Unexpectedly Intriguing!
06 September 2005

Economically speaking, of all the ways to transport people between cities, rail is perhaps the stupidest. Nowhere else do we see the confluence of extraordinarily high infrastructure costs (land, construction, equipment, facilities, etc.) and extraordinarily high operating costs (labor, maintenance, fuel, utilities, overhead, etc.) combine with extraordinarily low demand by commuters to produce such little tangible benefit.

That's why the recent report by the Associated Press' Catherine Tsai of plans by a Denver group seeking to build a high-speed commuter rail line from Wyoming to New Mexico should light up big, bright, neon, flashing "WARNING" signs to responsible public officials who would be asked to contribute tax money to support the boondoggle.

Route from Cheyenne, WY to Albuquerque, NM The group, Front Range Commuter Rail, led by former Colorado state representative Bob Briggs is advocating connecting the cities of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Denver, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico with high-speed passenger rail service. Trains would travel over a 602 mile long route at speeds of 110 miles per hour in the group's plan.

The plan is being pushed forward to exploit the perceived good graces of Denver-area voters who voted last November to expand rail service in Denver's metropolitan area. The plan also has the support of Cheyenne LEADS, a private corporation that supports economic development in that city.

Tsai's report notes that the group has gained support from several members of Colorado's delegation to the U.S. Congress (links added):

Briggs said Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. Mark Udall, both D-Colo., and Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo., all have voiced support for the line.

This political support is necessary for the advancement of the project, since the rail lines that the group would seek to convert from freight to high-speed rail service would need to be designated as a high-speed rail corridor in order to obtain federal funding for the project. Initially, the funding would be used to conduct a study of the feasibility of the project, and later the conversion of the line from freight to high-speed passenger rail service.

The conversion of the existing freight rail lines to high-speed rail lines would be expensive, costing roughly $3 to $4 million dollars per mile. Assuming that all 602 miles of rail line would need to be converted puts the minimum cost of just installing the high-speed rail tracks at $1.8 to $2.4 billion dollars.

Tsai summarizes the group's goals for ridership:

The grand plan is to have a line offering one trip per hour, 18 hours a day, carrying 3.5 million to 4 million people a year, Briggs said.

Using these numbers, assuming 260 working days per year and 18 trips per day, Briggs is counting on moving an average 13,462 and 15,385 people per day, or between 748 to 855 people per trip.

By contrast, Amtrak presently carries roughly 64,000 passengers a day over its entire nationwide system. Chris Suellentrop of Slate provides additional numbers for comparison:

Amtrak carries about 64,000 passengers a day. That compares to 1.8 million passengers daily for domestic airlines and 984,000 passengers daily for intercity buses. That's right, more than 15 times as many Americans use intercity buses than use Amtrak. And those are just the mass-transit options for intercity travel. More people drive between cities than take a plane.

Unless the group is prepared to remove Interstate 25 from the western landscape, it's highly unlikely it would ever see anything close to these figures. Anyone with any opportunity to vote against this boondoggle should do so, especially in light of greater, real needs following Hurricane Katrina.

Previous Rail-Related Posts at Political Calculations

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