Monday, March 30, 2009

What does rail compete with?

One of the many issues surrounding rail is what is it supposed to compete with? I keep hearing that a city should have a modern, viable transportation system to serve it's population. I also keep hearing that this should include trains. What I don't understand is, why? what can rail do that wheeled transportation can't?

Answer? Almost nothing.

Yes, in areas of dense population where driving a car is prohibitive due to congestion, lack of parking, or sky high parking costs, a commuter rail system works. In New York and Chicago, widening the streets for commuter traffic would be all but impossible. So, rail fills a need. Solves a problem.

What commuter problem do we have in Milwaukee? In Wisconsin? Even with a freeway system that was never finished . . . we lack a northern bypass and a middle connector . . . we have little congestion on our freeways. Unless there's an accident or construction going on, getting around Milwaukee during "rush hour" might take an extra 15 to 20 minutes. Whoop dee doo. Compare that to the hour it takes to get from one part of Atlanta to another and now you're talking traffic congestion.

The stupid little loop Barrett wants downtown? A waste of money on a moronic scale. That train wouldn't do anything a bus couldn't do. Well, except cost a lot of tax payer money in subsidies. And, pollute the air with wires. And cause us to tear up perfectly good streets and create traffic problems. So, what problem does it solve?

In the case of passenger rail like a Milwaukee to Madison system, I can understand why we'd want to pursue a rail alternative. First, it's a good 90 minute drive. So, it's long. Second, parts of the freeway are just two lanes. It can get congested and backed up extending the time it takes to travel. Buses don't improve anything as they travel on the same road. You're not driving, but it still takes 90 minutes.

Now, not that we have a huge problem with traveling from Milwaukee to Madison, but I could see an alternative rail system working. IF . . .

First and foremost, people would use it and it would self sustain. That's a big if. The system would need to be convenient and fast. Which leads me to . . .

Second, it would need to be a true high speed rail system. I've posted before on the complete buffoonery that is Doyle's plan. Not only is the system not high speed rail, it's not ultra modern, and it won't be convenient. Updated, diesel fueled, locomotives are not ultra modern. At 110 MPH, it's also not very fast. Add in the time it takes you to get to and from stations and it likely takes longer than traveling by car. Speed - Convenience. Pick one, cause you can't have both. If it's going to compete with cars then there can't be many stops, making it less convenient. If it's going to make lots of stops for convenience, then it's not going to be very fast.

Fact is, commuter rail works when there's an existing problem of dense population with an inability of cars or buses to move people around. Passenger rail works when the system is much faster in total time than it would be to use a car . . . AND . . . can actually compete with planes.

If I could get to Indianapolis in two hours on an elevated, electric rail system, I would use it over driving, and flying. Here, it would compete with using air travel. I have to drive to the airport, and I have to get to where I need to be in Indianapolis. Driving would be more convenient, but would take 7 hours (or so). Assuming the rail alternative would be competitively priced over flying, I would use it. In the Milwaukee to Madison example, maybe the two cities are still too close to be adequately, conveniently serviced by rail. Expanding the freeway is a much better use of transportation money.

But, get me to Indy, St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo, anywhere that's 8 hours by car, in two hours . . . and that's a viable alternative to driving . . . and flying. Assuming it's competitively priced.

In the end, commuter rail simply cannot compete with cars unless there's an existing problem. Passenger rail cannot compete with cars unless it can compete with air travel . . . and win.

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