I recently rode an Amtrak train from Chicago to Dallas, and every seat was full. Compared to my previous experiences on Amtrak, that was an amazing change. Just 6 months ago, I remember that there were 4 empty seats for every one that was claimed. When I asked my fellow passengers why they chose to ride, the hot topic was the high price of gas. Fuel prices are driving up the price of airplane tickets (just last weekend, fares rose $20!), and 3 major airlines died in the first quarter due to oil shock. Drivers are also becoming aware of every drop of fuel that they use – no one likes to see a $50 or $100 charge at the pump!
The silver lining of this is that we’re starting to see the cost of different modes of travel mirror their real price in terms of pollution. High gas prices are making environmentally friendly transport more and more competitive. In effect, this is a preview of how a carbon tax could change the face of travel.
As gas price keep climbing, a growing number of Americans are leaving their cars in the garage and getting on board trains. Commuter train lines around the country are reporting big jumps in first quarter ridership: up 15% in the suburbs of Seattle, 13% in the communities north of Miami, 7% in the region surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul, and better than 5% in New Jersey.
Subways and bus routes are feeling the boost too. People are leaving their cars at home and hopping on public transport. Unfortunately, since many of these commuter services use petroleum based fuel, their costs are rising too. Increased ridership can offset these increased costs in the short term though. It costs almost as much to run an empty train as it does to run a train with 40 people in it. Additional paying passengers add minimal costs while bringing in much needed revenue. Fuel prices are also rising for train and bus operators though. When commuter services charge the same despite rising prices, this can eliminate any efficiency gains.
If the price of oil stays at these levels, there’s likely to be widespread demand for better public transportation:
Five dollar gasoline may be enough to force some people to give up steady use of their personal cars and seek other solutions. For others, the quitting price may be ten or twenty dollars per gallon and for the very wealthy even $100 a gallon gasoline ($80 or $100 thousand a year) would be an acceptable price to pay for the convenience of the private car.
In the case of slowly increasing gasoline prices the problem is one of forming a critical mass that will make economic sense for greatly expanded mass transit. Such a critical mass is likely to come for long distance travel first, for as soon as discretionary air travel becomes unaffordable, the demand for better train and bus service will increase rapidly. Long distance automobile travel may fill some of this gap especially for moving multiple passengers or if cars become significantly more efficient, but for the lone traveler, a long distance car trip could become very expensive.
If you’re undecided about taking the train, here are 9 underappreciated benefits of train travel. Compared to travel by air, the benefits of train travel boil down to lower cost, increased comfort, and reduced hassle from security. Air travel still wins on convenience, reliability, and prestige. Long distance buses are also a great option – some studies suggest that intercity buses the most fuel efficient travel available today:
Based on mileage and passengers in 2004, highway buses achieved an average of 148.4 passenger miles per gallon. That’s more than double achieved by intercity trains which achieved 74.1 passenger miles per gallon. Airlines managed 40.9 passenger miles per gallon, while cars came in last at 35.4 mpg.