The ‘railmance’ nightmare

The ‘railmance’ nightmare

Here they go again:

A new Pennsylvania Department of Transportation study says that adding more Amtrak passenger rail service could be had between Pittsburgh and Altoona for a mere $1.2 billion.

At a minimum, mind you.

The study, released in June and obtained by the Post-Gazette, gauged the cost of three daily round trips.

For that $1.2 billion, tracks and stations would be improved. But if a third track were to be added along the route, the cost would increase to $3.7 billion.

Not including any changes track owner Norfolk Southern might require, the P-G notes.

For that $1.2 billion, the study projects daily ridership would increase on the Pittsburgh-Altoona leg by between 130 to 250 passengers, for a daily passenger count of about 1,100 by 2040. Of course, government studies aren’t exactly known for accurate utilization projections.

And never mind that passenger rail long has proven to be an expensive folly in all but the densest population corridors.

With that said, time to turn yet again to rail travel expert Randal O’Toole, a bona fide rail romanticist who pans the lousy economics of passenger rail in his latest book, “Romance on the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Passenger Trains We Need.”

We commend for your attention the below excerpt, which originally ran in the Morning Consult last October:

“Amtrak fares average twice as much as airfares, and when all subsidies are counted it costs Amtrak nearly four times as much to move one person one mile as it costs the airlines.

“Similarly, urban transit costs more than four times as much, per passenger mile, as the average cost of driving,” O’Toole reminds.

But wait, there’s more shibboleth-killing for the transit scholar:

“And contrary to popular belief, passenger rail transportation doesn’t work that much better in Europe than the United States. The average European rides intercity and urban rail less than 700 miles a year, little more than half the miles that Americans traveled by rail in 1920.

“To get that much, European countries heavily subsidized rail and heavily taxed motor vehicle fuel, effectively suppressing total travel: The average European travels only about half as many miles each year as the average American.”

But, but, but … . Sorry, but no buts about it. O’Toole says there’s also no “sweet spot between short-distance auto/bus travel and long-distance plane travel that is optimal for passenger trains, even high-speed trains.”

“The high cost of building and maintaining rail infrastructure is one of the reasons why many European and Asian countries have built up unsustainable debts.

“By comparison, highway infrastructure is relatively inexpensive and shared by both passenger and freight vehicles while air travel requires almost no infrastructure,” O’Toole adds.

The scholar’s bottom line:

“The past two centuries have seen remarkable transportation revolutions: steamships replaced sailing ships; railroads replaced canals; electric streetcars replaced horsecars; diesels replaced steam; and many more.

“The results have included lower consumer costs, increased mobility and reductions in poverty. Only for intercity passenger trains and urban rail transit has government tried to turn back the clock, spending tens of billions of tax dollars each year attempting, without success, to attract people out of faster planes and more convenient automobiles.

“It is time to end these and other transportation subsidies and allow passenger rail to survive only where it is truly superior to other modes of travel.”

Lest this recidivist “railmance” turn into yet another rail nightmare.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).