SEPTA Bus, Go Phillies

The buses in Philadelphia pass across Broad Street flashing route numbers and the ubiquitous “GO PHILLIES!” but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a strike by the transit workers may be impending.  The Transport Workers Local Union 234 – which represents the bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics – voted to strike as early as the end of the week.  The workers, who have been without a contract since the spring are prepared to strike just as the World Series, featuring the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees, would begin.  It would be ironic for the buses to stop flashing their cheerleading signs just as the team they support would most need the fans who ride the buses.

The impasse is over how much the workers should be paid (isn’t it always?):

Management has proposed a zero wage increase for the first two years of a new four-year contract, with 2 percent increases each in the final two years. It also wants to increase contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent; and to freeze the level of pension benefits to members.

The union wants a wage increase of 4 percent each year, and an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

I am no expert on collective bargaining or SEPTA’s finances, but I hope this comes to a peaceful resolution for the residents of Philadelphia who depend on their public transportation system. My personal opinion is limited to the fact that transit workers generally are compensated rather well for a job that by-and-large requires no real skills to apply for.  This is not true for mechanics and sheet metal workers, but drivers and operators are usually trained on the job.  Every worker deserves a living wage, but those workers also must honestly assess the finances of the businesses they work for.

Of course, as the Transport Politic has illustrated so well, if they strike, this will not be the first time SEPTA workers have done so.  In fact, they have done so in 1944, 1998 and as recently as 2005.  So I trust the good citizens of the city of brotherly love will cope should they need to.

SEPTA is not the only transit organization with worker issues, as VIA Rail in Canada is also engaging in contract talks with its unionized workers.

As usual, Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic was much more thorough and mathematically ruthless in a topic I once considered.  Today he too wrote about the cost of high speed rail to the passenger (part 2) and how much fares should cost.  While I will provide excerpts of his post here, I highly recommend clicking the link to read his full essay for the mathematical detail and his graphical comparisons.  The following are some of the juiciest excerpts regarding Amtrak, Acela, the future of high speed rail and comparison to foreign high speed rail services.

On cost per hour:

But Amtrak’s problems are not due to the fact that it is particularly inefficient in the Northeast. The fares it demands per hour of travel are roughly on par with those charged by foreign rail operators. The American rail system’s problem, rather, is that its trains are too slow in general, increasing labor, maintenance, and operations costs. If U.S. rail services are to be successful in attracting customers at reasonable prices, in other words, one way to do so would be to offer services at higher speeds.

… Peer experience on specific high-speed routes demonstrates just how expensive Amtrak’s Acela trains are. Acela rides cost more than $0.35 a kilometer, compared to $0.20 for Milan-Bologna trains in Italy or $0.08 for Paris-Lyon trains in France.

On passenger capacity:

These issues are compounded by the relatively low capacity of the system’s existing trains — Northest Regional trains offer 5-9 passenger cars and Acela trainsets all have 5 seating cars. In 2007 and 2008, Amtrak was frequently selling out trains, and with no room to expand, the organization had an incentive to increase prices, especially since commuters on the Northeast Corridor subsidize rides on other parts of the system. Amtrak’s Acela trains have a capacity of 303 riders. Two French TGV Duplex trains coupled together can carry 1,024 passengers. The ability to move more people in one trainset allows for operational efficiencies — and, as a result, cheaper tickets for those who make it onto the train.

On future transit consumption:

If American high-speed services offered similar prices for time traveled as Amtrak does today — at $45 per hour of running time for standard fares and $15 at reduced prices — on faster trains, U.S. commuters would switch to rail in droves. The San Francisco-Los Angeles route being planned by the State of California, with a travel time of 2h40, would cost $40 for reduced-price tickets and $120 for standard fares; those costs seem perfectly acceptable for just about everyone. A renewed Northeast Corridor, offering travel between New York and Washington in 1h40 (at an average of 220 km/h), would cost $25 for customers buying reduced-price fares. People currently driving their own cars or riding buses between the cities would take a second look at those prices.

All of these points are valuable.  Any American who justifies any opinion regarding  high speed rail based on Acela experience is deluded.  Acela has a multitude of problems technologically (see the pantograph problem), logistically (sharing tracks), with funding and with the basic direction of the line (not enough straight track to reach speed).  However, that does not mean high speed rail in America cannot be efficient, appropriately priced for the American transportation consumer, and a boon to Americans and cities.  Freemark has masterfully shown how better systems can actually keep prices down while attracting more passengers.

Tokyo_train

Yonah Freemark (of the Transport Politic, see my blogroll) posted a fantastic cumulative response to Edward Glaeser’s lackluster and academically dishonest essays on high speed rail at the Infrastructurist.  Freemark performed the first comprehensive analysis that incorporated real data.  He challenged Glaeser’s basic assumption and his calculations.  Here is the data Freemark used in pdf format.

Here are some of the highlights from Freemark’s insightful and devastating response to Glaeser.

Number of users

Glaeser argues that a Houston-Dallas line would be roughly one-half as popular, relative to population, as the current slow Amtrak service is in the Northeastern Corridor. His reasoning is that both Dallas and Houston are less transit-friendly areas, and therefore less conducive to train travel. So, assuming a 50 percent lower per capita ridership rate, he comes up with 1.5 million annual customers for the line – this is similar to the number of people who currently fly directly between the two cities.

There are a number of major flaws with this approach though. First, while transit-friendly conditions are desirable – and it bears mention that both Dallas and Houston are expanding their transit systems significantly – there is little evidence those networks are vital in attracting customers to high-speed rail.

Carbon Emissions

The reduction in carbon emissions from people choosing not to drive cars or fly airplanes would be quite significant – especially if the rail system is powered by renewable energy. These savings are particularly evident on the very short flights on this corridor, such as from College Station to Houston or from Waco to Dallas, which could be replaced entirely with rail service.

Glaeser argues the power plants that produce the electricity used by high-speed trains would produce significant carbon emissions, reducing the environmental gain from switching away from air or car travel.

Yet he fails to account for the green potential of an electric rail line: it can operate without releasing any carbon at all. California, which is developing a 220 mph line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has pledged to run its trains with electricity obtained only from carbon-neutral sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Texas could make the same commitment and dramatically expand the environmental benefits of the high-speed system. Texas is uniquely positioned to build such facilities, too – its western and northern sections are sunny, windy, and sparsely populated.

Assumptions about where a line is built

Rather than looking at Glaeser’s hypothetical 240-mile rail line directly and exclusively between Dallas and Houston, I’ll base my argument on a line actually under consideration called the Texas T-Bone that would run roughly 300 miles between the cities, with intermediate stops at Waco, Temple, and College Stations. For simplicity’s sake, in this piece I’ll ignore the roughly 140-mile proposed extension of the line south to Austin and San Antonio but factor in connecting slow-speed trains from those locales.

Senatorial Transport Index 09

As per usual, the Transport Politic has provided an innovative insight into the world of transportation.  This week he has developed a Senatorial Transport Index for 2009, measuring how progressive senators are regarding transportation issues.  For further explanation of how these ratings were measured you should click on the link to get the breakdown of what votes were measured.

What is interesting to me is the curious correlation or lack thereof of votes to urban density.  I understand the role of party affiliation and how that affects the votes of various senators, but states with high urban density are most likely to get federal public transit funding, especially regarding high speed rail.  It makes all the sense in the world that the senators from Wyoming do not support such funding, but that the senators from Texas are lukewarm is odd; especially given that the state is home to three of the eight largest cities in the country (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio) and six of the 21 largest.  The truly perplexing state is Arizona, given that 81.4% of it’s population lives in the Phoenix and Tuscon metropolitan areas.  However, Phoenix is built on the American dream of sprawl, roads and now foreclosure.  At the same time, only politics can explain the “good” behavior of the senators from Montana, Vermont and West Virginia.  Although we can all hope that senators truly have the nation’s best interest at heart and realize that what is good for the country may be good for their constituents, even if the money does not flow directly.

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