Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Bus Good, Train Bad"

by Conroy

Rendering of a "future" high-speed rail train in California
Sometimes exciting ideas are bad. Take the title quote, which I read in a recent Bloomberg article by Edward Glaeser the accomplished Harvard economist [1]. These four words, according to Glaeser, sum up the accepted wisdom gleaned from 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard. And they are directly at odds with one of the long-held – and long out-of-reach – goals of many American transportation planners: true high-speed rail (HSR in planning and transit lingo).

High Speed Rail in America
For many decades (if not longer) there has been a desire among transit advocates to connect America’s cities with a web of efficient, clean, fast trains. This transit mode would act as an environmentally friendly alternative to the automobiles that crowd urban highways and dirty the air, and to expensive, polluting planes. Advocates point to the successful HSR systems in Western Europe and Japan [2] and models for a future American system. Indeed, HSR does offer advantages over other transportation modes, but only under the right conditions. Those conditions include densely populated areas along the train route, relatively underdeveloped highway infrastructure, high gas prices, existing heavy passenger rail use, and relatively short distances. These conditions are needed because HSR becomes economically feasible when ridership is high. And ridership will only be high if it’s more cost effective for people to use HSR than it is to use other modes, or borrowing terms from economics, if the combination of cost (the price of a ticket) and duration (the time the trip takes) are lower than competing modes (road and air).

In Japan, where there are 65 million people living tightly along the 250 mile corridor between Tokyo and Osaka, HSR is an ideal solution. Similarly, the densely packed corridor in France between Paris and Lyon is a prime location. In Japan and France gas prices and population densities are high, intercity freeways are less extensive, and major urban areas are closely spaced. And even in these locations, HSR like other transit modes isn’t self-supporting. It requires government investment to fund the capital expense and support the high operating costs [3]. This investment is justified because of the high value of time saved by moving so many riders.

If you look at the United States, the conditions for HSR are far less favorable. Gas is cheap [4], the interstate highway system is vast, and excepting the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston [5], population centers are widely spaced across the continent. Today, on a national level, only about one half of one percent of passenger trips are made by train of any sort and just one tenth of one percent are taken on intercity rail. The Northeast Corridor is the most heavily used intercity passenger train route, but Amtrak’s semi-high-speed Acela train [6] deployed on that route only accounts for about three million trips annually. A number dwarfed by automobile trips on Interstate 95, the parallel freeway.

Despite these realities, the political support for HSR has grown in recent years. In 2009, as part of the much-touted, mid-recession American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Congress included, at the President’s urging, $8 billion for intercity rail, with an emphasis on HSR. Since then the Federal Railroad Administration and many state-level transportation agencies have been studying potential routes all over the country. The furthest down the track in these efforts is California, which rather fancifully expects to start the building an HSR line later this year. Unfortunately for HSR advocates, numerous studies (prominent examples here and here) have demonstrated the massive flaws in California’s plan. Given the huge costs and time to develop HSR, and that funding and grass roots support is largely absent, HSR is likely to go nowhere in California or anywhere else (with the lone potential exception of the Northeast Corridor).

And there has been a backlash against HSR in the last couple of years. In California more than two-thirds of the public is now against the state’s HSR plan. Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, refused to accept federal money to even study HSR. Turning back money seems like a remarkable thing for any government to do, and it speaks to how much skepticism there is for the viability of HSR in America. A fear of the white elephant that many pay for and few use. Hopefully other states will follow this trend and avoid force-feeding HSR to an unreceptive public, sinking billions of dollars of federal and state funding into what is ultimately for most of America, a bad idea.

An Easily and Successful Alternative
Sometimes boring ideas are good. Despite the conditions being poor for HSR, there is a growing need for alternative transportation choices to go from one city to another. Rising gas prices make automobile and airplane trips more expensive. Congestion and tolls add time and cost to highway trips. These circumstances have led to one of the great, if unexciting, recent success stories in American transportation: the growth of intercity buses.

Led largely by small private companies [7], curbside-to-curbside bus travel is expanding rapidly. Through Baltimore, near my home, Megabus and other carriers are a common site on I-95. Intercity buses travel many of the same routes as trains – the Washington-New York trip is the most heavily used intercity bus route in the country – but offer the advantage of higher route flexibility, they can go anywhere there are highways, and quicker ramp-up/down times because the capital and operating costs are lower. Over the past year, Megabus, just one of many carriers, added new hubs in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. These buses commonly offer comfortable seats, Wi-Fi, power outlets at each seat, and online booking. Competition has thus far kept ticket prices low (a one-way trip between Washington and New York is around $20). Going back to the economic argument, the combination of cost and time is attracting customers to intercity bus travel. Older established bus companies are joining the trend with Greyhound ramping up their Greyhound Express service across the Northeast and Florida.

Buses are good for passengers, but also for everyone else. Buses are more efficient and better for the environment than cars. They reduce congestion by putting a lot of people in one vehicle and commensurately reducing the number of cars on the road. And by reducing the number of cars, the total volume of pollutants is also reduced.

This success is particularly appealing to me because it’s happening largely without government support, based on private initiative and competition. It’s a profitable, sustainable, user-pays approach; exactly the type of solution U.S. transportation policy should support. The market is still developing, but intercity bus is a promising, realistic alternative to HSR. In the years to come routes will no doubt proliferate across most of the country. In this case, Harvard wisdom may be right, “bus good, train bad.”



[1] And author of the 2011 book, The Triumph of the City, a very good, informative read, which I recommend highly.

[2] Which include thousands of miles of track in China, Japan, France, and Spain, and hundreds of miles in Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, and Belgium.

[3] The French HSR lines were built and are operated by the government. Japanese HSR trains were built by the government but are now operated by a private consortium.

[4] Certainly when compared to fuel prices in Japan or Western Europe.

[5] The Northeast Corridor connects Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, along with several other medium sized cities in between. Using 2008 data, the five large Northeast Corridor cities are among the eight highest American cities in overall transit use.

[6] Amtrak’s Acela train is capable of speeds of 150 mph, but the existing track and power infrastructure, along with the sharing of tracks with other trains, result in average speeds well under 100 mph.

[7] These include Megabus, Boltbus, Trailways, Red Coach, and DC2NY Bus, to name a few.


  1. Here's a story indicating that California voters have turned against that state's proposed high-speed rail plan:

    Just the latest demonstration that high-speed rail is a long way from becoming a reality in America.

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