Energy-Efficiency Myths of Commuter Rail

CascadeNewLogoBy John A. Charles, Jr.

Advocates of rail transit tend to argue that we need trains because they are more energy-efficient than buses or cars. Unfortunately, that’s only true in some cases.

According to a new report by the Federal Railroad Administration, the average energy consumed by all commuter rail systems in America during 2011 was 2,923 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per passenger-mile. But the commuter line operated by TriMet (WES) was close to the bottom: WES consumed 5,961 BTU per passenger-mile, more than twice the national average.

Not only is WES inefficient compared with its peer group, but it is wasteful compared with other modes of travel. The national average for all transit buses was 4,240 BTU per passenger-mile; for all light-duty cars, the average was 3,364.

Based on these numbers, the environment would be better off if WES were terminated and riders simply got in their cars.

Nonetheless, TriMet management is “all-in” on more commuter rail. In its proposed FY 15 budget, the agency plans to purchase two additional rail vehicles at a total cost of $8.5 million. None of those costs will be paid by the privileged few who ride WES; debt service will be paid by taxpayers for the next 20 years.

It’s a cliché but still true: In government, nothing succeeds like failure.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.