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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Amtrak

It infuriates me when the Cato institute uses Amtrak's subsidies as a protest against high speed rail (HSR). I've been to France. I've written the TGV. And now I've ridden Amtrak. And I can tell you, the two are as different as cheese and chalk*.

High speed rail in France operates like a steel-rail airplane. There are a couple of hubs where different lines meet, and the train goes full speed between those points, with few if any intermediate stops. It goes so fast that the landscape blurs. Paris to Nice was 578 miles, which took about 6 hours, giving it an average speed of about 96 miles per hour.

Riding Amtrak is like going on a cruise. It doesn't go very fast, because there is no reason to. It stops every hour, in tiny cities and towns all accross the U.S., letting a few people on, a few people off, letting people on the train get off and have a smoke. There is a dining car, and a viewing car, for watching the scenery slide by. It's pleasant, relaxed even, full of retired couples and college students. It took me 18 hours to travel 1000 miles, so it has an average speed of about 55 mph.

I've done a lot of road tripping, all over all parts of the west. Eleven hours to Phoenix or Seattle, twelve to Vancouver, BC, five hours to Las Vegas. On average, including bathroom breaks and maintaining a highway speed of about 85 mph, I figure I average about sixty miles an hour.

So, for me, it's never been worth it to take Amtrak. It just takes too long. Take, for example, San Francisco. A trip from SLC to SanFran on Amtrak would cost $180, and take 17 hours.

I could drive that in ten hours. It's about 600 miles, so at 30 mpg, that's 40 gallons of gas for the round-trip. Gas is running about $2.75 a gallon right now, so $110 for gas. 2/3 the time and 2/3 the price. No wonder Amtrak tries to compete on the basis of comfort and service--they clearly can't on speed or price!

But if you were to offer me a TGV equivalent... with an average speed of 96 mph, I'll call it a 6.5 hour trip. Faster than I can drive, with an on board bathroom, and an opportunity to sleep or read...I could get into that.

Flying clearly wins from a time perspective, but is a clear loser from a price persepective. If I fly Southwest, it would take about 5.5 hours. Half hour drive to the airport, half hour to check bags and clear security, four hour flight, half hour to get free from the airport. It would cost about $350 for the roundtrip.

Comparison
Amtrak: $180, 34 hours
Drive: $120, 20 hours
TGV Equiv: ???, 13 hours.
Southwest: $350, 11 hours.

This suggests is would be reasonable to pay a great deal of money to ride a high speed train. Certainly, $200 round trip would be more then reasonable.

Don't buy into the Cato Institute's bad noise.

*In fairness, Amtrak is far from a coherent whole--it's a whole mess of routes scattered all across the U.S., some of which (the Acela) are actually reasonable.