Commuter Rail Numbers Don't Even Work With the Supporters' Numbers

From the AZ Republic, which just can't stop itself from shamelessly cheerleading any effort to spend billions on rail in Phoenix (perhaps the world's worst candidate for rail transit given its density and distribution of businesses).

Enough people would board a train in the Valley's suburbs that a future commuter-rail system would be as popular as some of the busiest lines in the West, new studies have found.

Well, that's a low bar.

A trio of yearlong rail studies, in nearly final form, indicates commuter rail could carry almost 18,000 passengers a day by 2030. Planners at the Maricopa Association of Governments

say, based on the findings, they favor a 105-mile, X-shaped system that could feature 33 stations and cost roughly $1.5 billion. That's a little more than the Valley's 20-mile, light-rail starter line.

If this was presented to me as a business opportunity, I would have had them stop right there.   Even before inevitable cost overruns and over-confidence in ridership, even with the supporters' numbers, they want $1.5 billion to carry 18,000 people a day.   That is a capital cost of $83,000+ per daily rider, beating the old record of Phoenix light rail which cost around $75,000 per daily rider.

Planners assume the trains will recoup about 40 percent of their expenses, based on the national average for similar service. The average fare would be about $6 to $7, Wallace said, although no detailed study has gone into fares. Generally, rates would go up the farther the trip.

Can you imagine any other investor in the world other than the government making an investment knowing that in the best case of its strongest supporters revenues will only cover 40% of costs?  And why should the rest of us subsidize folks who live in outlying areas to commute?  They moved to those areas in large part because housing was cheap and cost of living was low, with the knowlege they had a long commute.  So those of us with the forsight to live close to work have to subsidize them?  This is a really valuable service for them but they can't even pay half the cost?

Further, lets look at those cost estimates.  If we get 18,000 a day on weekdays and a third that on weekends, that yields 5 million round trips.  Given an 8% interest rate over 30 years, the capital charge is $134 million a year before overruns.  That means the fare would have to be $27 round trip or $13.50 one way just to cover the capital cost alone, without even considering operating costs.

This means their figures are nuts.  $6-$7 one-way fares barely covers 40% of the capital costs, much less the operating expenses.  We are talking about an offering that is deep in the red.  $13 round trip at 5,000,000 round trips equals $65,000,000 of revenue.  That means that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for all the operating costs  ($30 million?  $60 million) and at least $69 million of capital charges.   It is not unfair to assume that this would punch a minimum $100 million hole each year in the government's budget that we will have to make up with taxes.

Update: Gotta achnowlege this bit of sanity in the AZ Republic comments from "astonished"

Light rail is such a boondoggle. It's expensive to build and always runs at a loss. It is very hard to change the routes to respond to ridership needs. It's a vanity project for hip liberals.

If public transportation is a goal, then get some buses going. Buses are flexible, cost effective, cheap to run and maintain, and if ridership changes, you just change the routes and schedules.


  1. Eddie:

    It's always interesting to hear the counter-arguments when you bring up buses as a rail alternative. Since it's really hard to argue inflexible over flexible, in place infrastructure over expensive new one (last time I checked no one wanted to commute where roads didn't exist already), and reasonably priced vehicles over absurdly priced vehicles, rail proponents have to come up with all sorts of justifications concerning appearance (yeah, those overhead power lines are sure pretty, aren't they?), safety (when was the last time you heard of someone getting run over while jumping the bus tracks?), and community desirability. Ultimately it all boils down to wanting a train ride in your town.

    Seriously. Outside of a few overly dense cities in the east, there's no logic behind rail construction; it's all emotion. I've always proposed installing long, point-to-point rollercoasters and log flume rides, instead. They're more picturesque than most modern trains, lots more fun to ride, have higher passenger throughput, tend to make rather than lose money, and, oddly enough, are usually cheaper to construct and operate than 50+ ton "light" rail trains.

  2. Kyle Bennett:

    "if ridership changes ... "

    There's the problem right there. A large part of the appeal of rail, for those it appeals to, is that it locks down commuting patterns. They don't want to accommodate organic change, they want "efficient" city planning, which depends on things changing as little as possible. It's not even an accusation of having some evil hidden agenda. City planning and organic change are inherently in conflict. People who favor city planning openly disdain the "chaos" of constantly changing patterns of housing, business, and travel.

  3. Xealot:

    Here's the irony. A lot of these mass transit proposals in other communities (not sure about AZ) are funded through gas taxes. So not only are these programs running at a huge loss, but they are being subsidized by motorists. In other words mass transit CAN'T replace car-based transit even if the government wanted it to be so. Motorists are the reason they can exist in the first place. I suppose we could look at it like a massive bribe to pay some people to not drive, thus helping lower traffic. But why do that? Just expand the roads with that money instead. Helps buses AND motorists. Also, why do buses always have to be government controlled? Personally, I think buses should be privatized. Maybe then they'd actually show up on time ;).

  4. Not Sure:

    "Just expand the roads with that money instead." - Xealot

    Are you crazy??? If you do that, then you'll have people going wherever they want to, whenever they want to.

    And we can't have that, now, can we?

  5. DrTorch:

    Another point about "buses" is that they can be scaled. You can get large vans, or mini-buses for routes w/ fewer fares. That can save even more money on operations and capital costs.

    In DC there are several private van-pool services. They compete w/ buses and the Metro. I don't know their costs or reliability...but they do seem to thrive.

  6. Colin:

    This isn't theoretical, we already see plenty of failings in rail projects over the past week:



    Government-run high speed rail will make all of this look like chump change.

    And yes, it is all emotion driven. Trains are shiny and cool -- and they've got them in Europe don't you know?

  7. Bob Smith:

    Outside of a few overly dense cities in the east, there’s no logic behind rail construction

    There's no logic anywhere. NYC's rail system is a big money loser even though it's one of the most heavily used in the country and in one of the densest metro areas on the planet.

    The eventual capture of the system by public transit unions, and their subsequent looting of it, doom rail systems even if the capital costs made sense (which as you see above, they don't).

  8. me:

    "It’s a vanity project for hip liberals."

    Sigh. My worldview divides people into loyalists and idea-junkies. The loyalists will welcome anything that promotes "their teams agenda", no matter what. The idea-junkies are the ones who'll push crazy hard for what groupthink suggests is 'the right idea'.

    Liberals are the few folks left shaking their heads in disbelief at the stupidity of both parties, wondering what became of personal freedoms and common sense.

    No liberal in their right mind would ever support something as limiting and top-down as light rail in the US.

  9. Allen:

    By 18,000 people per day do you mean 18,000 unique riders per week day? Or did you fall victim to the misleading term "ridership" that is used instead of "trips" to sound as though it's 18,000 unique riders when it's only 8k or 9k?

    In general heavy rail is more troubling than light rail. It's deceptively "cheap" when compared to light rail which I suspect is why it gets as much attention as it does from politicians. It makes light rail look "cheap" though in terms of operating costs and upfront costs when compared to the scant riders it attracts. And since they're rail lines, they rarely follow logical commuting routes nor serve downtowns well. For example, the new Northstar line in Minneapolis follows existing trackage which rarely is near enough to any freeways to encourage developers to develop office space along it. It will never be anything more than more than a service for the workers in the Twin Cities who work in downtown Minneapolis. That is, even if you buy into building a line because over a generation it will encourage enough development to make it worth it, Northstar won't be able to do that. Instead growth in the northwest Metro will continue along 694, 494, 94, mn610, 35W and such. And the vast majority of people in that sector of the metro will continue to work at jobs that are poorly served by transit and not served at all by NOrthstar. So instead of spending $15-$20 million a year to add HOT lanes, BRT, buses, bike lanes, etc in these areas, metro tax payers will be spending $15 million - $20 million a year just to have a couple thousand people take a train 30 miles downtown instead of a bus.

  10. Bob Sykes:

    I taught in civil engineering departments in a small private college and a large state univeristy for 37 years. I never met a transportation engineer who thought commuter trains made any sense. Buses, yes. Trains, no.

  11. BerthaMinerva:

    I live in Austin where we're suffering through our own endlessly-delayed, over-budget light rail project that suffers from all the problems you describe with the Phx system, so I'm not at all a light rail fan.

    That said, I think one thing these discussions overlook is speed. The light-rail fan mindset, it seems to me, is something like: I'd LOVE to take public transportation but only if it doesn't make me have to add an hour to my commute each way (as a taking a bus would).

    So IMO rail-lovers won't ever be swayed by the very practical bus arguments, b/c for them it's about wanting to feel good about their choices without having to experience any inconvenience.

  12. MJ:

    Just a point of clarification. What is being proposed is commuter rail (essentially conventional rail technology using diesel engines) and not light rail.

    That said, one really has to marvel at the logic behind proposals like this. I'm guessing many of the planners that support this project are the same ones who decry urban sprawl as the source of traffic problems. But now you can work in downtown Phoenix and live in Wittmann. Neat.

    Enough people would board a train in the Valley’s suburbs that a future commuter-rail system would be as popular as some of the busiest lines in the West, new studies have found.

    This statement is probably true as far as commuter rail systems go, but as Warren mentions, it sets the bar pretty low. Looking at data on US commuter rail operations and measuring "business" in terms of ridership per route mile, there are only two systems with levels of use among the top ten in the U.S. west of the Mississippi river (Caltrain in the SF Bay Area and Dallas-Ft. Worth). L.A.'s Metrolink has an extensive network, but is lightly used.

    Using the data provided here, the system would average about 171 boardings per day per route mile, which would put it about even with the MARC service in the Baltimore-D.C. region for 11th place among the 22 systems currently in operation. Unfortunately, most of the newer systems in the U.S. are coming in near the bottom of this list.

    The most recent was the Northstar commuter rail line in the Twin Cities, which opened in November. After several downgrades of the ridership forecasts, project planners predicted 3,400 daily boardings for the $320 million, 40-mile opening segment. On the first day of revenue service, they counted about 2,400 paying passengers. So, to put things in perspective, they achieved about 1/3 the intensity of use predicted for the Phoenix system. Of course, forecasts are forecasts and you can take the MAG numbers for whatever they're worth (remember, you are using their numbers).

    This project looks like a bad deal, but things could probably be worse. The good news is that with no money there is little chance this thing will get off the ground any time soon.

  13. OBloodyhell:

    > If public transportation is a goal,

    Stop right there.

    If public transportation is a goal, fire the people setting goals.

    If you don't have a pop density per mile to match NYC, LA, Boston, Chicago, or most of Europe's metro areas, you have no justification for public transport.

    The potential lost human time -- averaging on the order of 1hr or more per round trip -- as a result of using public transport vs. personal transport, quickly adds up to millions of man-years for a nation. That's not chump change. It's largely unproductive, useless time that has little or no value to the society as a whole. Ergo -- public transport is a bad goal, and should only be applied in places where the pop density is adequate to make personal transport much less effective.

  14. Billll:

    Check out the Denver system. It has all the problems described, costs about 10 times what buses do, and there's lots of taxpayer money being thrown at making it bigger.