Trains are Shiny But the Numbers Don’t Work


Charlie Arlinghaus

January 14, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Public policy is not about bright shiny objects. Too often politicians are so distracted by the shininess of an idea that they forget what their policy goal is. The classic example of this is the glassy eyed fascination so many people have with the romance surrounding trains. People think trains are really cool so let’s get one. It doesn’t really matter why. The excitement around the vehicle obscures the policy goal and the possible solutions.

Trains are and have always been very romantic. The mystique surrounding clouds of steam rolling across the platform of a train shed under Eiffel Tower like girders exerts a hold on our imagination that Greyhound was never able to capture. We all feel like Cary Grant in North by Northwest when he says to Eva Marie Saint, “Beats flying, doesn’t it?” Our attraction for the mode distracts us from the specific problem and economic considerations.

Regular passenger and commuter rail service to central New Hampshire ended in 1967. In an election year gift, the federal government paid for a year of commuter rail all the way to Concord in 1980. The election cut the money and the trains stopped.

According to the census bureau, about 85,000 New Hampshire residents commute to work somewhere in Massachusetts. A train along the I-93 or Everett Turnpike corridor would enable those who live in that corridor, live near a station, and work in Boston itself to commute to work.

Although some tout allowing Bostonians to commute to jobs in Manchester, very few people commute in reverse and the expense doesn’t justify the tiny number it would help. The real policy goal is to help people commute to Boston – or at least that area of Boston convenient to North Station – this doesn’t help much if you work in Woburn or Burlington or Framingham.

The major obstacle is price. Extending MBTA commuter rail to Manchester – the current preferred option – would require significant subsidies and an enormous capital investment which would never be recovered.

The capital cost of the program has been lowered to $250 million. To put that in perspective, the state borrows just less than $125 million every two years. So if we did no other borrowing whatsoever – for buildings, major projects, and other capital expenses that are generally funded at less than half of what agencies request – if we did none of that for four years, we could build a train.

At that point, we’re ready to start losing money hand over fist. One of the most successful train projects in the recent history of the United States has been the train from Portland to Boston known as the Downeaster.  Geographically and in its commuter focus it’s quite similar to the project advocates hope to build along I-93 instead of I-95.

The Downeaster carries 530,000 passengers in a year and needs $8.4 million from the State of Maine to cover its losses. And that’s the most successful passenger rail model in recent history.

If our goal is to move commuters to Boston efficiently, we already have a program. The Boston Express bus also moves more than a half million passengers a year (550,000 in the comparable time period) but does it at less than a tenth of the cost — $750,000 instead of $8.4 million.

If the policy goal is to operate a commuter service to Boston to satisfy the federal government mitigation requirements in a highway corridor, we already have one and it operates at a tiny fraction of the cost. But then Cary Grant rode the train and not the bus.

It is important to understand, however, that every policy choice displaces other choices. An additional $250 million in capital costs in a state that saw its debt explode by 40% from 2007-2011 is simply not available. The $8 million or more a year would have to come by cutting something else.

One plan is to use federal grants including the funds referred to as CMAQ. Some advocates don’t even count that as state money. Of course, that’s nonsense. Money being used today for needs identified in the state’s ten-year transportation plan would be displaced and their funds taken away.


The governor’s speech last week made a train the centerpiece of her economic development plan. Between now and her budget address next month we can only hope she might explain what will be cut to pay for this boondoggle.