Meet the Grinch

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, November 21, 2018

             The reviews have been. . . well, not complimentary. Says Pete Hansen in Railroad History: “A cynic, wrote Oscar Wilde, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He might have been describing the author of this book.” Kevin Keefe’s Classic Trains blog is more charitable: “I’m not a transportation economist, so I’m not qualified to go hammer and tongs after O’Toole’s numbers, but they are terribly one-sided.” David Peter Allen in Railway Age gets right to the point: “According to Mr. O’Toole, trains and rail transit comprise only a corrupt, wasteful exercise in incompetent or malicious urban governance.” I refer, of course, to Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need. Across America, railfans are sticking pins in dolls named after its author, Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute.

            Me? I enjoyed it, even when it made me uncomfortable and though I didn’t always agree with what I read. And I said to myself, I’d like to meet someone who can make this many people so upset. You see, O’Toole is a contrarian—a libertarian, sort of—and also clearly a railfan. The thesis of his book is contained in these 15 words: “I still love passenger trains, but I don’t think other people should subsidize my hobby.” It so happened that O’Toole had ventured from his home in Camp Sherman, Ore., for a book tour. So we spoke by phone as he prepared to drive through Northern California.

            Fred: The Randal O'Toole I always imagined, from your commentaries, was a mirthless, humorless man with a distaste for trains. Maybe you breathe fire, too.

            Randal: My writing tends to be dry. I stick to the facts. But the reality is, of course, I've always loved passenger trains, ever since I took that first ride when I was five years old, on the Western Star, from Grand Forks to Portland, Ore.          

            That was one of the pleasures of reading your book, to discover you are a lover of trains and railroads, and that you marry this with a contrarian way of thinking. Do you take perverse pleasure in that combination? Oh, not at all. To me, it's really sad. I wish I could support passenger trains, and I do support them as far as riding them and things like that. But I know enough about government subsidies to know that they reduce overall productivity and usually end up taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The people who are riding the Acela are not people in need of government handouts. The people who are riding light rail and things like that are not the poor, by and large.

            What is the future of the long-distance trains? The role they fulfill is giving people access to scenery they can't see in any other way, and really, it ends up being something for the wealthy. I think the Rocky Mountaineer model is the future of long-distance trains, and if you look at the United States, where can we have a Rocky Mountaineer? Certainly, Oakland to Denver, probably Oakland to Los Angeles, and after that, it gets pretty iffy. They would become cruise trains.

            You seem almost as uncharitable towards the short-distance passenger trains. Amtrak does its best to deceive people about how well these trains do, for example, counting state subsidies as “passenger revenues,” in order to make itself eligible for more subsidies. I wouldn't mind short-distance trains if they worked, but the Cascades, the California service, those trains aren't really doing anything. A lot of money is spent carrying not that many people. 

            What galls me, Randal, is that you think Chicago, of all cities, may not need commuter trains and CTA subways. I lived there decades ago, and it was a nightmare. Matters haven’t gotten better.  We always hear that the rail line can move as many people as an eight-lane freeway. But the people who calculate that use very deceptive numbers. They assume that every single car on the train is packed with people, whereas the automobiles on those freeways hold one person. If you compare a rail line to a two-lane dedicated bus line, running 500, 600 buses an hour, there's no way the rail line can carry as many people as the buses.

            I see your economic message, but do you understand that streets in Chicago, and the expressways, are jam-packed? If you ran hundreds more buses into the Loop, there would be gridlock. That's true. You’ve got New York with two million jobs downtown, Chicago with half a million, Washington, D.C., 400,000. The question is, where is the dividing point between where buses can handle it all, and where we need to start having trains? Maybe we shouldn't have that kind of job density anywhere. It causes all sorts of problems, including office costs.

            It seems a lot easier to subsidize commuter trains than to level downtown Chicago. Okay, but look at the history of our cities. In 1950, most cities had jobs concentrated downtown. There’s been this huge diaspora of jobs leaving downtown as people moved to the suburbs. Because of its subway system, New York never got that job diaspora. If the subway and commuter rails were well-funded, and operating well, it wouldn't be a problem, but New York has a $60 billion maintenance backlog and Chicago admits to $16 billion. So we cannot seem to pay for the rail systems we have.

            Statistics of yours that struck me are that public transit paid 90 percent of operating costs in 1964 from fares and just 32 percent today. Why not try to make the rail part of public transit more viable? You don’t address that in your book. You can’t make it more economically viable, simply because buses are so much better in every respect than rails. If you take the rail lines, and pave them over, and turn them into busways, you'll be able to move more people, faster and cheaper and with far lower maintenance costs. Even if you could make the rails pay for themselves, since the buses are so much cheaper, why would we bother?  

            You seem most upset at places like Orlando and Dallas and Nashville, where commuter rail or light rail began but so few seem to ride. It this money thrown to the wind? I think so. Why is it that we allowed steam to change to diesel, sailing ships to steam ships—all these different technological evolutions to take place—but when it came to passenger rail, we said, "Halt, we don't want more technological change." The answer is threefold. It's nostalgia. It's people who are making money from wasting money, such as contactors—crony capitalism. And it's accidents of history. The accident of history affecting urban rail transit was in 1973. Governor Francis Sargent of Massachusetts asked Congress to let cities substitute capital investments in transit for interstate highway grants. Congress said yes, but you can’t spend that amount of money on new busses. Instead, cities such as Buffalo, Portland,  and San Jose built new rail lines with money from cancelled freeways because they are expensive and could use up those federal dollars. That's what started the light-rail revolution, not because it was cheap, but because it was expensive.

            Should the Northeast Corridor be paved over?  No. But be aware that the next technological revolution is not going to be high-speed rail, but driverless cars. Driverless cars are going to do a lot to relieve congestion, in the early stages by 25 percent or more. Eventually, they may double, triple or quadruple highway capacities.

            That raises the question, does true high-speed rail have a role anywhere else in the United States? I don't think it has a role anywhere in the world. High-speed rail has made an inroad into low-speed rail and into buses, but not really affected how much people drive or fly.

            What about HSR built without public money, such as the Texas Central, between Dallas and Houston? I’ll believe it when I see it.

            One last question. Pretend you’ve just become president of Amtrak. What do you do? I would first try to contract out operations to private operators. When public transit contracts out bus service, they typically save almost 50 percent on operating costs. I would go after corporate sponsorships, to replace cars and locomotives that are worn out. Let’s have the Amazon Empire Builder, the Microsoft Coast Starlight, the JP Morgan Chase Acela, so that train riders pay only the operating costs.

            Then there’s the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak has a $51 billion infrastructure backlog. Most trains on the corridor are commuter trains, and I would insist that the commuter railroads and Amtrak, together, share those infrastructure costs amongst their passengers. The only taxes that I think ought to go to support those trains would be taxes from property owners who benefit from the density that the trains support.

            Should the Randal O’Tooles and Fred Fraileys who drive cars everywhere pay for the roads they wear out? Absolutely. We pay for our roads, largely, with gas taxes. Still, the subsidies for roads have increased, to I believe $79 billion last year, which comes to about a penny a passenger mile when you include the ton miles for freight. Compare that to about 25 cents a passenger mile for Amtrak. Let’s get rid of all subsidies. My home state of Oregon is experimenting with mileage-based user fees. I think it’s working.

            Randal, it’s been fun talking to someone who tells me things I’d rather not hear. We need to take a train trip together. Let’s do that.

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