22 Nov 2009, 9:17pm
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SA – Austin passenger rail still dead

Like the old Saturday Night sketch about Generalissimo Franco, passenger rail between San Antonio and Austin is still dead.  Oh a mortician applied a new coat of make-up, but the poor old stiff ain’t going nowhere.  After twelve years of failure, a new name and an application for $5 million of tax payer money was enough to create a blip of interest but even that has not lasted long.  Oh well.

 Passenger rail enthusiasts are a die hard breed.  Despite a lack of demand and the total impossibility of kicking the Union Pacific off its own property, still they dream of restoring passenger rail service even though it makes absolutely no sense.  Even at the peak of passenger rail travel in the USA around 1920, there were never more than six trains a day to Austin, three on the Missouri Pacific and three provided by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas.  None terminated in Austin.  As the roads and automobiles improved, automobiles became the method of choice with frequent buses a good second option.  What is supposed to be so different now?

 Before I go any further I should state that I am a rail enthusiast, only I favor the approach of Warren Buffet who recently purchased the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the nation’s second largest freight railroad.  I have had a chance to look at the balance sheets of all the railroads serving San Antonio back in the 1920s and the disparity in revenue and costs between freight and passengers was enormous even then.  No wonder the railroads paid a fortune to the government and gave them their passenger equipment for free into the bargain to be able to ditch their common carrier passenger obligations.  Not one single railroad has made a single penny profit carrying passengers since the end of World War Two.

 Now, if Warren Buffet, or indeed any other investor, is not about to invest a dime into trying to create commuter service between San Antonio and Austin, why should I, as a taxpayer, feel good about it.  Why should my return on investment be pouring more good money after bad into a useless scheme?  I attended a number of public meetings almost five years ago when the scheme was still called the Austin San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District.  I asked how many people regularly travel between the two cities every day?  They said they didn’t know.  I made phone calls and sent e-mails asking the same basic question.  To this day I have yet to get any sort of answer.

 In commuting terms, folks in New Braunfels come to San Antonio and those living in San Marcos go to Austin.  So many people from the latter community travel daily to Austin, the city is part of CARTS, the Capital Area Rural Transportation System.  They are also served by the Bobcat Tram which, operated by First Transit, provides buses to San Antonio via New Braunfels.  Greyhound offers twelve buses a day, just about one every hour between 10 AM and 10 PM.

 Ignoring the impossibility of building new tracks for the UP’s for just a moment, can somebody tell me who is going to use the service?  I have not been to Austin since 2007, and that was to do research for a book.  Who are the people who travel between San Antonio and Austin five days a week and how many of them are there?  The longest bus Greyhound takes one hour forty-five minutes but the stop in Austin is supposedly very badly situated.  Of course, as with any train service, I have to get to the bus and then to my final destination from the Austin terminus.  Or I can be on 6th Street from my house, eighty-one miles in one hour twenty three minutes according to Google.  At 25 MPG, the 164 mile round trip will cost me $6.48, at $2.50 a gallon.  What regular traveler is going to pay more for slower, more expensive, infinitely more cumbersome public transportation when he or she can get into his or her own car, listen to music, avoid possibly less than pleasant fellow passengers plus have the option to make additional stops at the grocery store or pick up dry cleaning, along the way?

There are many good reasons why long distance commuter trains in our area are still as far away as ever despite twelve years of desultory effort.  A new name changes nothing.  Nothing at all.


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