How much of the interest in high speed rail comes from a need for rapid intercity transit and how much is a nostalgic dream of the steam whistle?
Rochester and Buffalo have joined the city pairs lobbying for high speed rail service. Boston to Washington is the only corridor where it’s proven in the United States. San Francisco and Los Angeles are trying. What all those cities have in common is high population density and a proven airline market.
What’s the deal between Rochester and Buffalo?
These two cities are 74 miles apart on I-90 (the New York State Thruway). The car ride takes an hour and quarter. High speed rail, if it were to be built, would reduce travel time to 20 minutes. Twenty minutes is not the time a commuter uses to calculate travel choices, but door-to-door. First you drive to the station at one end, park, and check in. At the other end you get an Uber, board the light rail, or catch a bus. It’s not likely you save any time on any conceivable rail trip. The automobile is the better choice. For those who don’t have cars, Megabus, Greyhound, and Trailways offer service starting at $8.00. The buses don’t seem to be making a fortune; there are only about eight departures a day.
Let’s do the numbers
It’s costing California $56 million per km to put in HSR. The cost for the New York run would be $5.8 billion. The combined populations of Rochester and Buffalo is 470,000. The cost per person would be $12,000.
Nostalgia for the steam whistle
Amtrak offers service between Buffalo and Rochester already — four times a day. A check with Amtrak would likely show less than a bus full of passengers each day.
There was regular commuter rail service between Rochester and Buffalo from 1874 to 1955. It is no coincidence that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) shut down the service just after the Thruway opened in 1954.
Rail has a romantic ring. Â For some, it is a safe and carefree mode of travel that harkens to the old days. Environmentalists describe its small carbon footprint. Unfortunately, the numbers support neither, not on this route.
Build it and they will come.
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter describes the benefit of Rochester residents being able to commute to SolarCity in Buffalo and Buffalo residents being able to commute to AIM Photonics in Rochester. There are lots of jobs in Buffalo to be sure, but the example given, SolarCity, plans 1,500 positions. AIM Photonics will hire 850. Neither of these employers is relevant to an investment in high speed rail. Â It sounds like a gratuitous reference to an industrial development success, not a justification for a rail line.
The New York State Thruway Authority could tell you exactly how many passenger vehicles travel between Rochester and Buffalo each day.
Inevitably, the argument for high speed rail will talk about the opportunities a rail link would provide to Batavia, NY, a town of 15,000 midway betwixt the two cities. This is the same rationale that California used to route its HSR through the Central Valley.
What would help the two cities more would be a high-speed link with New York. Â That 300 mile trip, 1:20, would be directly competitive with commercial air service. There are 16 departures a day from New York to Rochester, 22 to Buffalo.
Success of other mass-transit projects
Buffalo commissioned a 16-mile light rail system in 1986. It recovers 23% of its operating cost from fares (farebox recovery). In short, 77% of the cost of light rail in Buffalo is underwritten by taxpayers.
Rochester runs only buses and paratransit. It does not report farebox recovery (as defined by the Federal Transit Administration), but cash fares including Welfare to Work transfers represent 13% of operating expense.
Besides the capital investment, rail is saddled with federally-mandated labor rules that make it particularly expensive. The Federal Railway Administration is proposing to require two engineers on trains. It’s a retrograde step, like requiring a navigator on an airliner.
The best indicator of the likely success of the rout is Amtrak, which already operates service between Rochester and Buffalo. According to the GAO, Amtrak’s accounting is spotty. It runs three different businesses. The Northeast Corridor service between Boston and Washington makes about $480 million a year. It runs long distance trains and state-subsidized lines. On these two businesses, it loses $600 million per year. It brags that its farebox recovery ratio is 80%. It is difficult however to reconcile this with the audited annual reports. What this happy talk ignores is that when the Northeast Corridor is excluded, the farebox recovery ratio is less than 40%. Government is already underwriting more than 60% of train service in the region.
The Department of Transportation definition of farebox recovery ratio is fares divided by operating expenses, which do not include capital expenditures. Farebox recovery ratio therefore overstates the contribution riders make. Conversely, it understates government subsidy to each ticket.
Lessons from Amtrak.
If Amtrak, already on the Rochester to Buffalo route, saw an opportunity to add service and recover more than 40%, it probably would have done so.
Amtrak jumped into high speed rail when it bought the Acela from France. After Amtrak delivered US standards for railcars, the weight of the French train doubled. The Alstom engineers called Acela cochon (pig). The California High Speed Rail Authority is about to go through the same wringer.
Happy talk, not likely to go anywhere
Rep Slaughter (87) (D-NY) and Rep Brian Higgins (D-NY) got some press from their support of high speed rail between Rochester and Buffalo. It makes sense, both Trump and Clinton have announced their support for infrastructure spending. If the last few years’ voting history in Congress is any indication, there won’t be an extra $6 billion for a new train in Upstate New York.