Do the math

Over at Peak Oil NYC, Peakguy wonders whether it's going to cost him more to take the train to Washington, DC, or to drive. He does the math:
So let's do the math on the incentives to drive vs. take the train, assuming we simply park the car when we arrive and do not use it for anything except intracity transportation:

Amtrak ticket: $80 each way, $160 roundtrip (no discount for RT!)
2004 Honda Civic: 250 miles, 30 mpg, assume $3 and $3.50/gallon gas = $25-30/each way. That's really cheap compared to the $80 Amtrak tickets.

Not that most people factor this into their plans, but gas is only a fraction of the cost of using a car for this trip. Let's assume parking is $25 each night x 3 nights. Tolls will be another $15 each way (bridge/NJ Turnpike/Tunnel). That brings us up to a total roundtrip cost for the car to $155-165. Ok that's competitive on the margin for one person to take the train, but remember this was a two person trip, meaning the car costs would be cut in half. This is the power of carpooling.

(Still, he ended up taking the train.)

This is yet another reminder of the state of rail travel in the US. Amtrak is neglected, and practically unsustainable, and even though it does work well on the east coast, it's so expensive that only executives can afford to take it.

Still, there is hope, should we get to the point where the nation becomes desperate for rail travel as an alternative. The US has a history of railroading (and electric streetcars, even though they were systematically destroyed in the early 1900s in favor of car travel), and the good news is that the US has a lot of old rights-of-way for railroads that still exist and that can be converted back to rail travel fairly straightforwardly. Interestingly, these rights-of-way are currently being protected through a policy called "railbanking". According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy:

Railbanking (as defined by the  National Trails System Act, 16 USC 1247 (d)) is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until some railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners. The railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act as adopted by Congress in 1983 have preserved 4,431 miles of rail corridors in 33 states that would otherwise have been abandoned.

It would be sad to see all of these miles of trails closed down, but if it were done in order to resurrect (or should I say create?) passenger and freight rail lines, I'd be all for it.

In full disclosure, I'm not as virtuous as peakguy. I went to Pittburgh over the weekend, and we did consider taking Amtrak from NYC. For us, it would have been more than economical ($100RT per person), and many times more ecological too. For me, the problem was time. It took us 4 1/2 hours door-to-door from our hotel in Pittburgh to our home in NYC, versus over 9 hours for the train. For a 2 day trip, it was just too much time.

And in case anyone is wondering, Pittburgh had gas for $3.19 for regular grade, and no lines anywhere.

I think that what is too often left out when comparisons are done is the price of owning a car. How much are the payments/lease each month? Repairs/maintenance? etc..

Sure, most people already own the car so they figure "why not use it?", but increasingly I suspect that car-sharing (ie. Flexcar, Zipcar) and investments in public transportation infrastructure will change the balance.

We can hope, anyway.

Oh, and lets not forget that Peakguy's math would be quite different if - like most americans - he didn't have a fairly fuel-efficient car. Doing the trip in a Ford Expedition would be something else...
In addition to gas costs you should also calculate deprecated value of the car. I think it bigger cost than gas.
Most depreciation on automobiles is a function of time, not distance driven (unless truly excessive amounts of miles are driven).
You have forgotten wear on the car. If a Civic costs $15000 and lasts for
100000 miles 250 miles is $37.50 assuming buying it new and running it
into the ground and linear depreciation. If you buy new and sell while
still a reasonable life left it wil be higher.
Definitely true for frequent or long trips, or ones where extra vehicle wear is a given (5000 miles on gravel roads) ... but one trip of 250 is probably not a big deal.
I've been amused lately, that when I leave my prius in the garage and take my bike - long rides increase my appitite so much that I'm eating myself out of house and home ;-).

We could total the environmental damage of 1 gallon of gas - or an extra meal every day.

Don't forget that if you eat local, organic, and/or vegetarian, you'll be doing much less damage!
And that by exercising, you won't end up obese and/or in the hospital ;-P
My diet is probably fairly efficient, and pretty low wastage.  I do believe in the dry bluk trucked items though - rice, oatmeal, flour.  I think they are underestimated as low "fossil fuel" nutrition.  A frozen bag of chicken breasts is probably pretty efficient.  My medium level vice is frozen Trader Joe's convenience food (not the absurd things like frozen cooked rice!).  My major vice is coffee (thousands of miles, certainly).

I grow a few veggies in containers, but nothing major.

And roughly one meal out each day.

Please continue to buy organic (and local)!  We small farming operations, especially organic ones, rely on those who make the choice to buy organic.  While there is a premium price, there are also significantly higher costs of production (Actually, alot of our margin comes from the difference between the cost of trucking California to the Norhth East, not the organic premium.).

At any rate, what do you think will be the effect of higher gas prices on  shopping behavior?  Maybe people will say, 'I'd like to buy organic, but with so much money going to gas, I'll buy the factory farm stuff?'

I agree with Peakguy that gas is still cheap, but it's only part of the cost of owning and operating a vehicle.  Using the IRS mileage deduction rate; which considers such additional costs as insurance, taxes, depreciation, and maintenance; would provide a more accurate picture.  Using the 2005 rate of 40.5 cents a mile the cost of driving round trip from NY to DC comes to $200 dollars, not the $50-60 he calculated .  Adding the parking and tolls and now taking the car costs $305 dollars.  That's still cheaper for two than taking Amtrak would be, but not by much.

P.S.  The 40.5 cents figure was calculated in late 2004 when gas was around $2 a gallon; the 2006 rate will almost certainly be higher.

 If I drove 30,000 miles per year the 40.5 cent deduction would come to $12,150 in tax deductions. At the top tax bracket this would make using my car, which costs me about $4000 a year in insurance, fuel, and repairs, free for me. Perhaps we are paying for the rich to drive and waste fuel. But alas I am retired and my only taxable income is $9400 from my pension and using my car is not tax deductible.
Do bear in mind when accounting for the cost of a car that some costs are fixed unless you're able to get rid of the car entirely. Insurance is not charged by the mile. Metal rusts and rubber and plastics deteriorate to some extent whether you drive the car or not, especially in northern states where ice and road salt cling to it all winter. If you derive a per-mile cost by adding up all bills and dividing by the total accumulated miles, you will overestimate the added cost for a trip by probably a factor around two. Of course, if you drive 50,000 miles a year in a benign climate, wear-out becomes the dominant factor and the overestimate may be small enough to ignore.

A car-share may enable you to get rid of some of the fixed cost - but what about insurance? - but it depends on your travel patterns. If you travel to visit family over holidays, and the trip would be of no use to you at other times, well, everybody else wants the shared car on the major holidays too, and it can't be in many places at once. Oops. On the other hand, if your trips would still be useful off-peak, the arrangement might be a good deal.

Insurance is included in the price of most car-sharing services (Flexcar is $40/year + $7-10/hour depending on the vehicle, IIRC).
Lots of comments about the "real" costs of driving, but keep in mind that most people are only going to think about the marginal costs of the trip.  

If there is a near term increase in rail passengers, it will likely come from displaced flyers, not drivers.  The airlines simply have to raise fares to have any hope of surviving, and that will push more people onto trains, buses and cars.  My wife and I are going from DC to New Hampshire for Thanksgiving and we plan to drive our Prius to save money.  Coincidentally, we will burn fewer BTUs/passanger-mile than we would by flying.  

I've found that the recent gas price increase has made my family, coworkers, friends and neighbors far more receptive to discussing peak oil and its implications.  When gas was below US$2/gal a lot of people just didn't want to hear about it; now people who would have written off peak oil talk as alarmist are taking down web addresses and asking questions.  People need a strong personal tie in to take an interest in long-term global issues and there few things that will knot up the average American's stomach more than threatening the freedom to cheaply travel anywhere anytime in our own cars.

The events of the past week have really shaken a lot of people up: a major city is inhabitable with thousands dead and we've seen widespread gas lines and price spikes for the first time in a generation.  The worst part is the realization that our federal government was incapable of preventing either.  Both the slow rescue response and inability to prevent a price shock will have huge political backlashes.  Perhaps if we are persistent and lucky we can turn the cries of, "Mr. President, what are you doing to lower gasoline prices?" into something more productive, such as, "Mr. President, what are you doing to cope with the onset of peak oil?"  If there is anything that we can do as individuals it is to inform the people around us and now is a great time to start.

I think it's important to hit a couple points right up front, namely that "peak oil" doesn't mean "running out of oil", that the disappearance of a large spare production buffer leads to sudden and dramatic price swings when production disturbances (such as Katrina) occur, and over the span the next several decades peak oil will require a major change in transportation technology, infrastructure and ultimately our lifestyle.  When asked for web resources I often point to this site as well as the ASPO site for starters, and I keep the Hirsch report and several other reports and presentations on the flash drive on my key chain.

Unfortunately it's tough to strike the ideal balance between urgency and contemplation.  My sister in Pittsburgh told me about a discussion she had with a neighbor on his front porch.  After listening for twenty minuets my sister's neighbor asked her, "Do you think I should sell my cars now before everyone else does?"

As a noncar owner I frequently have to do the math to figure out how to get from point A to B.  For a short trip, Flexcar works out OK.  In my area they have unlimited miles (no gas charges), but for longer trips I usually end up having to rent a car.  Amtrak is usually the slowest most expensive way to get around.  On the east coast, I would recommend checking out the bus lines, especially the Chinatown bus lines.  For a list of buslines goto:

For the trip from NYC to DC, on APEX, the roundtrip cost is $35/person, or $70 for two people.  That beats the $80 in gas and doesn't require parking/tickets/driving/wear'n tear on the car.  There is the ghetto factor of busses, which might be a problem for some.  I'm sure if more people take busses, then there will be delux busses for $10 more that cater to first class sensibilities.

Suburban locations are a noncar owner's nightmare.  Buses and planes get you to the city, but the location of the family event, industry or firm might be 30 or more miles out of town.  This is the whole reason America consumes so much petrol on transportation.

There's a side effect of having a car which is detrimental to you, but a benefit to others.  You become the chauffeur.  Without the car, you can't be expected to drive everyone around.  

The simple favorable math behind carpooling is lost on most Americans. I'd bet 999 out of every 1,000 adults who commute any distance at all to/from work have never considered it as a money-saving alternative to sitting alone in the own hunk of steel, rubber and plastic. Carpooling? Heck, it's practically unAmerican in smaller cities where the car rules -- to the detriment of walking, bicycling, bus.
A postscript: My wife and I made it through the three-day weekend without once entering the garage.
I don't think the economics are lost on people, I think they've simply decided that it's not worth the hassle.  Many people who might be good candidates for carpooling have hectic home lives (with or without kids), and the thought of synchronizing with even one other person in the morning and the evening (especially if they work unpredictable overtime) is too much to deal with.  

This is clearly a matter of personal preference and perception, but my guess is that a lot of people will avoid car pooling until gas gets truly expensive--say over $8/gallon.

It seems everyone has the cost of car use covered but how much would it cost to add new rail and infrastructure to displace the interstate system?  I have read it cost a million dollars a mile for new interstate highway.
Comparing the train to a car and not finding the train is cheaper is bad enough.

I recently priced the train from a major east coast city to a mid west city that is on the main east west line.  I wanted to compare to airfare.  My father who is retired would like the train and wouldn't be bothered by the extra time.  

Here is what I found:  The base price for the train was $50 more expensive, required two train changes, and would take 22 hours.  This was not a sleeping car, just seats.  The plane ticket has one connection and takes 6 hours total travel time.  And the airport is closer than the closest train station.

This is a travesty.  I can't recommend the train for any reason, price, comfort or time.  I can't fathom how planes are more efficient than planes for long distances.  Obviously there are such huge subsidies for air transport that even sharing track with freight can't make trains competitive over long distances.  If you make the trains so uncompetitive that you can't have ridership, of course they will go out of business.  What a country.

Watching from Britain of the discussion on Amtrack brings to mind
my recent journey on the TGV from Paris to Lyon. 287 miles by road,
that is farther than from New York to Washington DC, 1 hour 55 minutes
on the train, 2 hours 30 minuets from my hotel to the company I was
visiting. $78.30 equivalent for the train $10.20 for the taxis
(both ends near the stations) in comfort and legroom in the cheap
seats greater than first class in any plane, A smoother ride than any
plane or car, excellent food available, freedom to walk around and
powered my nuclear generated electricity that consumes no fossil fuel,
for the actual power generation. France generates more nuclear powered
electricity than it consumes including that used for trains.
What a contrast to the flight back to the UK and the drive around London to get home.

It can be done.

US railroad companies have no interest in carrying passengers. Fourty odd years ago they did their best to eliminate passenger trains. It was mostly federal action that kept any of them operating. Passenger trains interfere with the movement of freight trains, which are way more profitable.

In the age of oil depletion, rails will be an even more desirable freight route. I'm guessing they will be adding a lot more semi-trailer cars to reduce the number of long-haul trucks. This will make them even less interested in running passenger trains.

My[1] 3+ year old car costs about 45 cents a mile.  There are[2] estimates that run must higher. Amtrak is cheaper for me in some scenarios.  It has other benefits for me.  People have no awareness of what their car costs per mile.  Of course a vendor, like Amtrak, maximizes revenue by charging only marginally less that the substitutes.  Of course there is so much "value pricing" this stuff that it can often turn out to be cheaper to rent a car rather than drive your own; or fly.  The inter-chinatown buses are amazingly cheap, bearing in mind that their drivers don't seem to sleep, they catch on fire from time to time, and occasionally they are delayed because the drivers get into gun fights with competitors.


ps. regular gas was $3.35/gallon at 6 stations in Cambridge Ma this evening.

My job requires that I occasionally drive to meetings or construction sites.  I worked at one office with a fleet of floaters, but that is uncommon.  So I use my car and am reimbursed at the IRS rate.  Both my cars are ten years old, and I'd rather not buy another gas-powered car, but what else is there?

I'm biking a lot now, but once there is snow on the ground, I'll want something with more than two wheels.  Since January, I've been looking for an alternative to the gasoline-powered car.  I've found so many ephemeral EV websites, like the Zenn.  There are nifty little european EVs that you just can't get in the US, like the Twike.

There are a few four-wheel Human-Powered Vehicles, like the Rhoades car, which can have helper electric engines:  

The only three-wheeled enclosed HPVs, or velomobiles, in the US seem to be the old Alligt and Flevobike Alleweders, which can have electric helper engines: (The new Flevo Versatiles are beautiful objects, but are sold in Europe.)  It seems more practical to buy a trike and enclose it myself.

Neighborhood EVs seem to be little more than golf carts, but might be the best choice to keep from being run over by an SUV:  

I'm still cogitating.

Build an electric! 60 mile+ range at 40 mph.  They'll do 70, but range is reduced.  Donor vehicle $2,000, conversion kit and batteries $7,500.

Coincidentally, this morning I got an email reply from Mike Patterson of Twike.

He says that Twike is taking pre-orders now for delivery in 2006.  The classic Twike, or "Twike Active," will be configured with reduced electrical power to qualify as an electric bicycle.  The European models can move along pretty briskly, but I guess they have to cripple them for NHTSA.

The no-pedals "Twike Easy" will be considered a motorcycle, which requires registration and a motorcycle operator's license.  Twike US asks that those who pre-order be committed to purchasing a Twike, so that they can get accurate numbers for production.  No deposit is required until the unit you are buying is actually on the production line.

Twike Actives cost about 12,310 euros in Europe, which is about $15,000 (I think they should cost less with less battery power, but who knows). The Twike Easy, with no pedals, costs almost a thousand euros less in Europe (I suspect that complying with NHTSA motorcycle standards might greatly increase that price in the US).

By comparison, the open, two-seater Rhoades Cars with electric assist cost over $5,000.  The one-person Alligt or Flevo with electric assist would cost about $6,000.

Well I just paid AUD$1.47 for Premium 98 Octane petrol.

That would be AUD$5.88 dollars per gallon.

The train is not an option in some parts of the country (sticking to the USA as that is my only frame of reference)

For example, I live in Texas.  A state larger than some countries.  Amtrak basically has two routes through the state -- the Texas Eagle (enters the state from the west, hits San Antonio, then north to DFW, then east toward Texarkana before heading to Chicago) and the Sunset Limited, which goes from Los Angeles to Orlando, FL and stops in TX in San Antonio and Houston.

If you aren't living on one of these routes, then you have a choice to take a bus to the nearest train station, or to drive there.  Walking would take far too long and a taxicab far too much expense.

For example, this means you cannot hop a train in Dallas and go to Houston.  You can go from Dallas, west to Fort Worth, down to San Antonio, then switch trains and go to Houston.  This will turn what would be a four hour car trip into a two day adventure.  Just the Dallas to San Antonio leg will take ten hours, where it's five or six hours by car.

So if you are a business person ("time is money") or a person travelling with small kids or just someone without a lot of time, there is no other option than to drive or fly.

Southwest Airlines will take you from Dallas to Houston for $99 in 55 minutes.  And they have twenty something flights every day, leaving about every thirty minutes.

Driving it will take four or five hours to make it from Dallas to Houston, and you won't have to rent a car or take a cab when you get there.  

Thanks to all of the great comments on my simple back of the envelope math on the marginal costs of my trip's costs. I fully appreciate the "fixed" or "hidden" costs of owning a car = loan interest, depreciation/maintenance, insurance, etc. I doubt many Americans factor that into their decision unless the vehicle will be purely a leisure time vehicle. In most parts of the country just getting groceries requires a car so you are more willing to absorb the fixed costs. In NYC, I would only use a car for pleasure trips. The calculation rested firmly on the assumption that my companion already owned a car, which she uses for her everyday commuting, shopping, etc. If I had to rent a car, I think the costs would have pretty much been even between rail and car.

I wonder when gas prices and the fixed costs of owning a car will cause a shift in housing decisions causing people to value mass transit over suburbs...

Is is any surprise that passenger trains are terrible in the U.S.? As we all know, every form of transportation other than railroads is built with tax dollars and run by government. Imagine if United Airlines had to build its own airports and air traffic control system. Imagine if we expected Interstate 80 to run at a (post-tax) profit. It's certainly no surprise that, in the face of these enormous government subsidies, the privately owned, for-profit, tax paying passenger rail system gave up the ghost. The amazing thing is that the freight railroads are still alive!
Ah, but everybody forgets about the Chinatown bus services.  NYC/DC one-way $20, round-trip $35.  NYC/Philly one-way $12, round-trip $20.  Big coach buses with AC.

WAY cheaper than Amtrak, and shockingly about half the price of Greyhound/Peter Pan.