How roads beat rail over time

Any long term reader nows I detest rail, especially in Auckland. There isn’t a metropolitan rail service anywhere that makes money…they are all heavily subsidised. Cities like Auckland with negligible rail corridor, built on an isthmus and geographically spread are never going to solve transport problems with rail.

Of course you will get the train spotters who always claim that roads are subsidised too…if we could only divert all the money of roads to rail and then get buses to connect…missing the point that buses need roads that they just committed to not spending on.

Ultimately roads will surpass rail for efficiency but only once we remove the idiots behind the wheel.

[T[he more developed a country becomes, the more expensive and time-consuming any new rail line will be. And if you’re looking out say 20 years, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that the kind of efficiency that we can get today only on rail lines will in future be available on roads as well — with significantly greater comfort and convenience for passengers.

Right now, technology is arguably making roads and cars more dangerous. Drivers are notoriously bad judges of their own driving ability, and they’re increasingly being distracted by devices — not just text messages, any more, but fully-fledged emails, social-media alerts, and even videos. What’s more, when car manufacturers roll out things like stay-in-lane technology, that just makes drivers feel even safer, so they feel as though they have some kind of permission to spend even more time on their phones, and less time paying attention to the highway. The results can be disastrous. 

I long for the days of a driverless car…the time savings a,one of not having to drive, concentrate of that and not do other more important things will be immesh.

But once we make it all the way into a platoon, or in a self-driving car, then at that point we become significantly safer than even the safest human driver. While we’re very bad judges of our own driving ability, we’re actually incredibly good at intuiting how safe our driver is when we’re a passenger. And the experience of people in self-driving cars is that after no more than about 10 minutes, they relax, feel very safe, and are very happy letting the car take them where they want to go. They even relax so much, I’m told, that they lose the desire to speed — maybe because they know that they’re getting where they’re going, and in the meantime can lose themselves in their phones.

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today, where we have to leave our cars parked for 97% of their lives just so that we know they’re going to be available for us when we need them. Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, giving you the same ability to drive your car when you’re at home, or in a far-flung city, or whenever you might normally take a taxi. And the consequence of that is much less need for parking (right now there are more than three parking spots for every car), and therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

That would be awesome…signal on your phone for a car…it rolls up and you get in, it drives you to where you want to be and you get out and it becomes available for the next passenger.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough platoons and self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This is where we should be investing billions, not stupid trains.


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  • J.M

    There are metropolitan rail services that make money in this world, you’re flat out wrong there.
    You do realise no rail in Auckland would simply make the traffic congestion there worse than it already is?
    Here’s a deal for you mate, you like using your car to take you where you want to go. Auckland gets the CRL, Airport line and rail to the shore. More people use rail, roads are less congested, you get to where you want to go more quickly, everyone wins.

    • No deal because I will be paying for a rail system I neither want nor care to use.

      • StupidDisqus

        Right. A much, much better deal is simply to introduce say a $20 per car per day congestion charge for driving into central Auckland and another $20 for using any of the motorways. Whacking up registration & petrol taxes would have much the same effect.

        The point bludgers & losers can’t afford to drive, so congestion goes way down.

  • Yes, there are metropolitan rail services that make money, notably in Japan and Hong Kong (transparent accounts are difficult to find in much of the developing world), but not in New World cities. Certainly Auckland’s system will never recover the cost of capital, and would struggle to even cover operating costs (gets a third today and getting 50% would put it up to Wellington’s level.

    The only “subsidy” to roads is the 50% of funding local roads get from rates, which some may argue is a property access charge so property owners can interconnect with the roads network (without access the properties would have far less value). However, that could be fixed either by having a property access levy to replace it (ideal for rural roads with few road users which are basically about getting access to farms), or by lifting fuel tax by about 9c/l (and RUC by the equivalent). I’m sure such an increase in motoring tax would not see a rush of mode shift.

    Railevangelists will of course talk about congestion, which is a function of poor pricing and poor resource allocation (insufficient focus on relieving congestion at bottlenecks). Environmentalists will talk about emissions, but they ignore that these have been decreasing fairly consistently due to cleaner engines, and this trend can be promoted through pricing (lower motor vehicle licensing for low emission vehicles).

    Rail in Auckland makes next to no difference to traffic congestion, except the handful of buses it has put out of business. There is NO New World City that has relieved traffic congestion by introducing an urban railway since WW2. None. They all have chronic congestion, the railways are disproportionately used by above average income people, typically younger, working in offices in city centres. They don’t suit shift workers, and don’t suit the 88% of Aucklanders who don’t commute to the downtown (well maybe 1% might fortuitously live and work along the railway without going to the city).

    The future is not rail, the future is for roads to be more intelligent, to be intelligently priced so many motorists choose to drive at different times, it is cars platooning as you said, and priced highways offering free flowing conditions.

    The levels of current rail use in Auckland are laughable, the claims that a railway can carry “so many” more people than a highway lane ignore that the railway wont do that, because people wont choose to use it. It is fantasyland stuff.

    I love trains personally, but railways are bespoke, capital intensive, inflexible technology that simply don’t have any advantages over roads worth paying for until you get very large volumes of people going point to point and large volumes of low value freight or containers doing the same.

    In New Zealand, the right answer is to price the Auckland and Wellington passenger rail at revenue maximising levels, run them until the capital needs renewing (now about 40 years), and let the freight side operate commercially (i.e. keep main trunks and lines for coal, milk and logs that are viable) and sell it.

    and then ignore the loud but tiny railevangelist and Green minorities for whom economics and evidence are inconvenient, and individual freedom an annoying anathema to their desires to spend other people’s money to plan how they think people and freight should move – for their own good!

    A good first step would be to commercialise and privatise the state highways, get a company to come in and run it, tell it that it can charge motorists directly as long as it refunds fuel tax or RUC, and watch it innovate – then move local roads into a similar structure.

    • StupidDisqus

      In New Zealand, the right answer is to price the Auckland and Wellington passenger rail at revenue maximising levels, run them until the capital needs renewing

      Nope. You forget the political risk. The right answer is to sell for scrap immediately, frankly to pay someone to just take all the rails & shit away and melt it down. Even then, Labour might still try to reintroduce railways – see the Tram proposals, KiwiBank, etc.

  • StupidDisqus

    probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model … . Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, …

    That would be awesome…

    No, that would be socialism. Cars are about individual freedom. Just like guns.

    • Hazards001

      Yeah, how could you show off your latest small penis compensation toy under that system?

  • J.M

    The other factor to think about is what may happen to petrol prices. What demand for public transport may there be in the event petrol becomes $3 a litre or more?

    • Gazzaw

      Kiwis will still be commuting in their cars if gas rises to $5 a litre. It may mean alien behaviour such as car pooling but if needs must……… . there’s no way the powers that be will get urban Kiwis into public transport in a big way. There are other influences at play too – in Auckland commerce is devolving out to the suburbs and there is an exponential increase in the number of people working from home.