The Poor Economic Model of Passenger Rail

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 25th, 2013

Economics 101

The Amtrak Crescent is about a 1,300 Mile 30 Hour Trip between New Orleans and New York City

An Amtrak train derailed this morning west of Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Thankfully, the cars remained upright.  And no one was seriously injured (see Amtrak Crescent with 218 aboard derails in SC by AP posted 11/25/2013 on Yahoo! News).

There were no serious injuries, Amtrak said of the 207 passengers and 11 crew members aboard when the cars derailed shortly after midnight in the countryside on a frosty night with 20-degree readings from a cold front sweeping the Southeast.

This is the Amtrak Crescent.  About a 30 hour trip one way.  It runs between New Orleans and New York City.  Approximately 1,300 miles of track.  Not Amtrak track.  They just lease track rights from other railroads.  Freight railroads.  Railroads that can make a profit.  Which is hard to do on a train traveling 1,300 miles with only 207 revenue-paying passengers.

People may board and leave the train throughout this route.  But if we assume the average for this whole trip was 207 and they were onboard from New Orleans to New York City we can get some revenue numbers from the Amtrak website.   We’ll assume a roundtrip.  They each have to pay for a seat which runs approximately $294.  Being that this is a long trip we’ll assume 20 of these people also paid an additional $572 for a room with a bed and a private toilet.  Bringing the total revenue for this train to approximately $72,298.  Not too shabby.  Now let’s look at the costs of this train.

Diesel Trains consume about 3-4 Gallons of Fuel per Mile

If you search online for track costs you will find a few figures.  All of them very costly.  We’ll assume new track costs approximately $1.3 million per mile of track.  This includes land.  Rights of way.  Grading.  Bridges.  Ballast.  Ties.  Rail.  Switches.  Signals.  Etc.  So for 1,300 miles that comes to $1.69 billion.  Track and ties take a beating and have to be replaced often.  Let’s say they replace this track every 7 years.  So that’s an annual depreciation cost of $241 million.  Or $663,265 per day.  Assuming 12 trains travel this rail each day that comes to about $55,272 per train.

Once built they have to maintain it.  Which includes replacing worn out rail and ties.  Repairing washouts.  Repairing track, switches and signals vandalized or damaged in train derailments and accidents.  This work is ongoing every day.  For there are always sections of the road under repair.  It’s not as costly as building new track but it is costly.  And comes to approximately $300,000 per mile.  For the 1,300 miles of track between New Orleans and New York City the annual maintenance costs come to $390 million.  Or $1 million per day.  Assuming 12 trains travel this rail each day that comes to about $89,286 per train.

Diesel trains consume about 3-4 gallons of fuel per mile.  Because passenger trains are lighter than freight trains we’ll assume a fuel consumption of 3 gallons per mile.  For a 1,300 mile trip that comes to 3,900 gallons of diesel.  Assuming a diesel price of $3 per gallon the fuel costs for this trip comes to $11,700.  The train had a crew of 11.  Assuming an annual payroll for engineer, conductor, porter, food service, etc., the crew costs are approximately $705,000.  Or approximately $1,937 per day.  Finally, trains don’t have steering wheels.  They are carefully dispatched through blocks from New Orleans all the way to New York.  Safely keeping one train in one block at a time.  Assuming the annual payroll for all the people along the way that safely route traffic comes to about $1 million.  Adding another $2,967 per day.

Politicians love High-Speed Rail because it’s like National Health Care on Wheels

If you add all of this up the cost of the Amtrak Crescent one way is approximately $161,162.  If we subtract this from half of the roundtrip revenue (to match the one-way costs) we get a loss of $88,864.  So the losses are greater than the fare charged the travelling public.  And this with the freight railroads picking up the bulk of the overhead.  Which is why Amtrak cannot survive without government subsidies.  Too few trains are travelling with too few people aboard.  If Amtrak charged enough just to break even on the Crescent they would raise the single seat price from $294 to $723.  An increase of 146%.

Of course Amtrak can’t charge these prices.  Traveling by train is a great and unique experience.  But is it worth paying 80% more for a trip that takes over 7 times as long as flying?  That is a steep premium to pay.  And one only the most avid and rich train enthusiast will likely pay.  Which begs the question why are we subsidizing passenger rail when it’s such a poor economic model that there is no private passenger rail?  Because of all those costs.  Congress loves spending money.  And they love making a lot of costly jobs.  And that’s one thing railroads offer.  Lots of costly jobs.  For it takes a lot of people to build, maintain and operate a railroad.

Which is why all politicians want to build high-speed rail.  For it doesn’t get more costly than that.  These are dedicated roads.  And they’re electric.  Which makes the infrastructure the most costly of all rail.  Because of the high speeds there are no grade crossings.  Crossing traffic goes under.  Or over.  But never across.  And they don’t share the road with anyone.  There are no profitable freight trains running on high-speed lines to share the costs.  No.  Fewer trains must cover greater costs.  Making the losses greater.  And the subsidies higher.  Which is why politicians love high-speed rail.  It’s like national health care on wheels.

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