If Roads Were Regulated Like Rails, Everyone Would Drive A Cement Mixer

If highways were regulated like railways, you would drive a vehicle like this.

In the 1970s, the federal government instituted automobile regulations to increase vehicle fuel efficiency — in part by decreasing vehicle weight.  The initiative, called “CAFE” or “Corporate Average Fuel Economy,” has been renewed and enhanced as recently as 2007.  Heavier vehicles tend to be safer vehicles, but Congress and the President have judged that the gain in efficiency at the cost of safety is worthwhile and justified.  The stakes are high; roads are dangerous, automobile accidents are common, and literally thousands of people die each year as a result of the CAFE efficiency standards.  The government made a tough choice and for four decades the decision has withstood constant scrutiny.

At the same time, the government has been encouraging heavier, more polluting, less useful passenger trains.  Although rail collisions are rare (particularly compared to auto accidents) the federal agency in charge of the national rail system has strongly discouraged lightweight railcars from the national rail network.  Never seen a single-car train beyond the interior suburbs?  That’s because generally they aren’t allowed there.  Trolley and subway cars operate only on closed-off portions of the rail network that are physically disconnected from the national rail network.  Passenger trains must be bulked up in weight to be allowed on traditional rail corridors, even where freight traffic is rarely seen.  For example, the Acela Express Amtrak trainset nearly doubled in weight to comply with the regulations, and as a result it developed numerous design and performance problems.

To recap: the feds required passenger trains to get heavier or be banned from the basically safe national network at the same time that other federal regulators have required passenger cars operating on a dangerous road system to shrink in mass.

The two sets of regulations could not have been more different.  Imagine for a moment what the roads would look like if they were operated like the rails.  So much for the freedom of the open road; that would be history.  If you owned a subcompact car– or an SUV for that matter– you would only be able to drive on your driveway, unless you first put up barriers to block off the local road network from the national road network.  To be able to drive on a national highway or Interstate, you would need to buy a vehicle the size of a cement mixer, and fill it with cement.  Everyone would be required to do this, because (in the language of the rail regulators) otherwise the passenger automobiles would be too lightweight to avoid deforming in a head-on collision with the heaviest tractor-trailers on the road.  Vehicle fuel efficiency of these passenger-cement-mixers would be abysmal, people would be forced to pay for excessive vehicles and unwanted tons of cement, and maintenance costs for the vehicles and roads would be much higher.

In effect, rail regulations would convert a useful network of highways into isolated islands of local roads interspersed by connections that are accessible only to impractical overweight passenger vehicles.

No one would seriously suggest that we should have regulations on the highway system like the ones that have been imposed on the rails.  That begs the question why we have such onerous rules for trains.  A passenger train that can survive a high-speed collision with a locomotive may well be safer to its passengers in that respect.  However, the result of the requirement has been a far less connected and useful, and far more expensive, passenger rail system that has forced more and more people into their automobiles.  And automobiles are proven to be far more lethal to passengers than trains, in addition to the deleterious impact of automobiles and asphalt on the environment.

So in its zeal to make passenger trains safer by making sure that no passenger rail car on the national network will deform if was unfortunate enough to collide with a coal freight train (whether or not anyone could remember a coal train operating in that location), the federal government has undermined the competitiveness of rail technology and forced everyone to take much more serious risks on the highways, where the risk of death is many times higher than the rails.  And where no one expects a passenger automobile to bounce back from a head-on collision with a semi-trailer.

Maybe it’s time that regulators considered that heavier passenger trains and a less connected rail system are not actually a safer or more convenient for the public at large.  A lighter passenger train (or trolley service on regular railways) operating on the national rail network might help drivers off of the roads … and that alone would save lives.

Proposed T Fare Hike Would Break 28-Year Record

Last week the T proposed to increase subway fares to $2.00 and local bus fares to $1.50.  From just 85¢ in 2000, the proposal would more than double subway fares in just nine years.

What is really interesting about this is it also would put subway and bus fares at their highest levels in Boston ever, even after the prices are adjusted for local inflation.  In other words, the Boston subway never has been as costly to ride in real world terms as it will be if the fare increase is approved.

The Boston subway debuted with a nickel fare in 1897, and slowly the fare rose, to 10¢ in 1919, 15¢ in 1949, 25¢ in 1968,  75¢ in 1981, and 85¢ in 1991.  The MBTA Advisory Board published then-current figures in 2006 during the last round of fare increases.

T to Riders: How High is Too High?

T to Riders: How High is Too High?

In 1897, a nickel bought more than it does today.  A lot more.  According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, a nickel then had 96% more value in Boston than a nickel today.  If you adjust the value of the nickel (or quarter) for the additional buying power in had in the past, you get a chart like the one on the right (which shows fares in constant dollars since 1945).

The actual value of the nickel fare in 1897 was $1.35 in today’s dollars, which is inexpensive but not so much of a steal.  The standard fare right now is $1.70.  In the Boston subway’s 112-year history, the standard fare been higher than it is right now in constant dollars just three times: in 1933 ($1.71), 1954 ($1.77), and in 1981 ($1.90).  And for 28-years, the 1981 peak has stood as a high-water mark for the regular subway fare (in constant dollars).  If the T gets its way and promptly implements the fare hike, it will set a new record for unaffordability, although because exit fares recently were eliminated the burden will fall disproportionately on innercity riders who do not exit at suburban stops where previously there were surcharges.

What is even more interesting is that the T is raising fares just as prices for private transportation are falling.  Or at least not rising to the same extent.  The chart shows dotted lines for private transportation costs in Boston and nationwide for public transit costs (also from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), both of which have continued to decline relative to background inflation as the T dramatically raised its fares.  (note: for purposes of the graph, private transportation costs were equalized to subway fares for the year 2000; the trend of costs upward or downward is what is significant)  For fifty years, changes in regular T fares corresponded roughly to changes in private transportation costs (both in direction and magnitude), but in the last ten years private costs have been flat whereas standard subway fares soared.  I’m no economist, but it seems like the T should be able to keep its customers’ costs flat.  Instead the T simply failed to hold the line.

Riders still can take heart from a historical perspective.  Each of the previous real dollar fare-price records were short-lived.  In 1981 and 1954, the fare increases were almost immediately rescinded.  The next year fares were cut– an unusual occurrence– by 20% and 25% respectively.  In 1982, for example, the Legislature restored funding that the T lost the previous year.  And in 1934, a bout of deflation that caused the rise in the real fare price was broken and the real fare price in constant dollars declined (even though the stated fare was unchanged).

The rate hike proposal probably isn’t the best option.  Probably a fairer solution (pun alert) would be to restore some rationality to the subway fare structure by reintroducing some form of distance pricing.  Functionally the T is closer to that goal because it has introduced an electronic fare system, but distance pricing would require a revival of exit fares.  And Charlie got stuck on the subway as a result of exit fares.  No one wants Charlie to get stuck again.  A 60-year-old ditty still drives policy in some quarters.  More on distance pricing another time.

Although the fare hike may possibly be a fait accompli, the T scheduled “workshops” for riders to speak out about it.  I expect they should get an earful.  Not for nothing, the first session is scheduled to be conducted in the State House,  Gardner Auditorium, on  Monday, August 10, from 4pm to 7pm.  Probably the T hopes someone there will be listening.

Whatever decision the state makes, it will be a painful one.  But on the other hand, history tells us that $2.00 to ride the Boston subway — even for just one stop — is just too high a price.