Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Reply to Sam

Mr. Sam Leckrone was given a guest column in today's, titled "Spending money on high-speed rail system an ill-conceived idea". As readers of this blog can well imagine, for me to see a title like that is like waving the proverbial red flag in front of the bull.

None the less, Sam has at least one valid point in his column: he spotted some very strange time-comparisons in a document published by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) in the 2009 publication he cited in the article, "Chicago – Detroit/Pontiac Corridor Service Development Plan" (all links are at the end of this post). Thank you for doing the math, Sam! MDOT should be ashamed and update (or at least clarify) the figures. Here is the table Sam was objecting to, with times used in suspected calculation in blue, and suspect calculation results in red:

Exhibit 2. Travel Time Comparisons between Travel Modes (Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac)


Estimated Travel Time Downtown to Downtown


Estimated Total

Travel Time

Passenger Rail Estimated Travel Time Comparison

Passenger Rail



Station Segment

Train Segment2

Auto Segment

15 minutes Downtown Chicago to

Union Station

10 minutes

4 hours-46 minutes

15 minutes from New Center station to Downtown Detroit

5 hours-26 minutes


Auto and Parking

4 hours-30 min. to 5 hours

4 hours-30 min. to 5 hours

4 minutes to 34 minutes slower than train


Auto/Walk Segment

Station Segment Bus Segment Auto/Walk

15 minutes to downtown bus station

10 minutes

7 hours-10 minutes

15 minutes bus station to downtown

7 hours-50 minutes

3 hours-24 minutes slower than train.

Air Auto/Transit Segment

Airport Segment

Air Segment4

Airport segment

Auto Segment

1 hour Downtown Chicago to

O'Hare Airport

1.5 hours

1 hour-15 minutes Detroit/Wayne

Airport-O'Hare Airport

15 minutes

40 minutes to Detroit Wayne Airport to Downtown Detroit

4 hours-40 minutes

14 minutes slower than train

1 Travel time estimates for walk, auto and station segments obtained from Milwaukee-Madison Passenger Rail Corridor Project
Environmental Assessment, WisDOT ID 0410-40-40/0499-10-39,
2Travel time estimates for train segment are based on Midwest Regional Rail System, Executive Report, September 2004.
3Average bus travel time
4 Based on, Northwest Airlines,, Accessed September 2007

However, Sam has also given voice to a number of misconceptions about high-speed rail and the utility of passenger rail in general.

  1. He states that the top speed of the proposed Detroit to Chicago route is 79 MPH, based on the 2009 MDOT publication. The current goal is stated in a memo from the House Fiscal Agency to the House Committee on Appropriations in September 2011:
    "Since 1992, the state, federal government, and AMTRAK have dedicated funds to development of high speed rail service on the Detroit-Chicago rail corridor. The stated goal has been to reduced route time from 6 hours to 4 hours through increased train speeds (up to 110 mph) and reduction in bottlenecks." (p.1)
    "The department [MDOT] indicates that planned improvements 135.7 [mile] Kalamazoo-Dearborn track segment have the potential of increasing train speeds on that corridor to 110 mph. Combined with the 97 mile segment from Kalamazoo to Porter, Indiana, over 232 miles – 76% of the Wolverine route – would be at the 110 mph standard." (p.3)
    (Admittedly, that's not high-speed by European or Asian standards.)
  2. Sam writes, "Nobody will give up driving their cars on I-94 to ride a train that is slower than the freeway..." In fact, ridership on that route has increased substantially over the last years, even as train speeds have gone down due to poor maintenance by host railroad Norfolk-Southern. In November of 2010 the Chicago-Pontiac "Wolverine" gained 21.9% over November 2009. (November 2011 lost some of that gain due to extreme speed restrictions.)
  3. He further states, "Mass transit is NOT greener than the private automobile." To compare the efficiency of modes of transportation, the best measure is energy used for each mile a passenger is moved. The Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, using BTUs per passenger-mile, rated domestic air carriers at 4,123; passenger cars at 3,672; and Amtrak at 2,138. That puts the train at 58% of the energy used compared to passenger cars, and 51% of the energy used compared to air travel.

Sam then brings up an old and oft-debunked myth about the cost and value of public vs. private transportation: that public transportation is subsidized, so money should be spent into roads instead. The fallacy here is the unspoken assumption that roads pay for themselves through fuel and registration fees. In fact, Congress had to subsidize the Highway Trust Fund to the tune of $14.7 billion in FY 2010, which was 29% of Federal highway spending for that year. Projections indicate that this subsidy will grow as cars become more fuel efficient.

Like many critics of public transportation, Sam has not stepped back to consider the larger cost of private automobiles to our country. The cost of parking (which can approach $50 for 24 hours in downtown Chicago) extends to the hidden cost of "free" parking – the many square miles of land devoted to parking that could be used for housing, business, agriculture, or recreation. Highways are dangerous: 32,788 were killed on highways in the U.S. in 2010, and that's considered a "good" record. Automobile congestion is costly, too: in 2010, the average commuter in the Detroit area wasted $687 in traffic – and in Chicago, each commuter wasted $1,568.

The reason trains have experienced steady growth in ridership is that they provide a much more pleasant and productive travel environment. Business people can use their travel time productively on their laptops using Amtrak's recently-installed WiFi, or just resting after a tense meeting. Families with small children appreciate being able to get up and walk around, get snacks any time, and use one of the two restrooms in each coach. I've traveled from Ann Arbor to Chicago by train many times, and appreciate being able to relax, in contrast to the white-knuckle driving experiences I had before I found how convenient the train is.

The train is definitely not for everyone, but it's a valuable transportation alternative that we'll need more and more as congestion and the cost of driving increase.

To learn more:

  • "Spending money on high-speed rail system an ill-conceived idea" (2012-01-22, p. A-6), online

  • "Chicago – Detroit/Pontiac Corridor Service Development Plan", PDF online

  • Memo from William E. Hamilton, [Michigan] House Fiscal Agency, to House Committee on Appropriations, September 27, 2011, PDF online

  • "Energy Intensity of Passenger Modes (Btu per passenger-mile)", online

  • "The Contribution of the Federal Transportation Investment Programs to Fiscal Responsibility and Deficit Reduction", originally on this site, but now cached by Google.

  • "Traffic Fatalities in 2010 Drop to Lowest Level in Recorded History", National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
    "What Congestion Means to You, 2010", Texas Transportation Institute PDF

  • "November 2010 Monthly Performance Report" and "November 2011 Monthly Performance Report", Amtrak, linked toward the bottowm of this page.