A $260.91 Drive From Miami

Lore Croghan, a Daily News reporter, flew down to Miami recently to pick her daughter, Antonia, up from college. The two drove back to the city in a VW New Beetle. The 1,323-mile road trip cost them $260.91, including lodging and meals. Lore also had to fly down to Miami, which cost another $124, for a total of $384.91.

With a few days notice, Amtrak tickets for two from Miami cost $212 or $274 aboard the Silver Star or the Silver Meteor. You still need to factor in meals aboard Amtrak, which will raise that ticket price a bit. But the two prices seem roughly comparable for a party of two. But are they really?

The price breakdown ignores the fixed costs of owning a car (depreciation, vehicle maintenance, insurance, parking, etc.), and the related $124 that that Lore had to spend on her flight. Half of the purpose of the trip, after all, was to retrieve the car as well as the daughter. (Once you buy a car, you have to keep track of it.)

Of course, the increasing cost of energy is affecting rail travel as well as commercial aviation and private automobile use, but it is affecting rail a lot less than the other two. So as the price continues to increase, as we Peak Oilers expect it will, there will come a point where rail travel is unequivocally less expensive than driving. When that happens, I think we can expect "the markets" to start directing some money to the long-underinvested rail system.

Ignoring the fixed costs and overhead of owning a car, even on a per-trip basis for an individual, the economics are beginning to favor rail. A single adult ticket one way from Miami to New York costs $106 or $137 on Amtrak, half the price of two riders. Would one person driving along cost exactly half the price of two people? No. The cost of gasoline would be exactly the same. That is why it always makes sense to pack the car up with people and split the cost. We New Yorkers grapple with this question every time we're in a group trying to decide whether it makes sense to take a cab or the subway: The more people you have to fill up a cab, the cheaper the cost is per rider.

So what do you think will happen in the future as energy costs increase. Will we restore our national rail system, or will we increase the occupancy of automobiles, Cuba-style?

From the article
We pinched pennies in every way possible - or almost every way. We did not use one tactic that's popular among some of Antonia's Red Bull-guzzling friends - driving all night - which is too risky for my taste.

During college a few of my high school friends who went to school on the West Coast were driving cross country and tried to do the all night thing. They had so much stuff to bring home, they pulled a trailer behind them. When inevitably the driver fell asleep after everyone else in the car around 3am in the middle of nowhere, the car started to drift over to the righthand side of the road, the driver awoke, corrected by pulling sharply to the left, pinching the trailer to the back of the truck and flipping into a ditch. The two wearing seltbelts survived but watched the other two die long before police arrived on the scene.

Just another cost of driving.

And maybe this newfound profitability of passenger rail will increase the pressure to change the regulatory enviornment and make such a thing feasible. There are, right now, many many obstacles to running passenger trains, and even more to running them quickly and efficiently. Start with the fact that most tracks are owned by freight railroads, who are not at all interested in running passenger trains, even if they get all sorts of incentives for it. And they're even less happy about anyone other than Amtrak running passenger trains. You're not allowed to operate on their tracks without getting $800 million of insurance. I suppose that's in case your train crashes into a train full of dynamite, which is standing next to a train full of chlorine. In the middle of a city.
And assuming you manage to overcome that hurdle and actually get a train going, you still have the issue of trains here being very heavy and inefficient, due to outdated and frankly arbitrary regulations about collision strength and so on. Remember all the problems with Acela? Parts started failing because they were designed for a much lighter train, and Acela is about twice as heavy as the TGV on which it is based. There's a nice explanation of these things at http://zierke.com/shasta_route/ in the context of an analysis of a specific route for feasibility of better passenger service.
In England several years ago, a Land Rover towing a trailer, drifted off the motorway, down an embankment and lodged across the railway line. The land rover driver went for help. An express train travelling southbound at 125 mph hit the SUV, derailed but continued for another 400 metres before crashing into a freight train, carrying 1,600 tons of coal, travelling northbound at 60 mph. Ten people died and the land rover driver was jailed for 5 years. Freak circumstances can happen.
Yes, freak circumstances can happen. But planes aren't required to survive a collision with the ground: if they were, there would be no planes. Cars aren't required to survive, without deforming, collisions with a brick wall at 60 mph. Trains are already safer than airplanes, and much much safer than cars. If, as a result of these regulations, there is no train service, and people are forced to drive instead, are we really  improving safety? Unless you were talking about the insurance issue, in which case that's still not nearly $700 million dollars worth of damage. Probably less than $70 million, in fact.
I seem to remember a quote of £2 billion for the accident from the insurance companies being bandied about. I was surprised by how high this number was, but have no idea how accurate it was, as the quote was from the first day of the accident, not a considered quote after all the details had been found out. I suspect £2 billion would be the figure needed to correct the problem of upgrading all crash barriers by railway lines.
Basically, what it comes down to is this: the insurance requirements of the railroads are the equivalent of requiring all planes to be insured against crashing into a World Trade Center.
I am old enough to remember street cars, I think some cities have revived them call them what you wish trolleys, nowadays light rail. They are efficient vehicles and when they were previously in bloom they showed city dewellers that the need for a polluting car or diesel-belching bus could be diminished.
That all changed like the railroads, it was ripped apart by Sloan of the General Motors Corp. when they bought up many existing trolley lines and replaced them with diesel powered buses that needed to be replaced more often, that required fossil fuels and tires. So Big Oil, Big Rubber changed the urban landscape very quickly with their company Natioanl City Lines NCL.
Bradford Snell exposed this with his paper "American Ground Transport"
Presumably the real cost savings is Greyhound?  I remember travelling all around the North East USA in the early 80s for very little money-- I think about $50 from Buffalo to Washington DC.

I also imagine the discount airlines are competitive with the cost of that road trip, given no cost of accomodation and lodging.

I am sceptical about big improvements in the US rail system:

  • the US is already a very big user of rail for freight.  Adding passenger trains to many of those lines would overstretch them (in the UK we have the reverse problem-- 90% of freight moves by road, there is no more room on the rails because the passenger trains are using them)

  • the capital cost would be huge  - who would bear it?

  • even at much higher fuel costs, airlines would still be competitive for most journeys.  By the Warsaw Convention, airline fuel cannot be taxed unlike all other transport fuel

  • on local transport the problem is very few American cities (if any) are dense enough in population per square mile to warrant mass transportation systems.  And the mass transportation services which are economic are bus systems.

A further problem is it is no longer the case in most American cities that everyone works in the centre and commutes inwards.  Now the commuting is as much one suburb to another as it is centrewards.  (NYC perhaps the major exception, still).

Public transport doesn't work without big subsidies. If the US economy is facing the kind of oil prices TOD readers are thinking about, the local and national governments won't have the tax bases to commit to those kinds of subsidies.

Denver is trying to redevelop and enhance commuting by rail.  They are changing the zoning at the proposed new stops to increase the density.  It will be interesting to see if it works out.

Police, Fire, Sanitation, and Education don't work without big subsidies either and we have all seen the failure of British Rail when they privitized? So a properly financed public system is the only rational way to go.

It's all in priorties we subsidize roads and until recently we subsidized cheap oil products now we must change or become extinct in our current economic form?

It seems to me Europe with all it's faults has a pretty good rail system and most folks who own cars have small autos? They have learned to minimize their use of fossil fuels.

Yes, the US is a big user of rail freight. The main effect this has, really, is not in terms of being able to operate trains, though, but rather in ters of the regulatory envioronment. The FRA doesn't care much about passenger trains, and the regulations follow from that. The collision strength requirements are based how hard you could hump freight cars in hump yards. The track geometry requirements are largely based on a single test in the 1930's. Give the freights enough incentives and enough capacity, and they'd be more than happy to move your passenger trains for you. Look at BNSF and the Amtrak Southwest Chief, for example.

Yes, the capital cost would be huge. But consider how much money will go into highways over the next decade, if the current funding policies stay as they are. And consider the Interstate system, that wasn't cheap either. And it was paid for primarily by the federal government, with states kicking in 10% of the money.

As for competition with airlines, cost will be a factor, but so would many other things. If they're smart, they'll make a simple fare structure, thus providing a major benefit. And of course not having to stand in line to get your person and luggage searched is a benefit too. And on short distance trips, getting to the airport and going through the motions tkae a significant fraction of the time.

As for local transport, yes, density is a problem, but not as much as you think. There are plenty of dense enough cities, and I think if they were allowed to densify further, they would. Look at LA. And look closely, because it's been getting more densely built lately, and it's not the suburb that everyone thinks it is. The real problem is that there has been very little investment in public transportation, to the point where the only people who use it are the ones who have no choice. Put in enough money to make a nice system, and people are more than willing to take it. And hey, it just might be cheaper than that proposed freeway expansion.

Public transport doesn't work without big subsidies.
Why does everyone insist on calling investment in rail transit "a subsidy"? Roads don't work without big subsidies either, but because of the way the debate is framed, nobody looks at road building and maintenance as "a subsidy."