Sunday, November 15, 2015

Trains Better Than Cars? - Discuss . . .

It should come as no surprise that I like trains. I like trains in just about all forms: steam, diesel, electric, standard gauge, narrow gauge, etc. (I'm not so sure about monorail or mag lev though...) So it shouldn't surprise you that I like riding trains too - and would generally prefer to take a train "no matter where it's going" (to paraphrase a poet).

So why is it just so often so godawful to do so?

I'm not talking about tourist trains, of course. There, the whole point is the novelty of the journey.

I'm talking about taking a train the way it was originally intended - as actual transportation.

Case in point:

I'm planning to attend the New Haven Railroad Historical & Technical Association's Annual Reunion in Stamford, CT. I live in Old Saybrook, CT. There's a railroad track connecting these two towns and there's not just one, but three passenger train services on this route (though only two real choices @ Saybrook).

So the Big First Problem is solved: there's actually a train I can take (So Not True for most of America). So I have options (though not anywhere near as many as our grandparents did). But let's look at those options . . .

Option 1 - Amtrak

The United States' inter-city passenger service actually runs through Old Saybrook and can get me to Stamford - which is a real blessing, considering all the places in the country Amtrak doesn't even get close to. Problem is - it's WAY too expensive to use.

Travel Time: 1hr 22 mins
Cost: $56
Notes: Direct (one-seat) travel with no connection, but arrives in Stamford an hour later than needed.

Option 2 - Shoreline East/Metro-North

Since the 1990s, we in Old Saybrook have had the added advantage of a state-owned (though Amtrak operated) local train service from New London to New Haven. So I at least don't have to pay an Amtrak fare to get to New Haven, but once I get there I still need to get to Stamford. That's where the nation's busiest commuter railroad - Metro-North - comes in. M-N will get me from New Haven to Stamford, but I'll have to change trains in New Haven first.

Travel Time: 2 hours
Cost: $14 ($6.75 SLE/$7/25 M-N)
Notes: Scheduled to arrive in Stamford with 5 minutes to spare, but that's assuming the train is on time. Also, have to change trains in New Haven and the schedule allows 5 minutes for the transfer (and NH->Stamford ticket purchase). Fine if the train's on-time; not so fine if it isn't.

Option 3 - Drive my truck

I have a 2004 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. Not exactly a fuel-efficient vehicle, but it's mine and it's paid for. On a good day, it'll get 23 or so MPG on the highway. It's all highway for the 70 miles from Saybrook to Stamford, but for ease of math I'll figure on just 20mpg.

Travel Time: 1hr 6 mins
Cost: $7.70 (70 miles at 20mpg & $2.20/gal for gas)
Notes: Make it an even $8 (heck, even $9 for oil, insurance, maintenance, etc) and driving my truck is a clear bargain compared to taking the train. And these figures are only one-way Saybrook to Stamford - double the figures for round trip and the savings is even more obvious. It costs almost double to take the train versus driving - both in terms of money and time.

Sure, it's "cooler" to take the train - especially for a train buff. And I can sleep/read/daydream on the way, which I can't do when driving (well, I can daydream I s'pose). But are those benefits really worth paying twice as much for and taking twice as much of my time?

I'd love to know what you think!


  1. I don't think you can just ignore the "wear and tear" cost, even if your truck is paid for. If you bought a used truck for $15k and plan to get 100k miles out of it, each mile costs you 15 cents. If you take the train and don't drive the truck, you don't incur this cost and you still have the 70 miles to drive some place else in your truck. Gas is running you 11 cents per mile, oil a penny per mile and tires a penny per mile. That's 28 cents per mile, which would bring your travel costs closer to $20.

    I'm guessing parking cost isn't a major concern where you're going?

    The late David Morgan did a piece in Trains where he identified the 150- to 500-mile trip as the ideal length to take a train. I still think his analysis holds true.

    1. Very good points, Rhett - and you're right, I'd forgotten to figure in parking (there was a charge - though nominal - at the convention). I'll have to try and find that David Morgan article - sounds very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

    2. The article is "Who shot the passenger train?" And is available as a special issue from Kalmbach. Here's a synopsis:

  2. I think you have good points that show the problem with much of our country's transportation by rail. Except for some areas on the East Coast, short trips don't seem very economical.

    I've really wanted to take my son to Chicago by rail for a day or two, but Amtrak only passes through Cleveland in the middle of night or worse. A extremely inconvenient time especially for a young child. But driving into Chicago and parking seems to be a bigger hassle for the adult. Cost wise I think they are about even, which matches what Rhett says about David Morgan's article.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Chris and taking the time to weigh in. Fortunately for me, we have commuter rail that will get me to a lot of places instead of Amtrak - which makes things a lot less expensive.

  3. Chris, thanks for asking this good question and more generally thanks for all your work on your blog - and your model railroad, which many of us hope to visit someday.

    For me, riding the train is like voting: in both cases, my influence as an individual is insignificant, but if enough people make the same choice, our voice will be heard. The more people ride the train instead of driving or flying the same route, the greater the pressure on decision-makers to maintain and improve rail infrastructure and service. That's what got the Valley Railroad built.

    1. Hi George and thanks for the kind words about the blog - glad you're enjoying it! And thanks for leaving a comment - I'm not real good with google stats, so often these comments are the only clue that folks are actually "listening" :^) Good point about the voting - that's my view too - if we don't support it, it won't stick around.

  4. Last time I had expense travel at work, they used the Federal Standard of $.55 per mile. The SLE/MN trip definitely beats that for cost on a 70 mile trip. Convenience is something else. Our problem with public transportation is that the level that might attract people costs too much when under-utilized, the level that we "can afford" prevents people from adopting it.

    Gee, sounds like something you probably have to read for work. Hope the reunion was good, anyway.

    1. Using the federal standard is probably as good a comparison as any. Heh - thanks, I feel much better now! :^) Seeya Friday!