Friday, October 02, 2009

Charlottesville's Choo-Choo Flim-Flam

Charlottesville is agog with the news that a new passenger train rides through town on its way to Washington and New York. Rachana Dixit has the story in the Daily Progress:

A new, daily Amtrak train that will stop in Charlottesville before going to Washington and the Northeast received much fanfare on Wednesday as it rolled into the city’s West Main Street station.

“We’re really pushing rail and public transportation because it’s the wave of the future,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said during the train’s whistle-stop tour.

The new train was due to arrive at the station at 2:15 p.m., and it pulled in at roughly 2:24 p.m.

Beginning in Lynchburg, the train officially starts its service today and will add 14 more trips per week in Charlottesville. It came to Charlottesville on Wednesday from Culpeper and then headed to Lynchburg after Kaine — who received a rail hat that said “Chief Engineer,” a train whistle and bandana — hopped on.

Some area residents have advocated for more passenger rail service along the U.S. 29 corridor, most notably Meredith Richards, a former councilor and the chairwoman of CvilleRail and the Piedmont Rail Coalition.
The new train, which makes no economic sense (I'll get to that momentarily), is subsidized by Virginia taxpayers to the tune of at least $10.9 million over the next three years (Daily Progress figure) or perhaps $17 million (WSET).

The estimated number of new passenger trips per year ranges from 50,000 to 59,000, which means that each trip is underwritten by taxpayers for between $96 to $113 (using the higher subsidy amount).

The aim of the new service is to entice people away from driving to Washington on Route 29. For an individual, however, it is cheaper to travel by car than by train, even with the subsidy.

I calculate that it costs me, driving my 1999 Saturn, about $20.00 in gasoline (and I'm being generous: that's assuming gas is $2.50 per gallon, when it actually is less than that along the Route 29 corridor, at least until you reach the Beltway). It costs me between $1.00 and $8.00 to park in Ballston. Even if I park in the nearest commercial parking garage near my downtown DC office, the maximum charge for 24 hours is $22.00.

That means that the most I would pay to drive myself to downtown DC is $42.00, roundtrip, including parking. Since I nearly always park in Ballston, however, it is more realistic to calculate my cost to be $28.00 (if I spend all day in DC).

According to the Amtrak web site, the one-way fare on the new train is $29. Roundtrip fare is $58.

That means I save between $16 and $30 by driving myself.

If I were to travel with a friend or colleague and split the costs, we together save between $32 and $60.

For every person traveling together on that Charlottesville-DC trip, choosing Amtrak increases the cost by 100 percent while choosing a private automobile reduces it by 50 percent (up to the point every passenger seat in the car is filled).

I enjoy riding on a train as much as anyone. It is my preferred mode of transportation between Washington and New York. (There's no way you'll find me driving on the streets of Manhattan.) I once even took the Acela from New York to DC. Someone else was paying for it, of course.

Enjoying railroad travel should not, however, blind us to the fact that passenger rail, because it is not economically viable in an open market -- that is, in the absence of government subsidies -- exists only because of a transfer of wealth from the poor (who, by and large, do not travel by train) and the rich (who like to travel by train because it is the chic thing to do, and they can pretend to be environmentally conscious while doing it).

Looking at the numbers, however, why would any rational person choose to take the train rather than drive between Charlottesville and DC? Besides saving money, you would have more flexibility in terms of choosing when to depart and arrive, and if you have a change of plans -- or if your DC-area business is in Tyson's Corner rather than Capitol Hill -- you are better able to adapt to your travel needs and desires. What's more, if I drive myself, I can talk on the phone or listen to NPR without worrying about bothering other passengers.

This is a bad deal. Anyone who thinks otherwise has been bamboozled. (To be fair, people with large disposable incomes and who care little about their travel budgets might rationally choose the Amtrak option. The rest of us would not.)

And watch out: They're going to foist this boondoggle on Richmond and Roanoke, too. (No word about Elm Grove.)

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J.R.Hoeft said...

I think we'd LIKE to have more efficient public transportation. But it is clear that we're not even close yet.

Herein lies the trouble with rail travel - it is under government regulation. Until it can become privatized, while standardized, it will not be anywhere near cost-effective.

Anonymous said...

What's good's a subsidy, if the use does not even save money?

Anonymous said...

There's much more to the cost of driving a car than the cost of gas. Oil, tires, wear and tear, etc. And those costs are not insignificant.

That said, the flexibility provided by driving your own car can not be disputed.

It's the great American way.

Anonymous said...

The new Amtrak line only makes financial sense if you're going to Boston or New York. Otherwise you may as well take Greyhound. And the only way to explain the screwy schedule for this new commuter train, is that Amtrak believes DC-to-NYC travelers will comprise the vast bulk of its passengers.

Amtrak is government-created, and heavily government-subsidized. But it doesn't actually own most of the rail lines it uses, and consequently must yield right-of-way to every freight load that happens to creep past (resulting in considerable delays).

Really, the best solution for the sorry state of American rail travel would be if Amtrak were disbanded and freight lines resumed passenger service. Since government regulations in the '70s effectively drove freight carriers out of the passenger business (leading to the creation of Amtrak), this bit of privatization would be easier said than done. But integrating passenger and freight traffic would almost certainly be more energy-efficient in the long run, since it takes much more fuel to pull an entire train than it does to pull an additional car on a train.