Transportation headlines, Wednesday, May 13

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Hey look, there's a bike! (Photo via Instagram user @slvrlyt)

Hey look, there’s a bike! (Photo via Instagram user @slvrlyt)

Data recorders recovered in Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia (N.Y. Times)

A sad day in Philadelphia: a train derailment on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor yesterday evening has now claimed the lives of seven and injured more than 200. The train was traveling from Washington to New York when it went off the rails near a bend in a Philadelphia rail yard where multiple tracks merge.

Investigators are looking at the train’s speed as a potential factor in the derailment, which is suspect because of the severity of damage to the train cars, although officials weren’t willing to speculate for obvious reasons. Update: the NYT is now reporting that the train was going 100 mph, twice the posted speed limit for that section of track.

The black box from the train is with Amtrak officials in Delaware, which will provide more insight on the trains speed, brake and throttle data, as well as video from a camera mounted on the train’s image. Also aiding the investigation, the train engineer survived with injuries to “some extent” and has already spoken to police about the incident. The situation is still fluid so the news will likely change throughout the day.

A key thing to note is that trains are one of the safest forms of transportation per miles traveled and incidents like this are rare. This morning I saw a network television reporter lead off a segment by saying “train accidents like these may happen more than you think.” While incidents like the one in Philadelphia should be reminders for agencies to assess their safety procedures and emergency response and for transit riders to know what to do in an emergency, resist the availability heuristic bias and look to the statistics when it comes to assessing your safety on trains!

Why you can’t talk about the Amtrak derailment without talking about our infrastructure crisis (Think Progress)

Likely to be adjudicated by many to be “too soon,” this article brings Amtrak’s many troubles prior to last night’s accident front and center. The issue: decreased funding with increasing ridership. The publicly-funded agency has a $4.3 billion backlog of repairs on a century-old network of rails, resulting in frequent breakdowns and delays.

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, these two charts highlight Amtrak’s problem in one quick glance:


Another article about the decline of passenger rail in America that focused on Amtrak specifically, was posted on The Atlantic last night. It included an interview with Joseph Goodman, the CEO of Amtrak, and discussed the many troubles the agency faces. Likely because of current events, it has since been removed.

2015 rankings list most ‘bicycle friendly’ U.S. states (NPR) 

Washington and Minnesota take the honors for the most bike friendly states in the U.S.  for the second year in a row. Alabama came in last. The rankings were developed by the League of American Bicyclists and are based on criteria that factor each state’s “new policies, advocacy, legal protections and infrastructure.” Each state was given a report card that highlights what the states do well and also makes suggestions to improve their score. So how’d California fare this year? Click the article to find out.

Debunking the myth that only drivers pay for roads (CityLab)

CityLab’s Eric Jaffe breaks down a new report that debunks the misconception that Americans pay for roads solely through the gas tax , something that hasn’t been true for nearly fifty years. Excerpt:

Landing on the moon was still a wild dream the last time gas taxes and other car-related fees paid nearly the full cost of building and maintaining roads. By the 1970s, road taxes still accounted for about 70 percent of road costs, according to Dutzik, Weissman, and Baxandall, but that link weakened in the ’80s and ’90s. Any vestige of a strong user fee died in the 2000s on account of peak driving rates, better fuel efficiency, soaring construction costs, and a gas tax held flat in the face of inflation.

The funding scenario for highway infrastructure is only getting worse as the Highway Trust Fund, which also uses general funds from drivers and non-drivers alike, teeters on bankruptcy. Meanwhile efforts to raise the gas tax are consistently rebuffed. Beyond that, Jaffe says, no one is owning up to the fact that the current funding system is busted beyond repair.

Jaffe uses an example of other hidden tax exemptions and subsidies — such as fuel sales tax exemptions in 37 states — that benefit drivers but do little to support the infrastructure they drive on.

The conclusion isn’t that drivers are “ruining everything” but that as America becomes increasingly more multimodal, funding should reflect this reality and treat transit as a system, not a silo of modes. Oh, and that we should implement the nationwide per mile fee he’s written about (which sounds about as easy as raising the gas tax).


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16 replies

  1. If ridership on Amtrak is rising and is always setting record ridership numbers, then Amtrak should be making lots of money that they can do the upgrades to their infrastructure on their own. So why do they want more taxpayer money? Where’s all the money Amtrak making from increased passengers going to?

    It’s like saying this:

    1. We don’t have ridership, we need more money from Congress to cover our losses.
    2. We’re setting record ridership and making a lot more revenue, but we still need more money from Congress.

    The question then is, when does Amtrak never need any money? There has to be a point set that says “Amtrak is making tons of money on their own so start using your own money instead of asking taxpayers.”

    • We’ve dumped hundreds of billions (maybe even trillions) into the freeway system — a direct competitor to Amtrak. If your main competitor were getting that much money from the government, you’d be hard up for cash too.

      • “If your main competitor were getting that much money from the government, you’d be hard up for cash too.”

        By that logic, since both freeways and Amtrak are run by government, they are essentially competing with each other for federal funds and the funds also have to be competed with other stuff like trillions wasted in fighting stupid wars, funding pensions and retirement benefits for public employee union members, questionable social welfare programs, and putting people behind bars for decades because they did the shocking criminal act of smoking weed.

        These Stunning Examples Of Government Waste Cost Taxpayers $16 Billion

        Of course, we really had to spend $750 million dollars in building our new embassy in Iraq, and spend additional $6 BILLION dollars each year in maintenance costs

        Most likely, ISIL will take over that embassy so we’re probably going to give a $750 million dollar palace to terrorists.

        But the difference between all these stupid government programs and Amtrak? Amtrak has the potential to become a huge revenue maker if done right. All other programs waste our tax dollars, Amtrak actually can make money through fare collections.

  2. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and the Capitol Corridor are quite big revenue generators for Amtrak:

    Pretty much if that is the case, Amtrak California would be better off going on its own than being subject to national Amtrak funding restrictions. Face it, Congress ain’t going to pass funding to Amtrak. California would be better off buying Amtrak operations in California alone and run it ourselves.

    • Well said and now those are great facts.

      Pacific Surfliner itself generates over $62 million in revenue and makes more money than the Empire Service between NY and Albany. Adding together with Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquin, CA’s state sponsored Amtrak services generate over $129 million in revenue or over 27% of the entire state sponsored Amtrak trains.

      We seem to be doing very well on own our Amtrak services here in CA and we can very well start to go at it alone. Our state taxes are used to run Amtrak California, the revenues earned from Amtrak California should stay here, not get dispersed to other states. We’re already a net donor state where for every dollar sent to the feds, we only get back 78 cents anyway. If revenues stay here, Amtrak California can do their own upgrades to our own infrastructure.

  3. Despite what people say, gasoline taxes in Japan aren’t that sky-high compared to European countries. They do pay more taxes than we do, but not on the levels of Europe. This is despite Japan being a natural resource scarce country who has to import the vast majority of their oil from overseas.

    Taxes make up around 44% of the total gasoline prices in Japan. So if gasoline is at 154 yen per liter, 67.75 yen of that are taxes.

    In California, taxes make up around 20% of the total gasoline prices. So if gasoline is at $4.13 per gallon, $0.84 goes to taxes.

    Be that it might, high gas prices are hardly an indicator that the Japanese opt to take mass transit more either as most rural areas in Japan are just as car dependent as rural areas in the US. Our sister city, Nagoya, has bad traffic as LA

    Besides, Japan can’t really have their own auto industry with the likes of Toyota and Nissan and be a huge car exporter if they don’t have their own auto industry in their domestic market as well.

    To be fair, JR East is only one of six JR companies that came about from the old JNR back in the early 1980s. Think similar to the break up of AT&T to Baby Bell regionals, except it was done to a government agency and split up into privatized regional corporations.

    JR East mainly serves the Tokyo/Kanto region, but in sharp contrast to the US, there’s no distinction between local, commuter, or long distance trains. Whether it’s from within the same neighborhood, from one end of the city to another, to cities 100s of miles apart, they are all run by the same company under a standardized distance based fare system.

    That is a stark contrast to the US where Amtrak runs intra-city distances (“passenger” transit), Metrolink is a different entity that links counties (“commuter” transit), while Metro is another intra-county agency that mainly serves the entire county (“county-wide” transit), with yet another city run municipal agencies like Culver City Bus and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus (“local” transit) whom all have different ways of operation, different board members, with different budgets, different agendas, all run by taxpayers, under different fare models and payment systems that do not work together. This is very apparent here in LA that we can’t even get Metrolink, Metro and municipal operators to work together under one fare system or TAP. In Japan, that’s a non-issue because they are all run under a single corporation.

    Also to note is that JR East also competes with other private rail operators as well. Tokyo has over 40 private rail operators all competing with each other who own their own rail lines and expand out to other ventures such as real estate and other businesses.

    We will never achieve the levels of great mass transit like in Japan without overcoming many issues. Gas prices are only a small piece of the puzzle. The more detailed parts involve breakup of the Amtrak system into regional corporations, a complete standardization of fare policies, and a whole different mindset of incorporating intra-city, commuter, and local transit into one bucket instead of having them operated separately as their own individual entities.

  4. Suggested news headline: “Seven people died in a train crash today, and nearly 100 Americans died in traffic crashes”
    Today’s suggested news headline: “Nobody died in train crashes today, but nearly 100 Americans died in traffic crashes”
    We’re immune to the commonplace, shocked by the anomalies.

  5. Amtrak: Government owned entity funded by taxpayers. Money loser.

    JR East: Privatized corporation listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and pays out dividends to their shareholders. Made a net income of $16.78 billion dollars in 2014

    Cato Institute says we should just privatize Amtrak much as Japan did and showed the world that privatization works:

    Discuss. Liberals who do not use or show facts, data, or logic and only use buzzwords like “social equity” and the “because it feels good” factor need not apply.

    • Passenger rail was privately run prior to Amtrak being formed in the 1970’s. It was a failure and the private rail companies begged to either shut down their passenger services or have the government take over.

      Amtrak wasn’t even given ownership of most rails upon formation and some profitable routes were not even given access to Amtrak like SF to LA between Bakersfield and LA. The Northeast corridor is profitable and that is one area that is somewhat similar to Japan. Other than that there is almost nothing similar in Japan to the USA. We would need to raise our gas tax by about $3 a gallon to even start having a conversation to compare anything in Japan to here.

      • “We would need to raise our gas tax by about $3 a gallon to even start having a conversation to compare anything in Japan to here.”

        Try again. Again, use facts and data, not “I think this is so.”

        Average price of gasoline in Japan $1.13 / liter (as of May 11, 2015)

        1 liter = 0.264

        $1.13 / 0.264 gal = $4.28 / gal

        Not much different from the highest gasoline places in the US today.

      • Consider the screen name of the individual to whom you’re replying.

        The anti-Amtrak crowd keeps describing Amtrak as a “Government-protected monopoly.” It is no such thing. In the first place, any railroad that wants to run its own passenger services is entirely free to do so. The Southern Railway, the Rio Grande, and the Rock Island declined to hand their passenger trains over to Amtrak. They’re all “fallen flags” now. Private corporations are free to run passenger trains, if the railroads are willing to let them. The Auto-Train Corporation did. They came up with a very nice concept. It’s a fallen flag too, now, but the idea was good enough that Amtrak picked it up. In fact, with the exception of “land cruise” operations like the Napa Valley Wine Train and American Orient Express (neither of which are even remotely practical as transportation), the only other entities currently operating passenger trains are either partially or entirely owned by some level of government (CalTrain, the Alaska Railroad, and the South Shore Line all come to mind).

        The fact is that Amtrak was created because NARP put the fear of the American People into Congress. Congressional Republicans of the 1970s didn’t want to nationalize the railroads outright (even though temporary wartime nationalizations had been done). Congressional Democrats of the 1970s didn’t want to subsidize for-profit corporations. Passenger service had, by-and-large, never been a profit center for the railroads; rather, the passenger trains were subsidized by carrying mail and small-package express, and since everybody — including those who made the decisions about shipping freight — rode passenger trains, the rest of the cost was borne as, in effect, an advertising expense. And the American People, through NARP, made Congress and President Nixon think long and hard about whether they wanted to take the blame for the extinction of the American Passenger Train. Amtrak was the result. And it had a built-in “poison pill,” in the form of a profit mandate. It was expected to be nothing more than a way for Congress to duck the blame for what was thought to be the inevitable. But something happened. OPEC raised the price of crude oil, and suddenly, energy-intensive forms of transportation like airplanes and automobiles lost some of its luster, when the price of a gallon of gas rose from 39 cents to over 50, with looming threats of — horror of horrors — dollar-a-gallon gas.

        And the fact is that the people calling Amtrak a “Govenrment-protected monopoly” know all that. That’s not why they object to it. They object to it because of what it really is: a government service that competes directly with private transportation companies.

      • “Government protected monopoly” does not apply just to Amtrak.

        Here in CA, you have the California Public Utilities Commission (another government agency) who is the ultimate decider of who is able to run transportation in the State of California. I don’t know why a government agency overseeing utility companies have to butt their nose into transit, but that’s how the bureaucracy works in this state. Thank you Sacramento! (sarcasm)

        When you have a government agency (i.e. Metro, Metrolink, etc.) controlling a monopoly in running transit and another government agency (CPUC) deciding who is able to run transit, what you end up is significant roadblocks and obstacles to clear for any aspiring entrepreneur to start their own mass transit service.

        Consider reading this sad story of how one San Francisco startup called Night School who aimed to launch late night transit services for the benefit of the people in San Francisco was shut down by the CPUC because they followed the law:

        The only way to get ahead in starting privatized mass transit in CA is to break the law. That’s what Uber and Lyft did. And they’re becoming popular. Governments try to shut them down to maintain their monopoly.

        But the people who ride them the most (Millennial urban hipsters) love them and they make up the core voting base of the Democrats in power in CA today so they back down.

        And privatized mass transit is now starting to take shape in San Francisco again, by another company who refuse to be blackmailed by the CPUC:

        “Leap doesn’t actually have a CPUC permit yet to start operations.”

        Leap doesn’t care. It’s giving a middle finger to the CPUC. And the CPUC ends up backing down

        “CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper also said that Leap doesn’t have a license, but she said there is a proposed decision to approve its application on the commission’s March 26 agenda.”

        Nothing stops these companies in getting their business running. The only thing that blocks them in their path are government agencies that set up roadblocks and hurdles. The only way to defy against that is to start breaking the law. A law that is unpopular by the core voting base of Democrats today (Millennials). A law that the CPUC is getting weaker and weaker in power to enforce and shouldn’t be butting into in the first place.

      • It’s difficult to compare Japanese railroads because the US in general has a much lower density and many more very-long-haul routes. If Amtrak had its say in the matter it would probably drop most of the long east-west service over the rockies, and would drop many, many stops and services in the mid-west, everybody knows that trains just can’t compete with air travel under most of these circumstances. The thing is they can’t drop these routes because it cheese-off a lot of congressman who never want to see a town in their district lose a stop — Amtrak is effectively mandated to provide a certain level of service, no matter how underutilized, no matter how unprofitable, cost be damned.

        As Lampert says, the whole reason they consolidated passenger rail into Amtrak is because they wanted to keep the system going despite profitability, with the exception of certain high-density areas and corridors, read: the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. We shouldn’t pretend that if we were to privatize or spin-off Amtrak into regional carriers, they would all suddenly become profitable like JR East because Free Market. Most of the midwestern and mountain regional carriers would simply liquidate. I’m sure the Cato Institute is okay with that, but the Cato isn’t up for election in New Mexico’s 2rd CD, a hunk of land of 100,000 square miles and no airports large airports.

    • “Discuss. Liberals who do not use or show facts, data, or logic and only use buzzwords like “social equity” and the “because it feels good” factor need not apply…”

      Fact: #1: An American train crashed and killed 7 people and injured 200 more, all because the agency operating the train was so starved of funds, that they couldn’t implement PTC (positive train control). Which is routinely used in all developed countries to prevent accidents like this, which it would have done.

      Fact #2: Only hours later, Republicans on the House appropriations committee unanimously voted to cut Amtrak funds by 20%. From $1.4 billion to $1.13 billion:

      Fact #3: People in third world countries are laughing at us, because we can’t find the political will to even operate trains without killing people.

      Fact #4: The Republican party members doing this are an embarrassment to both their party, and to the human race. There is no hope for the future with clowns like this running the show. Thank God for Jerry Brown.