Governments large and small have obsessed over moving people by rail for at least a generation. People, on the other hand, have often rejected rail due to the high costs, limited access, and inconvenient schedules. Other modes of transportation are simply superior. If there’s one city where a fixed track system should work, it’s New York City. The high population density, lack of parking, and many access points to the system make the city theoretically ideal for rail. If a subway system doesn’t work in New York City, it probably won’t work anywhere. Well, it appears that rail doesn’t work in New York City.
Despite having over 425 stations, five million riders a day, and billions in taxpayer subsidies, the New York City subway system can’t get people from point A to point B reliably. Here’s a selection of headlines from the last month:
The problem is that there is no effective competition which would drive costs down and reliability up. Why do you get horrible service at the DMV and outstanding attention at Chick-fil-A? Well, if they treated you at the restaurant like you were at the DMV, you would likely leave and not return. Businesses can’t afford to lose your business, which is their income. Public services, like the DMV and public transit, are tax funded government operations. They get your money whether you’re satisfied with their services or not. Subway riders can’t just use the competing subway company, and so they are left to complain to politicians. Good luck with that.
New York currently blames most of their troubles on hardware switches that were manufactured and installed in the early twentieth century. While it’s true that the hardware is failing, that’s only the cause du jour. Horrible rides and delays for straphangers are not unique to New York City; public transit problems are common across the nation. Washington D.C.’s train system, Metro, was called the worst in the world by Washington Examiner editor Jason Russell. He said that “[r]iders are let down so often that higher fares for worse service are what they have come to expect.” What has Metro done to fix its many problems? The latest effort has been to blare awful muzak at people.
Slate’s Matt Yglesias explains why Amtrak is in horrible shape:
The way Amtrak is currently set up, there’s no real incentive to undertake incremental improvements. The Northeast Corridor already generates an operating profit, which simply defrays losses elsewhere in the system. Making it run better doesn’t generate any wins for the people who would have to do the work, and would plausibly just lead Congress to reduce subsidies. If the NEC were spun off as an independent entity — perhaps even a private company — then it could internalize the gains from improved service and seek private financing to make cost-effective investments.
Maybe that spinoff would work. Here’s another idea: Let the government own the real estate and equipment, but contract out the operations to private enterprise. You get competition for the contracts – which can include built-in cancellation clauses beneficial to the public to protect against poor service. All it takes to unleash the power of the market to lower prices and increase service is an admission that politicians have no clue how to run a rail system and the decision to pay those who do. Meanwhile, wear comfortable shoes if in New York this summer – you may need them.