Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Sounds of Suction: The Great Train Fantasy, Part 2

(Ed Note:  this post is a follow up to the discussion begun here.)

“If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.”
            - Carl Sagan

Our argument is that when it comes to bringing Amtrak passenger service to Brunswick, very few links in the chain of argument work, and the basic premise is false.  Bringing the train here amounts to throwing good money down the drain; money we don’t have, to begin with.  All while we amass suicidal debt, and more realistic needs go unfulfilled. Take bridge repair, for instance.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this, if you subscribe to the Seinfeld view of things.


Henry Hazlitt’s ‘economics in one lesson’ reads as follows:

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

We will explain our argument.  But before we do, we thought it serendipitous that after closing out the prior post with a reference to the train bringing Santa Claus to town, an article in a recent Coastal Journal included a Christmas (Santa Claus) themed image of the train:

             amtrak downeaster

Back to our message: The Downeaster to Brunswick is a boondoggle, and an insult to rational thought.  To local leadership, though, it’s OUR boondoggle, which makes it more than acceptable - it’s desirable. 

Our assertion will probably result in accusations that yours truly is a ‘trainist.’  Great; it doesn’t bother us in the least, and maybe, just maybe, it will stimulate an honest discussion of the subject.  Refreshing as that sounds, it would be a first.  And too many reputations and egos are at stake to ever allow such a thing.

We have a thick skin, and take pleasure in speaking truth to the hind end of a male steer.  All while providing an open invitation to those who question our thinking.  So far, in nearly 4 years, we can think of no more instances of anyone doing so than you can count on no fingers on no hands.

Emphasizing the Positive, Ignoring the Negative

The proven methodology in such boondoggles is to ‘ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive and elim-in-nate the negative,’ as a Consultant who asked to remain unidentified explains:

What do we mean by this?  In a nutshell, it means stay away from critical thinking and play to local emotions, hopes, and tooth-fairy beliefs.  Think of it as winning elections with a slightly different twist.

In the simplest of terms, all we are told about are the purported positive consequences of train service coming to Perfect.  No matter that service began at the onset of winter, and that only a few months of experience, all gamed to make a splash, exists.  The honeymoon is still on, and discounts and promotions, some changing regularly, are being offered.

Supporters scour the town to find a report, no matter how unsubstantiated, that the train has had ‘a positive impact.’

We can’t prove this, but we’re guessing no one has surveyed the local business community to document how many have lost business because of the train, and how severe the loss has been.  Why would they?  Why put the dream at risk?  Besides, how do you track someone that didn’t come in because they went elsewhere?

For example, how much has bus travel declined?  If ridership declines, the bus company may well reduce scheduled runs.  Even though bus service is more flexible, more convenient, more earth-friendly, more affordable, more economically viable, and a private enterprise without need for government subsidy.  And the bus is actually useful and convenient for getting to Logan Airport, while the train is anything but.

If, on the other hand, train ridership doesn’t meet “expectations,” expect the government run service to increase runs “because that’s why it isn’t working.”  And issue more attractive coupon offers to Bowdoin students.  The standard government explanation for a program that doesn’t work is that we aren’t spending enough on it, so we need to spend more.

As long as we’re on the subject, why is it incumbent upon taxpayers to subsidize costs so college students can get to Boston on the cheap?  You can read an older article here anticipating great student discounts: http://bowdoinorient.com/article/6102  The actual discounts, we hear, are even better than cited in the article.  Here’s hoping there isn’t much vomiting on the train on the way back to town.

When you read the article, keep in mind that you can’t head south of Boston on a train after taking one to Boston without finding a way to get you and your bags from North Station to South Station.  And if you want to go to the Airport, the bus is the only sensible approach.

But in this case, we’ve got to be careful; positives are OK, negatives aren’t, and Mr. In Between is not welcome.

Local Infatuation & Political Irreversibility

It doesn’t take much to realize that numerous officials at the local and state level are heavily invested in the idea of making the Brunswick Downeaster a success.  And the Federal Government, flush as always, is more than ready to speculate on the idea.  If they can afford Solyndra and various other incredibly flawed ventures, surely they can spare a few bucks for bringing a train to Brunswick, right?

We’re shocked,though, that they haven’t decided to back out of the whole idea using ‘sequestration’ as an excuse.  Apparently our little engine that could is more important than FAA air traffic control and Homeland Security enforcement.  Or wouldn’t yield the same level of public pain and backpressure.


Once our local officials step over the line, they have so much political capital invested in their decision that reversing course becomes an untenable idea.  Add to that community emotional and psychic capital, taxpayer funds capital, and the interests of the revered local College, and you have an obsession that simply can’t be denied.


Even those who once disagreed with the concept jump on board the whistle tour when they can’t bear the thought of being left behind and excluded from photo ops and related homage.  Such is the power of the lemming impulse.  Getting sucked in; just another form of suction in our story.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the Downeaster extension project is that seemingly well-intended local officials have swallowed whole the sermonizing of Patricia Quinn and the NNEPRA cabal, along with that of Train Riders Northeast.  Neither is even remotely objective on the subject, any more than Senator King, Angus is objective on matters of wind power.

Think of Maine State Housing Authority’s ‘affordable housing’ units at $300 thousand plus a few years back, and translate the same ‘disciplined management patterns’ to The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority that functions in the same quasi-governmental way.

The Romance Factor

There’s no question that ‘the romance of the rails’ is a powerful factor in this undertaking.  It’s what motivates Train Riders Northeast and many others.  And we’re sure that many of the early riders have taken a ride to relive old memories. 

But how long will the honeymoon last, and how long can romance compensate for economic non-viability?  Watch the Eastern Maine Railroad summer trains come in and out of Brunswick, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of just how much romance plays into the business.

Speaking of romance and honeymoons, Horse and Carriage rides are an ever popular tourist attraction.  And you often see them used in wedding settings.  And in Royal Processions in England.

Does that mean it makes sense to create a scheduled Horse and Carriage service here in the early years of the 21st Century?  We don’t think so, Tim.

There’s a reason passenger trains went the way of the horse and buggy; they aren’t viable economically.  Oh sure, you can take a carriage ride through Central Park to enjoy the “romance of the buggy.”  That’s what the summer trains are for, and the narrow gauge in Portland.  Assuming that the romance of the rails makes regular passenger service a winner in the face of the auto, the bus, and livery service is, in a word, idiotic and the stuff of local pipe dreams and insolvency.  It shows just how desperate we are for economic growth, and how little we understand how to go about it.

The Economic Fantasy & The Balance of Trade

Let’s begin with the projections that ridership would be 35,000 per year, or 100 per day on average.  Oh great!  100 people per day coming to Brunswick to spend money!

Wrong….facts not in evidence.  To begin with, we think it’s pretty certain that most people who ride this train are riding it round trip.  So the first thing you can do is figure that on average, ridership projections amount to 50 individuals traveling in both directions on the train per day.

Then we need to ask how many of those were formerly traveling back and forth to Portland by auto, or perhaps bus, and represent no actual change in the number of people traveling between the two points.  Instead, they’ve chosen a different form of transit.

Now ponder which is the greater motivation for riding the train: local region small town residents heading to bigger, more exciting locales with lots to do and see like Portland and Boston, or residents of Boston and Portland regions seeking more exciting options in downtown Brunswick?

We assert that the majority of ridership is local region residents traveling south, taking their dollars with them and spending them elsewhere, instead of potentially at local businesses.  Doesn’t providing cheap seats to Bowdoin Students end up taking their precious dollars out of Brunswick to be spent elsewhere?


Here’s a picture of the Long Term Parking Lot near the station.  Our guess is that those cars each represent substantial dollars leaving this area to be spent elsewhere.  Do you think there are free parking lots in Portland and Boston to accommodate the cars of travelers to Brunswick?  If you’ve seen them, please forward a photo or two for us to publish.

Did you see where People Plus is running a special “Seniors Only” trip to Boston today?  For shopping, sight-seeing, and lunch at Quincy Market?  Do you think a seniors group in Boston is running a special “Seniors Only” trip to Brunswick to enjoy Danny’s Dogs and the Town Mall?

In so many words, the sucking sound you hear is the sound of more dollars being sucked to points south of Brunswick then there are being sucked north to Brunswick.

What we’re talking about here is the difference between ‘static analysis’ and ‘dynamic analysis,’ the former favored by government, and the latter favored by ‘critical thinkers.’  The first looks only at the isolated issue at hand, while the second examines how behavior changes in other areas to arrive at a complete understanding.

The CJ article linked earlier includes this passage:

“It’s change. It will be an adjustment, I’m not denying that,” said Knight. “But the service to Brunswick has done amazing things already for the businesses downtown.”

It would be helpful if Knight provided some facts to support the claim of ‘amazing things.’  We suspect that Brynes Irish Pub and Scarlet Begonias have sold more hamburgers and more beer.  But at what cost?  It’s easy to count train-riders coming into restaurants; you can ask them; they may look lost; or you could offer a discount if they show a ticket, right?

If, as we’ve heard, the train will require a subsidy of millions a year in perpetuity, wouldn’t we all be better off if the feds just sent each restaurant a check for $25,000 a year and shut down the train? 

Does Councilor Knight really want us to believe that no local money travels southward, rather than being spent in town like it used to be?  How many meals etc, do other in town restaurants lose when local area residents take their disposable funds to Portland, Boston, or other points?  And how do you count people that don’t show up; the fact is you can’t.  Eliminating the negative is ever so much easier when you can’t get a handle on it.

How many limos could operate between Portland and Brunswick for $1 million plus a year?  Twenty?  With on call service?  To your door?

Oh, you say, we’re a community of givers…..we see.  We’re willing to make taxpayers all across the land fork it over to have the joy of diesel fumes in the center of town.

Freight trains are another issue, but you need freight to haul, and we aren’t real good at buying it or making it at the moment, are we? They operate on an as needed basis, in response to market demand, which is the exact opposite of what we have in front of us now.

The Environment

We haven’t reached the time of year when being outside is the norm, and we relish every moment.  Wait until those lovely diesel fumes waft over the sidewalk diners at Scarlets, Byrnes, BoHo and other in town favorites.  And won’t they add to the pleasure of a Cote’s ice cream treat?  And shopping at the Farmer’s Market on the Town Mall?

Should we worry that J. Hilary Rocket will complain that train fumes are compromising the al fresco cocktail and dining experience at the Inn at Brunswick?

We’ve heard they’re already improving the joys of the Hannaford’s parking lot; we assume it won’t be too long before the aromas of progress are noticeable inside the store.  As we said in our prior post, once you get a taste, a smell, and a feel for the experience, you won’t soon forget it.  Aroma therapy anyone?

Should we expect micro-climate change in Brunswick now that Amtrak has come to town?  How large do you think the carbon footprint of an Amtrak diesel engine running 24 hours a day is compared to a bus that only runs when it’s being used?

Neutering Priuses

One last point to ponder, especially for the environmentally conscious folks in our area.  And we know there are many driving around in that most pious of all vehicles, the Prius, making it clear to all that they stand for environmental justice.

Maybe they could do some calculations to figure out how many Priuses are effectively neutered by each 4,250 Amtrak Diesel running 24 hours a day, as they are now?  And how many of those engines will be added to service because of the extension to Brunswick?

We’re guessing the numbers are pretty darn big.  Where’s the outrage?  Where are the protestors on Maine Street?  Where is the parade of Priuses blocking the railroad crossings and then taking up all the free parking spots in the long term parking lots?

Or among its other faults, is Brunswick now seeking a Gold Star Award in sanctimony cum duplicity?

Summing Up: A Call To the Advocates

Whew.  We’re tired of working on this post, which may well be our longest ever, so we’re going to wind it up, ready for the presses or not.  Time to move on to other things, and the dogs would like a walk before the rain begins.

Given the history of passenger trains, we’re moved to ask what fantastic breakthrough has occurred to restore the viability of a system that died of natural economic causes?  None that we can tell, unless you consider governments spending with reckless abandon to revive long abandoned historic curiosities. 


The takeaway?  “Free money” can make a loser into a winner in nothing flat.  And even create some local heroes who will likely be gone from office by the time reality sinks in.

Oh for an honest public debate on trains vs buses.  We’d give anything to see someone from NNEPRA and the Town Council stand up and arrange that. 


We might even give you this scratch ticket, which seems appropriate to the circumstances.

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