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train in vain

By enelson
Tuesday, April 15th, 2008 at 6:31 pm in Amtrak, Bicycling, Buses, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Carpooling, connectivity, driving, Environment, fuel, global warming, rail, Transit vs. driving.


On my way home last night, I fancied that I was going to blog about the latest bit of transportation research to come out of the Cato Institute, an inside-the-Beltway limited-government think-tank.

I was going to write about the study, Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse Emissions?, as I quaffed a $4.50 micro-brew on the Capitol Corridor. If you know anything about the Cato Institute, you can probably guess what it says: 

Far from protecting the environment, most rail transit lines use more energy per passenger mile, and many generate more greenhouse gases, than the average passenger automobile. Rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.

While most rail transit uses less energy than buses, rail transit does not operate in a vacuum: transit agencies supplement it with extensive feeder bus operations. Those feeder buses tend to have low ridership, so they have high energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile. The result is that, when new rail transit lines open, the transit systems as a whole can end up consuming more energy, per passenger mile, than they did before.

This will be some comfort to regular readers of this blog, at least those who believe that rail transit, commuter rail in particular, is on par, if you will, with whites-only country clubs of pre-1970s suburbia.

I was all set to set up my laptop on a little fold-down table and spend my first hour on the train writing what I thought of this study and its results. Then I was going to pedal home from the train station and post that essay and wait for you to respond.

But that’s not what happened.

On the way to writing that post, I lost all objectivity about rail commuting, and the Capitol Corridor in particular.

I’m not a prompt person, as my editor and the IRS already know, but yesterday I was determined to give myself a little breathing room in achieving my multi-modal commute. I made it past the security guard before 6:30 p.m., which means I didn’t have to sign out, even though I had taken time to check to learn that train #544 was projected to arrive at 6:46 — two minutes late.

Although I took a bit longer to get dolled up in my helmet, jacket and ski gloves against the chill evening air, I still had a good 10 minutes to ride to the station, a trip that normally takes about seven.

But long before I pedaled off on my 1.7- mile hop to the station, before I checked the railroad’s website, someone at the Capitol Corridor’s customer information office received an advisory from Amtrak. That was at 6:16 p.m., I learned 90 minutes later.

All I could see, however, were two very discouraging messages. The first one, which was flashing on the message board above the platform as soon as I arrived at 6:42, was that train congestion was delaying trains between Richmond and Martinez. Another message said it was because of a trespasser incident, in other words, someone killed by a train.

I called one of my colleagues to find out if they knew about the incident, and was told that it had happened several hours earlier and was an apparent suicide. After trying to add up all the people who had been killed by trains recently in the Bay Area, I determined that I need to write about this. I also determined that the trains might actually be moving again.

The other message appeared about 10 minutes after I arrived at the Oakland Coliseum station. It said that a disabled train was causing delays for my train between Great America and Fremont. As far as my prospects of getting home on the train were concerned, this was more troubling.

I called the Capitol Corridor’s new automated information line. It told that my train had already departed Coliseum. Thanks, guys.

At this point, I noticed that the only other passenger waiting for the train at Coliseum had also called, but had waited to speak to an actual person. We began chatting and I asked if he had learned anything. A freight train had gotten stuck, somehow across both sets of tracks, and everything was blocked.

Normally, such news would have prompted me to switch to Plan B, which is to jump on BART, take it to Lake Merritt and pedal to the safety and climate-control of Jack London Square. If it appears the train will be delayed for hours, there’s also Plan C, which is to pedal back to work and take my car home.

Plan C is particularly annoying. I’m certainly not suffering like my fellow commuters who don’t have a car handy, but I’m paying another $20 for gas and toll and my monthly train pass (which works out to nearly $20 a workday) at the same time. If I’m lucky, the Corridor will offer a discount some later month to atone for the inconvenience, and maybe free wine and cheese on the train.

But now I had come to find out that my fellow traveler, an accountant named Steve who lives in Sacramento, was completely at the mercy of the train. Not only that, but he’d not expected the chilly evening, and was shivering as we kvetched about our love-hate relationship with the railroad.

An hour past time for the train to arrive, and I found myself calling an actual person at the Capitol Corridor’s info line. She told me again about the stalled freight train. I asked if she had any indication when it would be cleared up, and she revealed that her last “update” had come at 6:16 p.m. The time was 7:44 p.m.

So I finally jumped on my bike, started pedaling and Steve hollers at me, “The train’s coming!” I curved back around, rode up onto the platform, and sure enough, there was a bright, single light shining in the dusk, about a half-mile down the tracks.

But then it went dark. We puzzled over this for another 10 minutes, and I tucked in my pant leg again and set off back to work.

A simple plan. I was going to pedal the 1.7 miles back to the parking lot, lock up my bike on the bike rack, and drive back to the station and pick up Steve, whose wife would come pick him up from my quiet Central Valley enclave.

My plans always seem simple on paper. After I locked the bike, I decided I need to make a pit stop in the office building, so I parked the car out front. As I was getting out, seeming gale-force winds pulled the door out of my hand and whipped it into the car next to mine.

The car was dented and I was mortified. I went inside, visited the bathroom, and got a Post-it from the guard to write my name and number down for the driver of the — get this — navy blue Infiniti connected to the door I had just dented.

By the time I got back to the station, Steve still hadn’t got any new information on the train. It was about 8:25 at this point. When he got into the car, he was in one of those stick-your-fingers-in-the-heating-vents conditions. I blasted the heat, directed all the vents in his direction and we were nearly in Crockett before he was ready to let me adjust the heat to something normal.

When I got home, I went online and found that the train had come 2 hours and 17 minutes late. We were ahead of it by an hour an hopefully, Steve still has feeling in all of his fingers and toes.

So I never got to sit on the train and write about the Cato study. Now I can’t, not without injecting my perspective with an unhealthy dose of bias or even malice (there, I said it).

Speaking of numbness, it appears that if I leave now, I might get the station without having to break a sweat…

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14 Responses to “train in vain”

  1. Reedman Says:

    CC – perhaps you need to put together a “Plan D” for extra-bad commute days. Is hitchhiking a viable option?

    Having a warm, enclosed place to wait for the train would encourage more people to use it. Unfortunately, the Bay Area homeless population would likely use it as well. The longest bus run in the South Bay, and the only 24 hour one, is #22, which runs from southeast San Jose to Palo Alto. During the winter, it is sometimes referred to “Hotel #22″ because of the people riding it continuously.

  2. murphstahoe Says:

    CC – I feel for you, and the ACE riders. The Corridor is horribly unreliable from my experience, and ACE only slightly better. My problem with Caltrain is that if I am 1 minute late, I’m waiting for the next train.

    Caltrain has better overall facilities than the Corridor, where the Corridor is single tracked any problem blows the system apart completely. The only thing that causes untolerable delays on Caltrain is when Caltrain hits a car that must be extracted from the rails.

    Hopefully the way the tides are rolling in the US the will to change that situation will appear. One could only dream of the day when they decide to add a 2nd track and decide it must be done at Macarthur Maze speed. My personal hope is that the current climate will result in a slam dunk passage for the SMART rail in Sonoma/Marin.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    MT, there is some help on the way, in the form of Prop 1B-boosted projects that will open up a bottleneck in Martinez and smaller projects that will add crossovers so that trains can more easily pass each other.

    As for waiting for the next train, in the evening that means waiting as much as 80 minutes. The great thing about Caltrain is that it runs so frequently (although I base that upon a lazy assumption, not the schedule).

    As for “trespasser” incidents or hitting cars, they can certainly screw things up, as one did on Tuesday. In my case, that had pretty much cleared up and it was a freight problem that forced me to drive and nearly froze my fellow commuter.

    On a final note, I don’t mind sharing Jack London Square Station with the differently-housed, as long as it’s lit, it’s climate-controlled and there are people working behind the counter. You find all manner of humanity skulking about behind the Coliseum and nobody to mediate between them and the commuters.

  4. MikeD Says:

    Will you be analyzing the Cato piece at any point in the future? They tend to overlook simple flaws, although this time I think they missed one that helps their argument- that commuter rail forces freight rail onto roads which increases emissions (possibly by a lot more than what optimistic estimates say you reduce by putting people on a train).

    Anyway your being upset with the train shouldn’t make you think the train emits more or less greenhouse gas.

  5. MikeOnBike Says:

    MikeD says: “commuter rail forces freight rail onto roads”

    Can you elaborate? UP generally doesn’t let ACE and CapCor run more trains until they pay for capacity improvements.

  6. MikeD Says:

    I don’t know that the argument is correct, but I have heard it before- that more commuter trains displace freight. Capitols be a poor example because the route is still quite freight-oriented.

    The argument I hear is that less freight can run when there are more commuter trains on a line. It makes intuitive sense.

    Since posting, I took a bit more of a look at the CATO piece and reviewed a couple sources for statements that seem intuitively false. The sources are not all that great, and some citations are deceptive. For example, the statement that BART is the only system that creates a net benefit to social welfare, well, the source excludes New York from it’s figures, but CATO doesn’t mention that in the paper or the footnote.

    Given this, I am a little surprised that they didn’t find some source that says the thing about freight rail. The reason the freight rail issue matters is because freight rail has a giant advantage compared with trucking as far as GHG emissions are concerned. So displacing freight from rail to road substantially increases emissions.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    The point that the Cato study makes might also be applied to freight: Unless the cargo’s destination has a rail spur, you need trucks to take it from the rail line to its destination.

    That’s not quite as bad as commuter rail, however, because we’re talking about longer distances for freight. Commuter rail does require feeder bus routes in areas where ridership is low.

    On the other hand, a lot of commuter rail passengers drive to the station, which doesn’t help the Cato study. The bottom line there is that those cars are driving a much shorter distance because of commuter rail, they’re not sitting in traffic, and those things make a big difference.

  8. MikeD Says:

    Other thoughts on CATO:

    1. Passenger miles for ferry boats is not a very good comparison. Ferry boats can travel less miles to get between two locations (though I guess Oakland to SF may be an exception, but the perfect example is Staten Island to Manhattan).

    2. CATO seems to imply that you can apply averages to make decisions on future expansions. This is a mistake- expansions/new construction should consider marginal effects, not existing averages.

    3. CATO seems to suggest that the primary problem with transit is low ridership, and otherwise it can have substantial gains. Sounds like a case for Congestion pricing funding transit as a push-pull mechanism.

    4. CATO barely touches on promoting dense development. CATO suggests that development near transit ends up subsidized, but doesn’t say anything about whether that development is fulfilling demand (given the substantially higher prices to live near transit, it appears there is a shortage of supply). Additionally, density reduces total vehicle miles traveled, which would in turn reduce emissions and costs.

  9. Reedman Says:

    SoCal was able to rationalize spending $2.4 billion to put 20 miles of multi-track freight-only rail in a trench (Long Beach and LA are the two busiest ports in the USA). By replacing 200 grade crossings with highway overpasses, the trains move faster, the automobiles don’t wait at crossing gates, the ports connect better with the rest of the rail network, the money came from a wide variety of sources, and everyone is happier. It opened in 2002, and is called the Alameda Corridor.

  10. Hayden Says:

    Rail-freight vs. Road-freight

    Here and there I’ve had the chance to work with some Bay Area freight-by-rail shippers that are among the largest of the rail companies’ customers. Staff have complained of poor treatment by the rail companies–inexact pickup and delivery dates, long delivery times, etc. Given those kinds of comments, while there might be a theoretical case to be made for pax rail displacing freight rail, in the practical sense, I’d think that could be noise compared to inefficient operation of the rail companies.

    That is, if the rail companies are operating far below their optimal logistical efficiency for routing freight shipments, then it may be somewhat beside the point to consider the effects of pax rail.

  11. david vartanoff Says:

    about freight/pass conflicts and reliability. The several majors RRs are all mega merged outfits who yhave in the main concentrated their operations on a few roues seriously reducing throughput capacity. While industry/retail are interested in “just in time” RRs cannot/will not provide timely service with very few exceptions–last fall I toured a huge printing operation in WVa who receive inbound paper and inks by rail but NEVER ship out their finished products because the RR can’t move them fast enough. Naturally tthe same RR whinges whenever a commuter agency or Amtrak wants more train slots and demands taxpayer money to restore capacity upgrades they have removed in the last four decades of merger/downsizing.

  12. Hayden Says:

    The Cato study has some significant faults, a few of which are commented on below:

    1. It considers, for comparative purposes, one of the more efficient cars as compared to extant rail projects–but the auto fleet composition is hardly all-Prius, nor should we suppose that significant efficiency improvements would not be achievable for transit;

    2. Similarly, the energy consuption numbers used appear to be average numbers–yet they are affected by various factors, including rail line congestion/highway traffic jams and similar issues. Passenger vehicles may look much worse during peak use “rush hour” times, simply because the cars are idling in traffic for long periods. Yet it’s not clear that the paper attempted to consider these impacts. (they are considered qualitatively in the paper’s discussions about benefits by improving traffic signal timing–but such benefits hardly preclude obtaining additional benefits from transit).

    3. It doesn’t consider the effects of post-WWII land use patterns, and similarly doesn’t consider how changes in land-use policy might affect transportation patterns and reshape energy use. Why not take a look at Western European models that almost require greater reliance on rail travel within certain regions? Similarly, the article accepts as gospel the claim that fixing congestion will not result in growth-inducing impacts. That might be true if there was a strong connection between land use planning and regional transportation planning, but not in this country, sister!

    4. Similarly, the article looks at a declining trend over time in transit trips as a percentage of overall trips, but appears to do this within the context of growing metropolitan areas that increasingly require single-vehicle trips (which are, of course, heavily subsidized). The point the article is making is to say “transit is ineffective, people don’t use it, why are we doing it” but the actual point might be more “transit is losing ground to single-vehicle trips.” It would be interesting to consider this question within a given fixed area, rather than within a changing landscape that on balance is becoming more car-centric.

    5. Infrastructure costs for passenger auto use don’t appear to be cited, although rail infrastructure costs are described as “huge,” whatever that means. Not cited are not only the standard police/pothole/lighting/repaving/bridge/earthquake retrofit/street sweeping/storm drain inlet cleaning O&M numbers for surface streets and highways, but also new freeway costs that exceeded $1 billion/mile in urban areas in the 1990s. The article’s citation of “huge” transit infrastructure costs thus lacks the comparative numbers for passenger auto use (Forget $7 billion to replace half of the Bay Bridge–$600+ million for minor improvements to Rte. 101 along the Sonoma Narrows, anyone?);

    6. The article states that lifetime of rail transit projects is 30-40 years, yet, for example, the Chicago el Green Line went 100 years until its first significant reconstruction.

  13. MikeD Says:

    Those all sound like things I thought as I read the CATO article (or should have thought).

    Additionally, I think CATO unintentionally lays the ground work for a stronger argument for electric-powered transit than they explicitly state. CATO argues that locking in current levels of energy and carbon intensity in long-lived trains sacrifices the opportunity to embrace more efficient technology in the future. I wouldn’t be shocked if, over the next few decades, the energy and carbon intensity of electric energy drops at a faster rate than energy and carbon intensity drops for autos. If one accepts this, it means electric trains are preferable to fuel-efficient cars (and even if it is not true, the opportunity for advances in electric generation, even if at a slower rate than autos, argues for electric transit rather than diesel.

  14. murphstahoe Says:

    This morning the Golden Gate Transit #72 from Santa Rosa at 5:48 AM had 3 empty seats. When I started riding it this bus was less than half full. I started riding on Monday Mornings FOUR MONTHS AGO. And this is a BUS – not a train which is seen as much more “seemly” transit. I predict that unless something changes quickly the SMART rail in Marin/Sonoma will win in a landslide, and be able to get Larkspur to stop being so petulant and let the train run right to the ferry building.

    Now, that train will require feeder lines – the current capacity problem as I see it for the GG Transit SR->SF lines is not going to be the number of seats on the bus. The problem is the available parking at the 3 stops (Piner, SR P&R, RP P&R) that have all day parking. The adjustment being made right now is “No parking, I guess I’ll just drive”. At $5, $6 per gallon those drivers will adjust further.

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