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Archive for August, 2014

 Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

 One of the evergreens for politicians are high speed trains.  They get dewy-eyed at the prospect of having high speed trains in their political districts.  For people who have been savvy enough to get elected and have the self-control which allows them to stay in office for long periods of time, politicians can be remarkably irrational when it comes to the subject of railroad transportation.  Especially high-speed trains.

Inevitably, their eyes turn toward the Northeast Corridor.  If they’re lucky, their constituents will send them on a 14-day junket to Europe to survey the passenger railroad situation there.  Like the Intercity Express:

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 And when they get back from Europe, they find themselves standing in front of their constituents, extolling the virtues of high-speed trains.  The high speed train is the Holy Grail of modern transportation, that object of exceeding value that must be had by all progressive peoples.  It has become a crusade, just as streetcars have become a crusade.  As just like the modern day streetcar, the real goals of these projects are concealed behind a veil of flowery words and empty promises.

So it is with Columbus, Georgia, which has plans:

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Of course, once the pretty words and pictures are peeled away, there’s still the ugly reality that these trains cost a lot of money.  They cost a lot of money to plan for, they cost a lot of money to buy the rights of way for the tracks, they cost a lot of money to build, they cost a lot of money to operate and, most importantly, they cost a lot of money over the long term to maintain.  Without continuous maintenance, these high speed trains cannot reliably operate.

Already, there have been studies, with civil engineers sitting about with yellow pads and pencils, pulling numbers out of thin air to justify the construction of these things.  Let’s look at the competition:

Automobile

The optimum in terms of transportation availability, the automobile has already won the war in terms of popularity.  Our entire transportation infrastructure revolves around the automobile.  Since much of the cost of that infrastructure is buried out of sight, it is impossible to factor in the actual costs of an individual trip to Columbus from Atlanta.  Using Mapquest, the trip on I-85 is about 126 miles, taking typically 1 hour and 40 minutes.  Except on Fridays on holiday weekends in the rain.  You are, modern soul that you are, driving a 2014 Toyota Prius, using about $10.00 worth of fuel.  (Interestingly, the way to play this is to make the trip having your fuel costs reimbursed by your employer at the current IRS rate, to the tune of about $60.00).  Of course, your mileage may vary.  And, no mention of wear and tear on the car or on the roads.  Nor a mention of the overhead costs such as insurance.

The Bus

Greyhound goes between Atlanta and Columbus, taking between 1 hour 50 minutes and 2 hours 15 minutes.  The one-way fare is around $33.00, less discounts.  Again, because the bus uses public rights of way which are supported by the taxpayers, it is not possible to calculate the actual costs of this trip per person.  But you have to believe that the costs for Greyhound are artificially low.

Flying

Until recently, for example, there were direct flights from Hartsfield to Macon which were heavily subsidized by the taxpayers.  Even then, the air carrier couldn’t make it work out, probably because more time was spent on the ground taxiing than actually flying.  In any case, a Delta subsidiary will get you to Columbus in about 42 – 48 minutes, gate to gate.  The fare is in a general range between $450.00 and $600.00.  As with the other forms of transit discussed so far, the actual costs are hidden from view, making cost benefit analysis difficult.

High Speed Train

The Columbus proposal shows three different options, with the least expensive having trains that operate at speed under 100 mph on existing rights of way.  You can refer to the costs of these plans in the feasibility study document.

What We Had

Just for fun, let’s go back 60 years, to the early 1950’s.  There was a passenger train called the Man O’ War, which ran between Columbus and Atlanta; center of the city to center of the city.

Central_of_Georgia_Railway_Man_O_War_1951

The train was operated by a private company, the Central of Georgia Railway.  This company paid taxes on its revenues, on its equipment and on its rights of way.  Prior to 1956, there were two trains between Columbus and Atlanta (typical running time 2 hours 50 minutes, with several stops) :

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The round-trip fare, in today’s dollars, was $31.62, or $15.81 one-way.  Of course, that would be different these days, since fuel costs, taxation and such would have grown considerably faster than the official rate of inflation.  But, there’s still a point to be made.

Popular tastes change.  People got tired of taking the streetcar when they could take their car instead.  So, the streetcars generally went away.  Popular tastes have changed back, with the streetcar becoming a sign of urban progress (and not so much as a sign of improved transportation).  We had it all and let it slip away.  And, we’re paying for it now.  While our elected leaders are dreaming of high speed trains, a more modest train with useful amenities such as Wi-Fi, conference rooms, light food and beverage service, which would be useful for those who travel between Columbus and Atlanta might be a real winner.  It won’t be as fast, but it will be just as useful at a much lower price.

cogmotor

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