too many stops.  Stopping in both Red Wing and Winona seems excessive and the Portage and Columbus stops seem like they could be done away with without a significant loss of ridership.  Perhaps these stops are an artifact of the historic route, or some requirement of federal funding, I’m not sure.
  • There are a lot of at-grade crossings.  This probably slows down the train (and car traffic).
  • Based on my two observations, there was lots of demand.  The train was very full both ways, and on the way back there must have been thirty cars total.

French Rail Company Thinks Midwest HSR Will Pay For Itself, Wants to Invest

According to The Transport Politic, SNCF, the French national railroad operator, thinks that a Midwest High-Speed Rail system is economically viable and is interested in building it.

…SNCF’s response was conditioned on viability: it suggests that high-speed rail investment should only occur where operating and maintenance costs would be covered by rider revenue and that socio-economic benefits offset initial public investments in the system. Based on its conclusions, the corridors it has picked for study would meet those guidelines.

Here is what they have to say about a Midwest system:

SNCF expects that the system would more than cover operations costs, allowing the network’s revenues to be used to repay some of the initial construction costs. The public would subsidize 54% of the $68.5 billion total cost of right-of-way, construction, and trainsets. Benefits from reduced car and air travel, however, are expected to make up for 150% of the government investment in construction costs over a period of just 15 years of operation.

Travel time between Minneapolis and Chicago?  2 hours and 42 minutes.

Freemark corrects Glaeser on HSR

I’ve posted a lot about transit lately, so I promise to post on something else soon.  However, this thread is worth following up on.

The New York Times has been running a four-part series, now concluded, considering the possible benefits and costs of a hypothetical high-speed rail line.  There has been much protesting about Glaeser’s analysis, in particular, about his failure to include population growth, and worse in my opinion, a failure to include any analysis of an alternative to rail and what those benefits and costs may be.  Yonah Freemark, writing at the Infrastructurist, comes up with his own set of numbers and sees a much brighter future for HSR (even in Texas).

This reevaluation of Glaeser’s argument seems to upend his primary conclusion that the construction costs of the high-speed line would vastly outweigh the corridor’s benefits. While he figures that a 240-mile train system would result in a net annual loss of around $500 million, this analysis – using his own economic benefits model – shows a net benefit of $30 million a year (see our PDF for the math). High-speed rail between Dallas and Houston, then, seems like an eminently sensible thing to do.

Midwest HSR/Stimulus run-down

I’ve been collecting articles since mid-February, so this post is way overdue.

Remember when Congress approved $680 million a year for high speed rail projects?  Well that’s peanuts now, with the stimulus bringing in $8 billion.  Back then, Oberstar said Chicago to the Twin Cities could happen in 5 years.

As usual, NYT has the best rundown of the details.  Autopia also has a little more analysis.  The Boston Globe talks to some people who say that HSR will be tough to get started in the US because of our old friends low gas prices (love of foreign oil?) and low population density (also wide open spaces and a lack of historic government support).  Governor Jim Doyle went to Spain, rode their ultra-fast trains and declared a Chicago-Minnesota route possible “within 5 to 10 years“.  Finally, feeling left out, the Hennepin County Board last week approved a resolution asking that proposals be developed to include Minneapolis in high-speed plans (current plans have the line ending at Saint Paul’s soon-to-be-renovated Union Depot).

If $680 million = Chicago-TC HSR route in 5 years, shouldn’t $8 billion = Chicago-TC route in 5 months?