Why We Can’t Have Nice Trains

Mass transit in the U.S. sucks. One reason: It’s incredibly expensive to build here, and senselessly. Some facts from a pretty much INFURIATING Bloomberg piece: 

• “[Amtrak's] $151 billion master plan for basic high-speed rail service in the Northeast corridor is more expensive than Japan’s planned magnetic levitating train line between Tokyo and Osaka, most of which is to be buried deep underground, with tunnels through the Japan Alps and beneath its densest cities.”

• “San Francisco can barely build underground light rail for the price that Tokyo pays for high-capacity subways.”

• “If New York could build subways at the prices that Paris and Tokyo pay, $3.8 billion would be enough to build the entire Second Avenue subway, from Harlem to the Financial District.” (When they open, the first two miles will have cost $5 billion.)

WHAT IS GOING ON?! Bureaucracy FAIL, basically. 

In the U.S., contracts go to the lowest bidder, full stop. In Spain, for instance, contracting decisions are weighted 30% for cost, 20% for speed, and 50% for technical merit. The result of the weighted is system is affordable results. The result of our system is that bad contractors who don’t meet deadlines keep getting contracts.

Because of this mess, we have to live with shitty mass transit. AND BEST OF ALL: We have to pay for it anyway. (You know, because taxe$$$).


19 Comments / Post A Comment

This is really aggravating. I am aggravated now.

nerd alert (#436)

Yes, it’s bureaucracy fail, but it’s also a market failure, which is important to point out. I get annoyed when everything is blamed on bureaucracy, because it can be such an intellectually lazy way to paint a complex issue. Having a system where we choose based on price alone is also indicative of the values we ascribe price relative to public goods. A private company will almost always make choices based on price, so if we enable that decision making, we will perpetuate market failures such as “no public transit”. And as a resident of the south, listening to the northeast complain about regional transit blows my mind. At least y’all got a shitty system! We don’t have any system, really.

Megano! (#124)

It’s just as bad, if not worse, here in Canada. Toronto is in dire need of extending the subway/rail system (we have four lines. FOUR. For 5.5 million people), but it’s mostly been stalled because of bureacratic nonsense, and they keep fighting over subway/light rail while the ppl who actually have to use this system are like WHO THE FUCK CARES JUST GET THEM DONE.

Funny because the Japanese construction industry is notoriously corrupt and inefficient.

NinetyNine (#1,864)

I’m just gonna go out on a limb and assume the editorial conclusion here is lifted right from the Bloomberg article.

Bloomberg Haus Style: set up problem, because GUBMEN. Publish!

Billfold Haus Style: excerpt article because CTRL+F ‘$’, summarize without analysis. Publish!

@NinetyNine I think the article is actually a pretty good analysis of what goes wrong in bidding infrastructure projects, and doesn’t do the private companies involved any favors. Most of the fixes are pretty basic but would require mustering a lot of political will to overcome the interlocking vested interests that form the clubby world of big-ticket government contracting.

In fact, the article mostly heaps praise on actual big-S Socialist governments (and Japan) which are held up as role models. The French state-owned rail company is also trotted out as an example of efficiency.

Bloomberg is also one of the least reflexively right-wing outlets in the business press, so maybe check your assumptions?

NinetyNine (#1,864)

@stuffisthings Piffle. It’s a thinly-veiled shot at any public-funding for transit programs that aren’t roads. If you wanted to poke holes at govenment mismanagement, why not use the Tappan Zee replacement ($6 billion for 138,000 crossings daily) instead of the 2nd Avenue subway ($2 billion for 500,000 rides daily projected) and includes this “But mass-transit networks stand to lose most from out-of-control infrastructure costs.” Linking approvingly basically affirms logic in the article not even supported by the copy (how is the $24 billion Big Dig better than a multi-state rail project)?

@NinetyNine It’s a real stretch to read this article as anything other than wishing that we could do our mass transit projects as effectively as other countries, which would make things like high speed rail, light rail in San Fran, etc. much more politically and economically feasible. I don’t understand how you’re reading the contrast between a badly-managed rail project in the US with a well-managed one in France or Japan as an argument for more road construction.

We could sit here all day trading ancedata about boondoggle projects (I personally don’t think we should be spending much money at all on new roads), but what exactly would you be arguing for? That we SHOULD be paying many multiples of what other countries pay to build our subways and rail lines?


Bloomberg Corporate Overlord: Smith, I need you to help further our pro-road construction agenda. Can you write a piece about how the Madrid regional government and the French state-owned rail company are really efficient at building subways?

Stephen Smith: Yes sir, I’m on it! Should I praise the Japanese maglev trains, too?

BCO: Yes, absolutely. That will help to convince our readers that road construction is the only answer.

^ Is this the kind of scenario that goes on in your head? Really?

matt (#2,039)

Mostly he just thinks about Rush. Mostly.

NinetyNine (#1,864)

@stuffisthings My point is only that this sort of drive by opinionating isn’t useful at all (except maybe to fill post quotas). The linked article is so thin you can fit any particular POV on transit funding you want. Everyone’s opinion gets a gold star!

Where is the evidence that the Second Avenue project is a ‘boondoggle’ — just because its expensive? Taking absolute budget as a way of drawing comparisons is so glib its useless.

Examples! One (and there could be dozens of others) factor that would need to introduced: the other mentioned gov’t entities likely have far stronger takings rights vis-a-vis private property (there are still lawsuits ongoing effecting the 2nd Avenue route), which lowers both cost to acquire property and time to completion (New York City projects are so hard to manage budget wise is they can never effective hedge materials costs — the redevelopment of the WTC site increased at least 10% soley because it was budgeted during a relative recession — and lawsuits from private groups can really drag down the process — Westway, anyone?). One man’s bureaucracy is another’s right to redress in courts. So you want to overturn Kelo? Fine by me. But that’s how quickly you get into very complex issues the second someone cleverly concludes that Big Gubmen breaks everything.

@NinetyNine Maybe he didn’t cover every possible angle (in an opinion article for a general audience) but the examples of what makes U.S. transit infrastructure construction so expensive seem pretty on point to me, especially the part about conflicts of interest and the structure of bidding processes. The difference in legal systems WAS addressed, albeit briefly, and if there’s a NYC-specific reason why hedging materials costs is uniquely more difficult than in Tokyo or Paris I’d be interested to hear it, since they presumably buy their steel and concrete from the same global markets. And as I understand it Kelo provides a much broader right to seize private property than what’s available in Europe, though public works are traditionally what eminent domain is used for anyway. In Europe I think the standard for proving “public good” can actually be higher — e.g. the Déclaration d’utilité publique process in France.

I have a lot more background in comparative studies of public procurement than most people probably do and I still found the article interesting. Even if you thought it was too shallow for your tastes, accusing Logan of thoughtlessly shilling for Big Road is just out of order.

I’m still baffled about how you see this as a condemnation of “Big Gubmen” since it’s just comparing municipal governments in the U.S. to… municipal and regional governments in other countries? With a large section on the malfeasance of private companies thrown in? Seriously. I don’t get it.

moreteawesley (#545)

MORE EXPENSIVE THAN A LEVITATING TRAIN. I cannot deal with this nugget of information.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@moreteawesley How can we be the biggest and the best if we don’t have a levitating train of our own? HOW?

moreteawesley (#545)


bibliostitute (#285)

@moreteawesley this is something we TOTALLY could have had first, if Eisenhower had decided to throw his Interstate-Troops-Moving dollars at trains instead.

MAGLEV IT IS THE FUTURE!!!!! forget rocket packs and flying cars.

Another factor is how the contracts are put together — the Edinburgh tram system contract included a clause about duration of the building project. If it took less time, the contractor got a bonus; more time, the contractor had to pay penalties. Seemed like a great incentive to at least turn in an accurate estimate.

bibliostitute (#285)


or rather pitch you about some stuff i discovered while riding the empire builder these past three days. damn Northwest part of the states, lacking in 3G.

readyornot (#816)

I’d like to know what the opportunity cost of the excessive funding spent on trains is. What would transit authorities in the US spend the wasted money on in the absence of the bureaucracy fail? My guess is more service and faster routes in other forms of transportation, including buses, the kind that actually serves people who need it the most.

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