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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Side Streets, Downtown Streets, Highways, Parkways and Freeways

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 31st, 2013

Technology 101

In 20th Century our Subdivision Planners shifted from Automobile-Friendly to People-Friendly Designs

The automobile changed how we live.  Where once we crowded into crowded cites and worked close to where we lived today we don’t.  Instead choosing to live in sleepy suburbs.  Away from the noise and congestion of city life.  Where we can relax after work.  And on the weekend.  Enjoying a beer in the shade in our backyard.  Our little Shangri-La.  Come Monday morning, though, it’s back to the grind.  So we back our car out of the garage.  And drive out of our little residential community.

If you live in an older suburb that would be a drive down a straight road.  Running either north and south.  Or east and west.  Bringing you efficiently to a larger road.  That you can efficiently take to a larger road yet.  With a higher speed limit.  With many of us eventually taking that road to an onramp of an interstate freeway.  For that morning commute.  Quick.  And efficiently.  Thanks to our city and suburb planners making our cities and suburbs so automobile-friendly.

Soon everyone was driving so much that these roads got congested.  Including the ones in our sleepy little subdivisions.  With people racing down our side streets to get to those bigger roads.  Filling our little Shangri-La with the sounds of traffic.  And making it unsafe for our kids to ride their bicycles in the street.  Which is why somewhere around the middle of the 20th century our subdivision planners shifted from automobile-friendly to people-friendly.  Instead of grids of straight lines crossing other straight lines at neat right angles our roads in our subdivisions began to curve.  If you ever tried to cut through a subdivision and got so turned around that you ended up where you entered this is why.  To discourage people from driving through our sleepy little streets.  So we can relax with that beer in the shade.  And our kids can ride their bicycles safely in the streets in front of our homes.

Design Speed is the First Consideration when Designing a New Road

Cars are big and heavy.  Trucks are even bigger and heavier.  Yet millions of them safely share the same roads every day.  And few in a small car look twice at a semi truck and trailer stopped next to them at a traffic light.  Or give a second thought to an even bigger and heavier freight train crossing the road ahead of them while they sit at a railroad crossing.  All because of lines painted on the road.  Speed limit signs keeping us driving at the same speed.  And stop signs and traffic lights.  Which people observe.  And give the right-of-way to others.  While they wait their turn to proceed.  Except for trains.  They always have the right-of-way.  Because trains can’t stop as easily as a car or a truck.  And they pay a lot of money for that right-of-way.

As we left our neighborhoods and got onto the bigger roads and drove to the interstate freeway the speed limit got higher and higher.  And the faster large things go the more kinetic energy they build up.  Making it harder to stop.  And to control.  That’s why trains don’t stop for cars.  Cars stop for trains.  Emergency vehicles, like fire trucks and ambulances, get the right-of-way, too.  When we see their lights flashing and/or hear their sirens we pull to the curb and stop.  Because they’re speeding to an emergency and need a clear road.  But also because they are often traveling faster than the design speed of the road.

Yes, design speed.  Not the speed limit.  Two completely different things.  It’s the first consideration when designing a new road.  How fast will traffic travel?  Because everything follows from that.  Curves, grades, visibility, etc., these are all things that vary with speed.  Engineers will design a downtown street with a lot of vehicular and pedestrian traffic for lower speeds than they’ll design a country highway that connects two towns.  Also, lane width in a downtown street can be as narrow as 9 feet.  And they can have sidewalks adjacent to the curbs.  Allowing narrower streets for pedestrians to cross.  Freeways, on the other hand, have lanes that are 12 feet wide.  And have wide shoulders.  Because faster vehicles need more separation.  As they tend to waver across their lanes.  So this is another reason why we pull aside for emergency vehicles.  As they may approach or exceed the design speed of a road.  So we give them wider lanes by pulling over.  As well as giving them a less obstructive view of the road ahead.

The Modern Interstate Freeway System is Basically an Improved Parkway

Old 2-lane country highways had narrow lanes and narrow shoulders.  Making it easy to drift across the center line if distracted.  Or tired.  Into oncoming traffic.  If a person hugs the shoulder because he or she is nervous about fast-moving oncoming traffic they could drift over to the right.  Out of their lane.  And drop off of the shoulder.  Which could result in a loss of control.  Even a rollover accident.  And if you were stuck behind a slow-moving truck on a grade there was only one way around it.  Moving over into the lane of oncoming traffic.  And speeding up to get ahead of the truck before a car crashes head-on into you.  In fact, there used to be a passing lane.  A 3-lane highway with one lane traveling one direction.  One lane traveling in the other direction.  And a lane in the middle for passing.  Which worked well when only one person passed at a time.  But did not work so well when cars from each lane moved into the passing lane at the same time.  Running head-on into each other.  That’s why you won’t see a passing lane these days.  They are just too dangerous.

In the 20th century we started making roads for higher speeds.  Parkways.  The traffic travelling in either direction was separated by a median.  So you couldn’t drift into oncoming traffic.  There were no intersections.  Crossroads went over or under these parkways.  So traffic on the parkways didn’t have to stop.  They also had limited access.  On ramps and off ramps brought cars on and off, merging them into/out of moving traffic.  And unlike the old 2-lane country roads there were 2 lanes of traffic in each direction.  So if you wanted to pass someone you didn’t have to drive into oncoming traffic to go around a slower-moving vehicle.  And there was a paved shoulder.  So if a car had a flat tire they could limp onto the shoulder to change their tire.  Without interrupting the traffic on the parkway.  Of course, being on the shoulder of a parkway was not the safest place to be.  Especially if some distracted driver drifted onto the shoulder.  And crashed into your broken down car.

The modern interstate freeway system is basically an improved parkway.  They have wider lanes and wider shoulders.  Along the median and the outside right lane.  Instead of the typical Windsor Arch of the parkway they have bridges of concrete and steel.  Allowing greater spans over the roadway.  Keeping those shoulders wide even under the overpasses.  Grades are less steep.  And curves are less sharp.  Allowing little steering inputs at high speeds to control your vehicle.  Making for safer travel at even higher speeds.  And a much greater field of vision.  Even at night where there are no streetlights.  The road won’t change grade or curve so great beyond the length of your headlights.  Safely allowing a high speed even when you can’t see what’s up ahead.  Little things that you’ve probably never noticed.  But if you exit the interstate onto a curvy 2-lane highway with steep grades you will notice that you can’t drive at the same speed.  Especially at night.  In fact, you may drive well below the posted speed limit.  Because you can’t see the summit of the next hill.  Or the curve that takes you away from a sharp drop-off to a ravine below.  Like you find around ski resorts in the mountains.  The kind of highways you can’t wait to get off of and onto the safer interstate freeway system.  Especially in a driving snow storm.

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Waterwheel, Rotational Motion, Reciprocal Motion, Steam Engine, Internal Combustion Engine and Hydraulic Brakes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 5th, 2012

Technology 101

To Keep People on Trains they Undercharge Passengers and make up the Difference with Government Subsidies

We built some of our first factories on or near a river.  Where we could use that river’s current to turn a waterwheel.  To provide a rotational motion that could do work for us.  We transmitted that rotational motion via a main drive shaft through a factory where it could drive machinery via belts and pulleys.  Once we developed the steam engine to provide that rotational motion we could move our factories anywhere.  Not just on or near a river.  Giving us greater freedom.  And permitting greater economic growth.  As we put those steam engines onto rails.  That transported freight and people all across the country.

Trains are nice.  But expensive.  To go anywhere on a train you need train tracks going there.  But train tracks are incredibly expensive to lay.  And maintain.  If you ever stared at a set of train tracks you probably noticed something.  There aren’t a lot of trains going by on them.  When a train stops you when you’re running late or bringing home dinner it may feel like trains are always stopping you.  But if you parked at those same tracks for a few hours you wouldn’t see a lot of trains.  Because even the most polished rails (the more train traffic the more polished the rails) are unused more than they are used.

This is why trains are very expensive.  Tracks cost a lot of money to lay and maintain.  Costs that a railroad has to recoup from trains using those rails.  And when you don’t have a lot of trains on those rails you have to charge a lot for the trains that do travel on them.  A mile-long train pulling heavy freight can pay a lot of revenue.  And make a railroad profitable.  But passenger trains are not a mile long.  And carry few people.  Which means to make money on a passenger train you’d have to charge more for a ticket than people would pay.  To keep people on trains, then, they have to undercharge passengers.  And make up the difference with government subsidies.

A Crank Shaft and Combustion Timing takes Reciprocal Motion of Pistons and Converts it into Rotational Motion

This is why people drive places instead of taking the train.  It’s far less expensive to take the car.  And there are roads everywhere.  Built and maintained by gas taxes, licenses and fees.  And if you’ve ever driven on a road you probably noticed that there are a lot of cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses around you.  With so many vehicles on the roads they each can pay a small amount to build and maintain them.  Which is something the railroads can’t do.  Only trains can travel on train tracks.  But cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses can all travel on roads.  This is why driving a car is such a bargain.  Economies of scale.

To operate a train requires a massive infrastructure.  Dispatchers control the movement of every train.  Tracks are broken down into blocks.  The dispatchers allow only one train in a block at a time.  They do this for a couple of reasons.  Trains don’t have steering wheels.  And can take up to a mile to stop.  So to operate trains safely requires keeping them as far apart from each other as possible.  Traveling on roads is a different story.  There are no dispatchers separating traffic.  Cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses travel very close together.  Starting and stopping often.  Traveling up to high speeds between traffic lights.  With motorcycles and cars weaving in and out among trucks and buses.  Avoiding traffic and accidents by speeding up and slowing down.  And steering.

Driving a car today is something just about anyone 16 and older can do.  Thanks to the remarkable technology that makes a car.  Starting with the internal combustion engine.  The source of power that makes everything possible.  Just like those early waterwheels the source of that power is rotational motion.  But instead of a river providing the energy an internal combustion engine combusts gasoline to push pistons.  A crank shaft and combustion timing takes that reciprocal motion of the pistons and converts it into rotational motion.  Spinning a drive shaft that provides power to drive the car.  As well as power all of its accessories.

The Friction of Brake Shoe or Pad on Steel slows the Car converting Kinetic Energy into Heat

The first cars required a lot of man-power.  It took great strength to rotate the hand-crank to start the engine.  Sometimes the engine would spit and cough.  And kick back.  Breaking the occasional wrist.  Once started it took some leg-power to depress the clutch to shift gears.  It took a little upper body strength to turn the steering wheel.  And some additional leg-power to apply the brakes to stop the car.  In time we replaced the hand-crank with the electric starter.  We replaced the clutch and gearbox with the automatic transmission.  We added power steering and power breaks to further reduce the amount of man-power needed to drive a car.  Today a young lady in high heels and a miniskirt can drive a car as easily and as expertly as the first pioneers who risked bodily harm to drive our first cars.

The internal combustion engine can spin a crankshaft very fast and accelerate a car to great speeds.  Which is good for darting in and out of traffic.  But traffic occasional has to stop.  Which is easier said than done.  For a heavy car moving at speed has a lot of kinetic energy.  You can’t destroy energy.  You can only convert it.  And in the case of slowing down a car you have to convert that kinetic energy into heat.  When you press the brake pedal you force hydraulic fluid from a master cylinder to small cylinders at each wheel.  As fluids cannot compress when you apply a force to the fluid that force is transmitted to something than can move.  In the case of stopping a car it is either a brake shoe that presses against the inside of the car’s wheels.  Or a caliper that clamps down on a disc.  The friction of brake shoe or pad on steel slows the car.  Converting that kinetic energy into heat.  In some cases of excessive braking (on a train or a plane) the heat can be so excessive that the wheels or discs glow red.

So as the internal combustion engine and the brakes play their little games of speeding up and slowing down a car the rotational power of the crankshaft drives other accessories.  Such as power steering.  Where a belt and pulley transfers that rotational power to a power steering pump.  The pump pushes fluid to the steering gear to assist in turns.  Another belt and pulley connects an alternator to the crankshaft to produce electricity to provide power for the car’s electrical systems.  And to charge the battery so it can spin the automatic starter.  Another belt and pulley connects another compressor to the crankshaft.  This one for air conditioning.  That allows us to alight from our cars shower-fresh on the hottest and most humid days of the year.  And, finally, antifreeze removes the heat of combustion from the internal combustion engine and transfers it to a heating core inside the passenger compartment.  Allowing a warm and comfortable drive home during the coldest of days.  As well as keeping our windows free of snow and ice so we can see to drive safely on our way home.  Through bumper to bumper traffic.  Something we do day after day with the ease of doing the laundry.  Thanks to the remarkable technology that we take for granted that makes a car.

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