The Train Has Left The Station

I’ve written this before; I’m no anti-rail zealot.  I can see cases where rail transit can make sense.   I can see ery, very hypothetical case where some sort of rail line from Minnesapolis to, say, the southwestern suburbs might actually make sense; it’d take people from where they are (the bedroom suburbs, the inner city) and take them to where they want to go (commuter jobs in the city, all the jobs blooming in the ‘burbs).

I did say hypothetical.  Right?  Because that is as close as any of these projects ever gets to breaking even in a normal human lifetime.

The big case for “commuter rail” lines like the Big-Lake-to-Minneapolis Northstar Line – which differs from “light rail” in using regular rail tracks and right of way  - was that, given a few conditions, it could theoretically get to “revenue neutral” relatively quickly.  Theoretically.

The conditions:

  • No buying and rebuilding of right of way.
  • Buying used, or at least relatively inexpensive, rolling stock.
  • Building austere stations.
  • Having lots and lots and lots of riders.

These conditions, of course, are grossly offensive to Commuter Rail’s biggest stakeholders – the Urban Planning mafia.  Rights of way need to be built to further the grand sweeping visions they have (building the line all the way to Target Center), or to show the people who’s boss (the Central Corridor, which is rapidly turning Saint Paul into Cold War Berlin); used rolling stock seems faintly plebeian for fulfilling grand visions, plus the various transit consultants have to scratch the backs of the equipment vendors; urban planners must also build all stations to be monuments to their, and their patrons’, wisdom.

And as rail lines have shown over and over, people just don’t like to be herded into cars to be driven down a fixed route that may only incidentally match their own, if at all.  And usually for higher cost.  They stay away in droves.

And with the Northstar, that is apparently what they are doing:

While views vary widely over the wisdom of constructing Minnesota’s firstcommuter rail line, just about everyone agrees the number of riders for the first year of Northstar service fell far short of expectations— 20 percent and 185,000 riders short.

And that hits us all in the pocketbook.  Because the trains burn the same amount of diesel, and use the same amount of union labor, whether they’re half full or completely empty.

Guess what they are now?

When ridership comes up short, so do taxpayers, who were already expected to subsidize 79 percent of Northstar’s $16.8 million operating costs—before the shortfall. Passenger ticket sales were projected to pay for 21 percent of the cost of train rides, an operating deficit of more than $1 million per month.

Let’s chew on that figure for a moment.

The Northstar costs between $3.25 and $8 a ride; figuring an average of $6 a ride, that means the taxpayer is paying $20-24 for each passenger ride.  (Even at the lowest rate, we’re paying $13 per ride).

That’s on top of the $4 per ride we pay for every single ticket on the Hiawatha Light Rail – which is likely to be about half what we pay per ride on the Central Corridor.

And it’s getting worse:

But we already know that Northstar’s projected operating costs for 2011 will put even more of a strain on taxpayers to pick up the slack. Metro Transit lowered its projected number of passengers for 2011 by 147,000 riders, some 16 percent under its 2010 goal. As a result, Metro Transit raised the amount of its projected taxpayer subsidy to operate Northstar in 2011 to 84 percent, some 5 percent more than its 2010 goal.

You do the math.  Or I will; that $24 subsidy for a $6 ticket will grow to $30-36.  Per ticket.  Every ticket. Until such time as people decide they’d love to be jammed into metal tubes to go to work in a city where, by the way, most of us don’t work.

In 2011, Metro Transit hopes to attract 750,000 Northstar riders, about 40,000 more passengers than in 2010. Compared to last year’s less than expected passenger numbers, Northstar has posted modest increases in riders so far in 2011.

With fewer overall passengers expected to ride the rail service this year, Northstar’soperating budgetwas projected to decline slightly from $16.8 in 2010 to $16.5 million this year. Given the lower number of expected riders, ticket sales are expected to cover just $2.64 million of Northstar’s operating costs.

A rail system is one of those things that the Urban Planning mafia likes to call a characteristic of a “world class metro area”.

Apparently “world class” means “waste money like a crack whore with a stolen Platinum card”.

18 thoughts on “The Train Has Left The Station

  1. ridership is down because gas is so cheap, which is Bush’s fault. Haliburton!

    Er, no, wait. Okay, ridership is down because nobody has a job to commute to, because of Bush’s recession that Democrats inherited.

  2. I’ve always wondered at the moronic attachment to a 19th century technology here in the 21st century. Maybe we can all start using a horse & buggy for our commute. Think of all the street sweeper jobs that would create!

  3. Control, Kermit. When you ride a train, they control where and when you go. When you drive a car, you make your own choices of where you go and when you go there. Riding any form of mass transit should cause any liberty loving person to break out in hives.

    The ONLY thing trains are good for is moving product from Mfg. to seller.

  4. Well, trains ARE the best technology, 19th century or no, for quite a few things. Specifically moving bulk goods down a fixed path; rails trade flexibility for efficiency (rolling resistance on rails is extremely low, which is the big tradeoff for the fact that you can’t intentionally steer them). Trains are by far the cheapest, most efficient way to move bulk goods from Point A to Point C down Path B. The cost per ton per mile is very low, once you get the infrastructure built.

    People are not bulk goods – or, to be more accurate (since in a sense they used to be, back when people commuted from a fixed neighborhood to a fixed factory for generations at a time), in the new economy they and their commuting patterns are less fixed and predictable than, say, lumber or car engines or wheat.

    If people still commuted from a mile around one train station to a mile around another one, trains would make perfect sense (once the infrastructure is paid off). But they don’t. And the orgy of train building is basically government trying to re-impose the past.

  5. That’s what this whole “what’s an energy policy?” thing is about: prodding you into the tubes.

  6. “People are not bulk goods”

    Not so fast, Mitch! They are in the eyes of the Nazis over at the Met Council!

    Come to think of it, that’s how the DFL views us peons, too!

  7. Mitch is right; passenger rail was a great idea, at least until recently, when Henry Ford, Karl Benz, the Wright Brothers, and Rudolf Diesel came along.

    About a century ago. It’s telling that rail is subsidized even where they have the population density and well organized cities to “make it work,” and in those cities (e.g. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Berlin, etc.), it often takes an hour to get the ten miles or so to work.

    About 2/3 the speed of riding one’s bicycle at a good clip.

  8. The end game is the death of the Eeeevil automobile and all that damned freedom it provides. It’s been said many times before – try lugging you Saturday food shopping for a family of four + dog & cat home on the train or a bus. It ain’t gonna happen.

  9. One of the few reasons I like my Representative is that Abler is very much a Second Amendment supporter.

    One of the many reasons I distrust him is support for boondogles like this.

  10. urban planners must also build all stations to be monuments to their, and their patrons’, wisdom.

    Am I the only one that sees these urban planners as being educated at the MGU and being enamored with all things Soviet?

    People are not bulk goods

    They are to demonlib urban elites who suckled at Lenin’s teat.

  11. to twist a quote from a recent south park episode. Could the government at least buy us dinner first before we get fucked?

  12. Could the government at least buy us dinner first before we get fucked?

    Sure! With your money, or with money they borrowed from the Chinese in your name? Your choice!

  13. You don’t understand the liberal mindset, Mitch. The answer to this thorny problem is to tax private transport so that $24 per trip will be a bargain.

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