Archive for category Transportation

Notes From a Train

Yes, literally from a train.  I’m writing this on Amtrak’s #5, the westbound California Zephyr, on my way home from Omaha for Passover.

 

I’ll confess a weakness for trains.  In this, I’m not unlike most Americans, although unlike the Americans running the government, I recognize the economic limitations of passenger trains in a country with a relatively low population density.  But hey, if I’m already subsidizing the thing, I may as well use it, especially if planes are more expensive and buses are dirtier, more expensive, and take longer.  Driving, in this day of $4-a-gallon gas, just means I’m spending too much money to also lose 8 hours of productivity.

With all but the northeast corridor reduced – essentially – to tourist service, Amtrak has scheduled the dull parts of the ride at night.  The train goes from Chicago to San Francisco, and as there’s a fair amount of majesty in Colorado, and not so much on the fruited plain, the segment from Omaha to Denver is mostly at night both ways.  This makes it the rare practical alternative to flying.  I can leave Omaha at 11:00, and (usually) be in Denver by 7:30, and leave Denver at 7:30 PM, and be in Omaha by 5:00 AM.

It’s also a better class of passenger than on the bus, even with the lower fares. The problem is sleeping. When I was just out of college, I took a long train trip from DC, up to Toronto, and then across Canada on the Canadian, all the way out to Vancouver. I came back from Seattle to Washington. Another time, I took a trip down to Orlando to visit my parents. On both trips, I got a sleeper car.  (On the second one, I took my electric typewriter with me and wrote a twenty-page term paper in my berth.)  I can tell you that sleeping in a chair, even when you get both of them, with a CPAP, is a somewhat different experience.  In any case, train travel has always been less North By Northwest, than our romantic imaginations would imply.  For one thing, in that shot, it’s the scenery that moves.

The other thing I’ve re-discovered is that it’s easier to take pictures of trains than to take pictures from trains.  When you’re driving, you can stop the car, maybe double back to take a shot you saw from the road.  The train frowns upon that sort of behavior.  Added to that, in recent years, Amtrak has changed its rolling stock on its cross-country trains.  When I took that cross-country trip, the observation car looked like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, the trains are all double-decker:

You can see the problem.  When the whole train is double-decker, you can’t see ahead, you can only see out the side of the train.  You can’t see as much to begin with, and by the time you see something worth photographing, your shot ends up be perpendicular to the train’s motion, leaving you with a lot of blurry pictures.  It also had the side-effect of slowing us down Thursday night because of high winds, costing us about 90 minutes into Denver.

The thing is, despite the somewhat newer rolling stock, the train still has an air of faded glory.  The bathrooms are clean enough, but often not fully stocked.  There seem to be plenty of staff, but on the train, it’s not entirely clear what they do when not at the station.  The first time back at Denver, it took 30 minutes to move the luggage across the street from the train to the station.  The one thing they don’t do it grope you on the way to your destination or make you stand in line for 2 hours, and I overheard a number of conversations that indicated Amtrak was benefiting from that behavior at airports.

The fact is, the train is an anachronism.  It’s fun, it’s less money and less work than flying.  But because it takes more time, it’s not how people travel these days.  Most cross-country routes are tourist trains, and so there’s sense of guilty luxury, in spite of the price.  And if you’re going farther than overnight, the cost of a room really does turn the trip into a luxury outing.  These routes couldn’t exist with taxpayer subsidies; even with a fairly good ridership, I doubt they come close to breaking even.  And they’re only half-full because there’s only one train a day, which limits your options.

But if it makes economic sense, it’s still a great way to go.

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Keep On Truckin’

That was one of the less forgettable catch-phrases from the 70s, when the independent trucker seemed to embody what remained of the free spirit of America.  The part, anyway, that was engaged in constructive work rather than the self-indulgent self-destructiveness that came to pass for independence during that decade.

In fact, trucking has become increasingly regulated over the years, so much so that the notion of the independent trucker, gamely staying awake to deliver his load, is a thing of the past.  And with good reason.  These are very large, very dangerous vehicles.  They’re necessary, but they share the road with, and occasionally crush, passenger vehicles a fraction of their size and weight.  As a result of making sure that drivers get a decent amount of rest, the number of fatalities involving heavy trucks, per 100 million miles traveled, was at 2.34 in 2005, down from 6.15 in 1979.  More recent analyses have it falling even farther.  And those same statistics show truck driver fatigue as a factor in only 1.7% of those crashes.  The accident rates continue to decline.

So naturally, what we need is: more rest time!

That’s right.  The government has proposed rules that will require longer rest times, fewer hours on the job, more frequent breaks.  At first, this sounds like something truckers might like.  Until you realize that it’s basically forced idleness, with little marginal benefit to the rest of us using the roads.  Truckers hate sitting around.  They have loads to deliver, and a forced 15-minute break is actually more stressful, because instead of taking the break when the need it, they’re just as likely to be sitting around watching the clock tick until they can get back on the road.

The company that I am currently contracting for, Werner Enterprises, ran a little experiment with one of their more seasoned drivers, asking him to work to the rule for a month to see what would happen.  Turns out that idle trucks aren’t just the Devil’s workshop, they’re also expensive.  Two-day trips stretched into three days, and his income, which is based on miles covered, dropped 6% year-over-year.  Adopted nationwide, these standards would not only play havoc with the many businesses that use just-in-time inventory management, they would amount to a pay cut for the drivers they’re supposed to help.  And in an industry that tends to face driver shortages in good times, anyway, it would require even more drivers, and even more trucks, with all of the overhead that implies, even before they drive their first mile.

This is not an industry that opposes regulation for opposition’s sake.  They ended up supporting, for instance, the stricter rules against cell phone use.  There are signs on many of the tables in the company cafeteria warning truckers against cell phone use, not on the grounds that if they get caught, they’ll lose their commercial license and have to hitchhike back home from Keokuk, but because it’s dangerous.

They object to this brilliant idea, cordoning off I-70 at certain hours, because it would greatly complicate route planning, on a fairly major truck thoroughfare.  (C’mon guys, just widen the road, already.)  In combination with the new rules, mandating stops where it might or might not be possible to stop, it would turn driving that stretch into a nightmare.

Colorado’s own Cory Gardner serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which might be able to exercise some oversight here. (Although, so does Diana DeGette, who’s probably miffed that even after decades of trying, there are still trucks on the road at all.)  Perhaps he can take a look at this.

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More Lefty Back to the Future

Of all the ideas for public transportation, one of the nuttiest to take hold in recent years is to revive streetcars.  They have all the disadvantages of light rail, on a small scale.  These include inflexibility and large capital costs.  They carry a few more people than buses, but no faster, and are more expensive to build and maintain.  They offer virtually unlimited opportunities for graft in the form of routing and station location.  They offer the additional benefit of being anti-car while not replacing enough bus service to reduce traffic.  In short, they’re a bureaucrat’s dream, a union’s gravy train, a taxpayer’s nightmare, and a commuter’s inconvenience.  No wonder the Left loves them.  (See the numbers here, pages 19 & 20.)

The Federal government has awarded Denver $2 million to continue to study such a boondoggle from the State Capitol out to the Fitzsimmons campus.  Of course, for the Feds this is chump change, seeing as they’ve already funded over $300 million of your money for other cities to build these things (p. 48 & 51).  That same presentation has several different proposals for lines east of Civic Center, costing between $100 million and $175 million.

For that, we won’t replace buses, but will allow politicians and political appointees to collect their share in graft.  We won’t make traffic and better, and will likely make it worse.  When neighborhoods change, we’ll have to lay more track instead of just re-routing bus lines.  All in all, the $2,000,000 alone would pave a lot of roads, but the $175,000,000 of the largest project would pave a lot more, and repair a fair number of bridges as well.

If after all that, for some reason, you’re still nostalgic for streetcars, you shouldn’t go away empty-handed:

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More Bad Regulation from the PUC

So you move to the US from a foreign country, go to work, save your money, and then decide to strike out on your own to start your own business.  Pretty much the American dream, huh?

Not if you’re the Colorado Public Utilities Commission:

All Colorado cabdriver Edem “Archie” Archibong wants is to fulfill the next stage in his immigrant success story — to start his own business.But Colorado’s heavily regulated taxi industry isn’t cooperating, causing some local politicians to ask why government is getting in the way of the free-market system.

Mr. Archibong, a Nigerian native and married father of two, came to the U.S. legally in 1977. He joined the Army, where he worked as an optical technician and later started driving a cab to support his family. In 2008, he helped lead a group of 150 Denver-area cabdrivers, many of them legal African immigrants, with plans to start a taxi company called Mile High Cab to serve five Denver-area counties.

In July, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which oversees the local taxi industry, ruled that Mr. Archibong’s startup had its financial house in order. The entrepreneurs pooled their collective savings to start the company, eschewing cumbersome bank loans.

But the PUC said Mile High Cab would hurt the public interest.

That’s right.  More cabs and more competition would hurt the public, according to the PUC.  Why it wouldn’t be a simple matter to let the public decide this is apparently beyond the reasoning capacity of the PUC.

In fact, it’s a perfect example of how regulatory bodies often become captive to the industries they’re supposed to be regulating.  Since they establish barriers to entry, they then become overly concerned with the health of the existing entities.

It’s also an example of how regulatory bodies will almost always seek to expand regulation, rather than contract it, in order to solve a problem.  A 2008 report by the PUC to the legislature shows that when the legislature had the opportunity to prevent this situation from arising, it took the opposite fork.

During the discussion and debate at the Legislature, multiple amendments to the original bill were proposed. Each of these amendments sought to balance the nature and scope of taxi regulation in Colorado in various ways. For example, in its early form, the bill stated a legislative declaration that “competition in the motor vehicle carrier industry will benefit Colorado consumers, making for greater choice and convenience.” The introduced version of the bill included a criminal history background check; the requirement that the operator meet certain safety, insurance and service quality standards; and the requirement that the Commission not limit the number of companies authorized to provide taxi service. Amendments were drafted, but not adopted, that required the Commission to conduct a study regarding expanding taxi service in rural areas; mandated the Commission to prescribe taxi rules regarding wheelchair access, refusals of service, taxi hailing without dispatch, reasonable lease rates, and the use of alternative fuels; prohibited unreasonable lease rates and fees to process credit transactions; and required companies to have at least 25 vehicles in populous base areas; required the companies to operate vehicles that are less than eight model years old, and to have a central dispatch open at all times.

Ultimately, after much discussion and debate, House Bill 07-1114 repealed the prohibition that precluded the Commission from regulating the lease rate charged to a driver by a common or contract carrier as found in § 40-3-103, C.R.S.  (emphasis added)

That’s it.  The bill started out with reasonable consumer protections in return for letting as many companies operate as could meet those standards, quickly became a hobby horse for a couple of dozen special cases, at which point the sponsors decided that the best solution was to ditch the deregulation aspect of the bill and add regulatory authority to the PUC.

As the report points out, cab drivers are independent contractors, leasing their vehicles from the cab companies.  Right now, many of the cabbies are charged $800 or $900 a week rental.  To make up this fixed cost, the cabbies often have to drive 12 or 14 hours a day.  The PUC formerly had no oversight of these arrangements, but has for the last three years, and hasn’t seen fit to do anything about them.  It’s obvious why.  Cab companies get to testify about over-capacity, and seek to protect their (literal) rent-seeking by limiting the number of cabs.

This arrangement serves the cab companies just fine.  It may very well be that the number of cabs is optimized for their close-to-extortionist lease agreements.  But for the rider who wants faster service or a lower fare, or for the cabbie who wants negotiating leverage, it’s not such a good deal.

With control over the number of available cabs, the fares, and the lease arrangements, the PUC has done little more than to discredit (once again) the idea of central planning.  The right answer is to remove the PUC’s control of all three elements, and let normal market forces work their magic.  If Yellow Cab or Metro Cab drivers find they can’t make their leases, Yellow Cab and Metro Cab will find themselves with fewer drivers.  Some drivers will leave to join Mile High Cab.  I can certainly see where Mile High Cab could even work with finance companies to help refugees from Yellow and Metro who want to work, but who haven’t yet set aside enough cash to buy a car.

To maintain standards, let fares decide – on the spot – whether they want the cab that pulls up or the next cab in line; no reason anyone should have to ride in an unsanitary vehicle.

The members of the PUC are appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate.  All terms of the current Commissioners will expire during the term of the next governor.  As a member of the House, I won’t have any say in the matter.  But I’d certainly encourage my colleagues in the Senate to ask about new nominees’ positions on regulation the markets.  And I’d happily sponsor legislation similar to the original HB07-1114.

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Denver Traffic in Reverse

INRIX has ranked Denver traffic as the 15th-worst in the country.  Not so bad, perhaps, except that they also have us ranked 21st in population.  This is also up from 16th in 2008, and 18th in 2007, so pretty much everything’s going in the wrong direction here.

It’s just a guess, but I don’t think this is designed to help.   I think it’s designed to make driving harder, not easier.  Back in May, Councilman Johnson was pushing the survey for Leetsdale Drive in her newsletter.  According to traffic surveys, the Leetsdale/Colorado Blvd/Alameda Ave concoction is the most-heavily-used set of streets in Denver.  So naturally, the smart thing to do is to subject the entire corridor to years of construction, in all likelihood leaving it less able to handle traffic flows.

Here’s an idea.  Less money for Living Streets, more money for this.

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