One thing some people, particularly those on the right, love to complain about is rail transportation. They hate trains, light rails, and so on. The reason is because it’s usually quite highly subsidized by government. For example, Dr. Banaian, quoting the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, says the Northstar line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis is costing us taxpayers $42 million annually to operate. That’s “when you take into account the amortized $317 million capital costs.” (To correct the FFM, the real number would be $38.5 million, because fares cover 21% of the 16.8 operating costs.) The reason is because fares cannot cover all of the cost, so taxpayers must subsidizes the difference. Therefore, rail should be abandoned. Since it’s not possible without government assistance, we should reject rail transport and complain when it’s subsidized.
That might be true enough, but no one bothers to take the next logic step, which would be to condemn other federally or locally subsidized modes of transport. In particular, they seem to ignore the fact that traveling by road is the most highly subsidized mode of transportation. For decades, auto manufacturers have been getting bailouts from the government, because they simply can’t survive in a free market. The biggest form of subsidization, however, comes from the construction of roadways. Road travel is only possible because of the production of these roads. Yet, everyone loves to complain about trains, not roads.
By the way, that’s all very purposeful. If we go back to what is perhaps the largest engineering and logistics project in human history—the interstate highway system, undertaken by one of the Republicans’ favorite heroes, President Eisenhower—it was a very deliberate government-financed displacement of the rail system. Rail used to be the dominant mode of transportation in the U.S. at one time, but that was put to end by automobile interests, which were attended to by the government. So, if we want to look at the history of it even closer, you’ll see a history of conspiracy–by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks, and the Federal Engineering Corporation–which was meant to subvert the rail system for the conspirators’ interests (namely road transportation). It was literally a conspiracy, and they were were convicted. Government took over, and now that’s why suburbanization and road transportation have completely transformed the American landscape. All very purposeful and completely reliant upon the government. That’s one reason why if you compare the United States to Europe, transportation is completely different, and the reason why European transport is so much more efficient. That’s if you want to be honest about it.
When you actually bother to look at the numbers, rail is much more efficient than road travel. One reason is the fact that rail can carry so many more people than roads. For example, a typical freeway expansion costs about $20 million per mile for both directions. Several light rails have been built for less, but the typical cost is about $35 million per mile. At the same time, however, a light rail line can carry up to 20,000 people per hour, compared to a freeway lane’s 2,400 people per hour. So rails can carry a considerable amount more people than roads can. Thus, the cost per person carried can be significantly less for rail than it is road. The Transportation Research Board of the National Academies has done a considerable amount of research in this area. In our cause, the Northstar line was created with less than $8 million per mile, much less than half the cost of upgrading existing highways.
There are other benefits as well. Besides the enormous cost inefficiency of roads themselves, vehicles to drive on roads cost a considerable amount of money in addition to the costs required to maintain and operate them. These costs become even more exacerbated for people with disabilities who need to buy modified vehicles. Disabled people pay the same price (or even reduced prices) as people who are not disabled to ride the light rail. It’s no surprise that transportation costs are the second highest cost a household incurs after housing costs. The same study shows that households that use public transportation save a significant amount money than those that do not. Rail is also safer than road transportation. Light rails are quieter, less disturbing, experience network efficiency effects, increase local property values (highways have the opposite effect), and increase mobility for people unable to drive (e.g. youngsters, the disabled, or people too poor to afford driving). Critically, rail transport eliminates or reduces many externalities associated with driving, chief among them being pollution. Light rail has the potential to be many times more energy efficient than driving, which reduces pollution, including the emissions of greenhouse gases that associated with global warming (which has been described as the “greatest market failure ever“). Rail transport can also reduce congestion, which is another common externality associated with driving.
In all, it seems as if those who complain about rails really ought to be focusing their attention on road transport. Not only is it more highly subsidized by the government, it is also much less efficient in almost every respect.