Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Use Rail to Solve Problems That Trains Are Good Solutions For

A modest proposal to guide new rail projects:
I am a fan of train projects when those projects start with a problem that might be solved by a train, and then work forward to the train. The problem is that in America, those routes are difficult to build, because they're places where there's already a lot of stuff. Rights of way are expensive and time-consuming to obtain, and the project is bound to be blocked by well-organized NIMBYs.

And so the idea seems to have become to build trains where it's possible to build trains, and hope that development follows.  But trains succeed where they are better than some alternative form of transportation.  In the case of Tampa to Orlando, they're worse than a car, and there isn't even any air travel to replace; in the case of Fresno-to-Bakersfield, it may be better than a car for a few passengers, but there are too few passengers to make the trains better than cars for the environment.

Meanwhile, projects that do make economic sense, like an actual high-speed Acela, or Southeastern High-Speed Rail Corridor, are going nowhere.  They might have a better chance of success if rail advocates hadn't abandoned them in favor of building whizzy demonstration projects with dubious economic appeal. 

Sound thoughts via Megan McArdle here, for sure. The Acela, which goes right behind my house, could travel the 222 miles from Boston to NY with a handful of stops in, what, 90 minutes at 150 mph? Or in 2 hours at 120 mph. So, make that happen? Oh, no! Keep it slow, take 4 hours or more, and charge almost as much as a plane ticket. Spend money, accomplish almost nothing.

See, this gets right at Obama's alleged goal of investing in ideas that will really make us better and keep us ahead. Let's get rid of "if we build it they will come" and replace it with"if we really need it we should build it." File this under not brain surgery.


  1. I posted an analytical comment, but your blog ate it. So here's the Reader's Digest version.

    Except in VERY limited circumstances that apply in VERY few areas of the US (and it's marginal in those) HSR is an unjustifiable money/resource sinkhole that should be on the bottom of our national priority list unless we suddenly acquire cheap matter conversion and near-free energy. And at that point, we would have no need for it. It'd be a fun toy.

    The key is population density. Without very dense populations and tightly centralized work/residential clustters, there's NO way for HSR to pass a rational cost/benefit analysis. And even where such density exists, it's marginal. The key to the benefit side is the concept of "congestion avoidance" achieved through mass transit, and to a large extent the figures used for that are somewhat speculative (to be kind).

    This applies to all mass transit systems that are meant to deal with congestion rather than simply being transportation. Take the two largest mass transit systems in America, Chicago and NYC. Both have very high utilization, and so achieve congestion avoidance to some good degree. But on fiscal grounds without the congestion avoidance assumtpions, they are bottomless money pits. Chicago loses over a million dollars a day in funding mass transit. NYC does them an order of magnitude better, losing over $10M/day.

    For all the progressive Europhiles crying out in objection that IT WORKS OVER THERE, a simple exercise. Take a population density map of Europe and one of America, drawn to the same scale. Put them next to each other.

  2. [Sorry about the gobble. I hate that.]

    Oh, I agree. I don't think you even need studies to see the obviousness of this. The stuff about congestion makes a ton of sense to me, it seems obvious too. I pretty much buy everything you say.

    You seem a little skeptical of even those hypotheses on congestion. But it's one of those subjects where it's hard to test. We can't really run one NYC with subway against another NYC without. That makes me willing to sort of accept the reasonable presumption that once a city/metropolitan area reaches a certain size, it can't function well without public transit. Such a city simply needs too many janitors and maids and cleaners and busboys and burger flippers and cashiers and so on. And they can't all have cars.

    That's not to say the current model is ideal. I sometimes contemplate what sorts of models future cities might evolve, and I think all sorts of science fictiony things. I think about how disney world works. I thin about zip cars. I think about cities where you have to park at the border and use golf carts inside. I think about car pods that drive automatically by GPS. I imagine a future where you only get to drive on manual when you're outside highly populated areas(not that this would be better, but it's an imaginable iteration).

    Boston btw, is another place that's hard to imagine without public transport. I took the train into Boston for years. It was pretty viable, but not cheap. And as you say, subsidized. I was paying $235 per month for 20 round trips, so it wasn't exactly a bargain per se. I have always suspected that maybe the commuter rail was close to being cost neutral compared to the subway and buses. Although the commuter rail involved a lot of extra cost lugging empty cars back and forth during non-peak times, even with lower frequency trips. Seems to me they could save a ton of dough running retrofitted buses on the rails during off-peak hours.That's a wild guess, though.

    Any thoughts on all that?

  3. Oh, I'm not in the least skeptical on the concept. It's as valid as can be. It's the validity of the way the concept is turned into subsidy-justifying numbers by transit organizations I am skeptical of, for the same reason I am skeptical of the "economic impact" figures provided by developers seeking public funding for their projects.

    Their self-interest lies entirely in inflated "congestion avoidance" figures. And by some small coincidence, the "congestion avoidance" figures provided are always larger than the amount of the subsidies required ... and when transit systems add additional non-direct-to-service overhead burden ("featherbedding") the avoidance figures rise to cover it, even though costs have risen without any actual increase in utilization.

    Large dense metros require an underclass, as you note. (This is why NYC mayors hate immigration reform.) To a large extent, mass transit system costs are part of the price large dense metros pay to keep their required underclass. Inbound commuter lines reduce housing cost pressure, and circulating transit allows the underclass their shorter internal commutes.

    Don't get me wrong -- without mass transit those large dense metros would collapse. They are necessary for survival of said metros. What grates is the "progressive" urge to foist those systems onto places they're not needed, just because they're so nifty where they are needed. Where you live they're a necessity of a money pit, a required cost of urban density. Where I live they're a pointless money pit, at best an expensive luxury. The density is simply not there to need them.

    HSR follows along those same lines. Where the density and demand is present, they can make some sense. Everywhere else, it's pissing HUGE amounts of capital and operating subsidies down the pipes for no good reason. The alternatives are all cheaper, so why add a more expensive one that's even less flexible and can't pass even a semi-imaginary cost/benefit test?

    Fact is, for MOST of the routes proposed the existing alternatives such as air travel still make more sense. For the same money, we can improve our existing transportation infrastructure, which sorely needs it. When traffic/travel patterns change, it's one hell of a lot easier and cheaper to shift planes than to re-route rails.

  4. I feel you. I recall how in Robert Pirsig's 2nd book he talked about how lare organizations are a bit like their own level of evolution, and how they develop their own imperatives independents of the what they were supposed to serve. You can see that with rail orgs (and tons of other stuff.) There's that growth imperative, which matters for the org, not the pop it's supposed to serve.

    I see your points about the adaptability of planes and so on. I wonder what the physics and energy consumption says about the theoretical advantages of HSR, say, as the hardware part of an integrated network. I imagine that if we were able to start from scratch (which we obviously can't), then a HSR network which served to connect major areas and hub airports, and really ran at bullet speeds could actually save money and time logistics wise.

    Hey I recall you saying that your wife was a master gardener or landscaper or horticulturist ir something like that. We watched a gardening-related movie last night with Helen Mirren and Clive Owen called Greenfingers which we really liked.

  5. they develop their own imperatives independents of the what they were supposed to serve


  6. To extend on Pournelle from the POV of someone who has spent a lot of his professional life studying organizations from an analytical POV, there was an interesting post on WHATEVER last week on the meme of "sociopathic corporations."

    Scalzi made the primary point that anthropomorphizing corps is silly, and that ascribing human qualities to them obscures serious analysis. (Quite true.) Corps are not people. But he also relies on the maxim that "Corporations exist to maximize shareholder value," which while a theoretical truth is in practice also somewhat misleading. Corps exist to maximize shareholder value, but fail to do so because corps have major agency issues of their own.

    This has effects on corp size that lead to interesting results. In theory maximizing shareholder value (MSV) would halt corporate growth at the peak efficiency of profit generation per revenue dollar, the point where maximum ROI is being achieved. And this doesn't happen. It doesn't happen because shareholders don't govern the corp other than in the loosest, most passive way. As long as the corp produces their minimum required return, they hold the stock. If it doesn't, they sell it.

    But management power and control is maximized by the SIZE of the corp, not by peak potential ROI. The bigger the corp, the greater the perks and pay. So corps end up (generally speaking) continuing to grow along the ROI/efficiency curve far past the peak, and well into the diminishing returns range right up until profitability drops to the minimum required return point on the right side of the curve, that point where the corp is as large as it can get and still produce the required ROI. This forms a natural boundary on the growth of for-profit corporations.

    Now, here's the important part: this natural growth-limitation boundary simply DOES NOT EXIST in non-profits and government orgs, other than as a reaction point where stakeholders quit funding at all.

    Combine with the Iron Law and you see where I'm headed. Gov't orgs grow until/unless stopped. Since the governing stakeholders are themselves public officials who benefit from the growth of their orgs, the tendency is to grow until the taxpayers revolt, and even then to retain the org's power even if it serves no useful purpose for the funders, namely the taxpayers.

    Just something to remember.

  7. That sounds so true to me that I feel like I've already known it for a long time, I just couldn't explain it with such detail? Ever get that feeling about something? If you have, then you know it's a really high compliment.

    What's really elucidating to me from an "estimating truth" point of view is that it doesn't insist on the deification of the private in contrast to the demonization of the public. Instead, it says that corporations have a minimal responsiveness in an aspect of organizational behavior where gov't/NP orgs really don't have any. I totally buy that.

    Scalzi made the primary point that anthropomorphizing corps is silly, and that ascribing human qualities to them obscures serious analysis. (Quite true.) Corps are not people.

    Oh I agree. What seems true to me is that corporations exhibit patterns of behavior, and that those patterns flow from the nature of their construction. As Pirsig described it, he talked about it as form of evolution or another level of it. Maybe that sounds overgrand, but when I read the whole bit it made a ton of sense. Another analogy he used was that of software operating on top of hardware. Stuff operating at the software level operates on many imperatives that are not related to the hardware. So photoshop cares about rendering the drawing more than it does about file size or memory gobble (or used to, anyway).

    Anyway, the point is that these big orgs are overlaid on top of us, exist because of us, would cease without us because they are constructed of us, but develop imperatives geared to help them thrive. The org layer serves the thriving of the people layer only insofar as it benefits the org layer.

    IOW, what Pournelle said. LOL.

    BTW, do considering giving Greenfingers a try.

  8. I will, in my copious spare time ... :-D

    Pirsig's revelation was nothing new, but it's something I always try to pass on. Namely that organic* systems behave in organic fashion, not in deterministic/mechanistic ones. They adapt to their environments, for example. How many times have you heard me say that human economies are organic systems? That this is a, if not THE, prime reason that mechanistic modeling of economies goes awry when it attempts to project conditional effects past the short term or intermediate term?

    In any case, with the profit paradox it means the difference between an org "maximizing shareholder value" not in the terms of greatest return on investment for shareholders (or taxpayers!), but in terms of overall gross org profit at or above the ROI required to not have the stock sell off. Because that's the level that maximizes returns to management.

    [*--by organic I mean systems composed at base level of living organisms]

  9. Right. Return to management. I've noticed that as public ownership becomes more diffuse, a corp becomes less responsive. By contrast, powerful privately held companies often undertake strategies with longer-term efficacy, because essentially there is no conflict....management and shareholder are essentially the same, or see eye to eye.

    Maybe Pirsig was the first one to point all this out to me and that's why I remember it.

    People with overweening faith in mechanistic modeling? You can't really tell them anything, can you? All you can do is hope that they'll be paying attention when the world sends the message.