Playing with the Big Boys: The Costs of Fruitless Passenger Rail Tours


In these hard times the New Zealand public is somewhat excited about the travel costs incurred by our Government Ministers and MPs. Overseas travel attracts particular rage and fury.

A particularly galling example is a proposal by Christchurch City Mayor Bob Parker, his CEO Tony Marryat, and an urban planner, to visit the US to investigate the performance of light rail in Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Vancouver.

These cities seem unlikely to provide any relevant information, if only because their populations are many times those of Christchurch, a metropolis of roughly 370,000 and a downtown population of a mere 8000. In comparison:

  • Los Angeles – 13.8 million
  • San Francisco/San Jose – 5.3 million
  • Seattle – 3.3 million
  • Vancouver – 2.1 million

The reason the Christchurch team cannot investigate a rail system in the US serving a metropolitan area of only some 350,000 people, and with a CBD of only 8,000 people, may be that because so far, at least, even the most enthusiastic Smart Growth planners in the US are not that silly.

Randal O'Toole, who has made many studies of urban rail systems, points out in "Unlivable Strategies” that spending money on expensive forms of rail transit is fundamentally inefficient because other transportation systems cost far less to build.

Light rail, he argues, has become popular in the United States precisely because it is expensive. Congress gives transit grants to cities on a first-come, first-served basis. So the cities that build the most expensive transit systems get the largest share of federal transit funding.

Naturally, dozens of cities are in line to get their share of the pork.

But that does not prove that light rail is worthwhile. Too many cities have built expensive rail lines and then found that, due to overruns, high operations and maintenance costs, or heavy mortgages, they have to cut back bus service. The result is that rail construction has actually led to reduced transit ridership in many, if not most, cases.

The Grand Tour: My Version

Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay

Here is what the Christchurch Mayor and his team should learn from their visits to the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay.

  • Los Angeles reinforces the Portland experience (a much smaller city) where cost overruns forced Portland to raise bus fares and cut bus service during construction of its first light-rail line in the 1980s. As a result, a smaller proportion of Portlanders ride transit to work and other places today than did so in 1980. A similar situation in Los Angeles led to a 17 percent decline in transit ridership between 1985 and 1995. The NAACP sued the transit agency for cutting bus service in low-income neighborhoods while building rail to middle-class neighborhoods. The suit forced the agency to scale back its rail plans and restore bus service, which led to a recovery of ridership.
  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, due to heavy rail debt, San Jose was forced to drastically cut bus and rail service in 2001 and lost 35 percent of its riders. The transit system had to make further cuts in 2007.

    Furthermore, despite (or because of) several extensions of the BART line, transit ridership in the San Francisco Bay Area has fallen by more than 10 percent since 1982. Several transit advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club (Piper, 2004), the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition (BATLUC, 2003), and the Bay Rail Alliance (Carpenter, 2007), actively oppose a proposed extension of BART to San Jose because they know investments in other forms of transit are much more cost effective.

Overall, US urban areas with rail transit have not fared as well as areas with bus transit. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people in regions with rail transit who commute to work by transit actually declined, while the number in regions with bus-only transit systems increased.

The saddest part of these stories is that the people who lose tend to be those most dependent on transit due to low incomes or an inability to drive, while the people who end up riding rail lines tend to have higher incomes and plenty of auto-mobility. (Winston and Shirley, 1998, p. 9).

Rail transit actually represents a transfer of resource from the poor to the well-off – Robin Hood at work in reverse gear.


After getting voter approval for rail transit in 1996, Sound Transit began operating 31 miles of commuter rail service between Tacoma and Seattle in 1999. It also built a 1.6-mile streetcar line in downtown Tacoma at a cost of $50 million a mile, a third more than planned. As of December, 2003, Sound Transit also operates a 35-mile commuter rail line from Everett to Seattle.

Sound Transit’s Seattle-Tacoma commuter-rail line is one of the least productive in the nation, carrying less than one seventh as many passenger miles per route mile as the average commuter-rail line. As a result it has one of the highest operating costs per trip or per passenger mile of any commuter rail line. Despite starting out with free service, the Everett line has been running more than 70 percent empty.

Transit’s growth in travel and market share is almost entirely due to bus transit, not rail transit. But the growth in the region’s congestion is due to decisions made early in the decade to concentrate on rail transit rather than highway construction. Those decisions have harmed Seattle area residents in many ways, including cost overruns, congestion, transit’s cost ineffectiveness, and housing prices.

Future plans: The Sound Transit agency originally projected that the cost of building a 24-mile light-rail line from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to the University of Washington and Northgate would be $2.4 billion. Shortly after receiving voter approval, the agency increased this estimate to $3.6 billion.

After many stops and starts, last year voters endorsed an $18 billion Sound Transit plan for a 53 mile network which they hope will attract 25,000 daily riders by 2030.

Our Christchurch team should learn from the Seattle story that, once embarked upon, these rail plans tend to eat ever increasing amounts of money.


We can only wish them luck on getting useful information out of Vancouver. There seem to be no collections of the statistics on the performance of the transit systems as are available to US researchers here and here (Excel files).

However, we do note that in 2008 the operating cost of the Translink Sky Trains was C$773,737,000 and this was ‘covered’ by C$359,911,000 of fares and advertising, $262,298,000 motor fuel taxes,$255,741,000 property tax, parking site taxes $8,758,000 and others of $33,313,000.

So the transfers from motorists and property owners are greater than the fare revenues.

In 2008 the Long-term debt was C$1,822.7 million.

Grand Plans

Christchurch Mayor and his team are presumably looking at these rail systems as a means of supporting their Smart Growth plans for the Greater Christchurch area.
If the Mayor and his team ask the right questions, and collect the right data, it will be evident to Blind Freddy's dog that if these boondoggle systems have failed in these major cities, with their major concentrations of employment, then there is no way that light rail can provide a cost effective and efficient service to Christchurch and its environs.

Sorry about that. Enjoy the trip.

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.

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Whoa there!

On your Seattle segment, you've got some inaccurate numbers.

The Sea-Tac to Downtown light rail line is expected to carry 25,000 weekday passengers *next year*. 2030 buildout is projected at nearly 300,000 weekday riders.

Rail transit's share in Seattle will be greater than bus share by late 2020s, by all estimates.

Your average commuter rail line numbers seem to be including things like subways - that's the only way I can see you're getting that number. For heavy rail commuter lines like Sounder, it's actually above average in ridership.