Friday, September 12, 2014

Looniness unending: a TrainLover’s ‘solution’ to the zombie economics of passenger rail


The more public discourse on passenger rail, particularly the Downeaster, carries on, and the more the dreamers sense that the dream is increasingly at risk, the greater the degree of looniness on display.  There are, to be sure, some leering leaders of the loudest loonies.

Just a few weeks ago, we posted this item as a prime example, in which one of the usual suspects attempted to fly without the benefit of wings.

Looniness unending: “the most successful train in the nation”

You may not have seen an article that appeared in the Portland paper over the weekend, but no matter. The article concludes with these words:

Wayne Davis, head of Trainriders/Northeast, a rail advocacy group that gathered 90,000 signatures in 1989 for a petition asking the state to restore passenger rail service in Maine, said the group historically avoids politics because it views train service as a nonpartisan issue.

But he said the LePage administration’s sudden strong interest in the permitting process for the layover facility might cause his group to organize rail activists to campaign against LePage in the governor’s race.

“We are not powerful, but it would be enough to put a bump in the road for someone who wants to get re-elected,” he said, adding that he thinks LePage is “tinkering with the most successful train in the nation.”

We quickly sliced and diced the assertion that the Downeaster is as he says; go back to the post to find out why his claim is ludicrous, and should relegate the speaker to a back bench position with all speechifying privileges summarily revoked.  Not to mention, of course, that the speaker seems to be advocating that relevant law be ignored and/or circumvented with a ‘most favored party waiver.’  No politics there, of course. or in threats of electioneering by the ‘non-profit’ organization he heads.


Given the recent flurry of print media items related to Downeaster and NNEPRA circumstances, and the option to comment on line on these items, there has been no shortage of other examples of looniness, almost all from those lovesick with devotion to passenger rail travel.  The rest, with rare exception, are comments of the “you’re getting exactly what you deserve, you crybabies’' variety.

One of the former types caught our eye this week in discussion of an editorial in the Portland newspaper declaring the LePage administration is ‘off track’ on the MLF location issue in Brunswick.

A reader named Alan Burden, obviously a staunch supporter of passenger rail, was engaged in a bit of back and forth with another reader who questioned his claims of economic worthiness for passenger rail.  You’ll have to read the entire conversation to absorb it all, but this comment of Burden’s in particular seemed particularly loon-worthy.  We’ll quickly parse it for you here.(Emphasis, where present, is ours.)

“First, your arguments also apply to airplanes; yet we subsidize them. So NO, I'm not buying that nonsense from you. Sorry!”

Any mention of Amtrak/Downeaster subsidies almost always results in a “but Mom, everybody is doing it!” response.  As in distraction from the issue at hand.

“Next, I'm well aware of the standards. Guilford; now PanAm's tracks went from permitting 40 MPH freight train running to 60 MPH freight train running. So that is indeed a boon to freight movement, as it now moves faster and more trains can use the tracks. The more trains is due in part to the higher speeds, but also the increase in passing sidings that were built to accommodate the Downeaster.”

Grasping for straws to validate the massive Downeaster capital investment to date, with perpetual subsidy requirements.   More trains?  Care to back that up?  Freight trains running at 60 mph?  None of the freights we’ve seen running in the local area come anywhere close to such speeds.

“As for the amounts, consider that those improvements will last for many years. Far longer than the lanes on our highways will last at their much higher cost and much higher replacement values.”

Grasping at straws again, not to mention comparing the economic utilization of the highways to that of the rail trackage.

“And the Downeaster in 2013 carried just shy of 560,000 rides. That's "not claimed" but actual ticket sales.”

Ticket sales, for reasons explained in numerous prior citations, do not equate reliably to ridership.  That is part and parcel of the game played to maximize the PR value of the reported stats.

“As for the subsidies, first your number is too high.”

So Burden is informed enough to know that the subsidy figures cited were ‘too high,’ but doesn’t know enough to say what the correct numbers are. 


“Second, get drivers to start paying more of their costs and NNEPRA will be able to raise fares and maintain current ridership levels, as driving won't appear falsely cheaper to people, and the subsidies will go down. Raise the fuel taxes enough and there will be no need to subsidize the Downeaster at all. It will cover its expenses via the fare box.”

Read this passage, and then read it again.  This man of the people asserts that the solution to this economic conundrum is to use government to elevate the price of bus, auto, and truck transport to levels that cause users to look for other options, and then, then…..raise the price of the rail based option to eliminate subsidies while ‘maintaining current ridership levels.’  We’re not sure whether Burden is a Professor of Economics at an esteemed academic institution, or a candidate for governor, congress, or president.

What a great solution.  Raise the price of every option through centralized state control of the market variables.  Readers seeing this must be truly grateful for his innovative thinking.

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor already does cover operating costs thanks to higher congestion levels and the hassles of getting to/from the airports miles outside of the city centers vs. the train station right downtown.

Perhaps Mr. Burden should check the fares between Philadelphia and Union Station DC, a distance roughly comparable to the Downeaster span. Suggesting that the transportation circumstances and needs along the Downeaster corridor are even remotely akin to the Northeast Corridor is simply incredulous. There's a reason you don't see or hear 'up to the minute' traffic reports in Maine.

In conclusion, the commenter and his fellow TrainLovers want to increase the utilization of ‘undead’ passenger rail service.  While there may be major metropolitan areas where passenger rail makes sense as one component of the overall transportation mix, the Downeaster corridor and the towns it serves are most assuredly not in that category.

Think of how many places you’ve had to run errands to this week in the course of your normal day to day life.  Can you imagine getting by without ready, efficient, and affordable personal auto transit?  Think about how many places you can fly to from nearby airports like Portland in the course of one day.  Can you imagine passenger rail competing with this mode of transit?

Think about international travel.  Passenger rail is not even remotely in the cards.


Let’s face it.  The era of widespread passenger rail travel is long gone, and for good reason.  It’s viability at this point in history is limited to making hobbyists happy, and providing a relief valve in urban mass transit.

Supporters will say that the age of HISPR is upon us….High Speed Passenger Rail.  Assuming that is, massive, and we mean massive, government infusion of speculative funding. 

We, on the other hand, feel obliged to remind you that the era of self-driving vehicles appears to be upon us.  What, pray tell, will be the effect of that evolution upon the overall tradeoffs in the economics and desirability of various modes of personal transportation?


While we can’t be sure, we’re pretty confident it won’t drive ever greater demand for passenger rail service, which is what the most vocal loonies want us to believe.

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