Alex Armlovich asked me whether it’s possible to design a public-private partnership on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to build high-speed rail. I took it to a Patreon poll, in which it prevailed over three other options (why land value taxation is overrated, why community groups oppose upzoning, and what examples of transit success there are in autocracies). On social media I gave a brief explanation for why such a privatization scheme would fail: the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure, and privatizing one component would create incentives for rent-seeking rather than good work. In this post I am going to explain this more carefully.
Conceptually, the impetus for privatization is that the public sector cannot provide certain things successfully because it is politically controlled. For example, political control of infrastructure tends to lead to spreading investment around across a number of regions rather than where it is most needed; when Japan National Railways was broken up and privatized, the new companies let go of many lightly-used rural lines and focused on the urban commuter rail networks and the Shinkansen. Political control may also make it harder to keep down headcounts or wages. A competent government that recognizes that it will always be subject to political decisionmaking about services that should not be political will aim to devolve control of these services to the private sector.
The problem with this story is that privatization itself is a public program. This means that the government needs to be in good enough shape to write a PPP that encourages good service and discourages rent-seeking. Such a government entity does not exist in the realm of American public transportation. This doesn’t mean that all privatization deals are bad, but it means that only the simplest deals have any chance of success, and those deals in turn have the least impact.
When it comes to HSR, private operations work provided there is no or almost no need to coordinate schedules and fares with anyone else. One example is Texas, which has no commuter rail between Dallas and Houston nor any good reason to ever run such service. In California, this is also more or less the case: Caltrain-HSR compatibility is needed, but that’s a small portion of the line and could be resolved relatively easily.
In the Northeast, where there is extensive commuter rail, such coordination is indispensable. Without it, any operator has an incentive to make life miserable for the commuter rail operators and then demand state subsidies to allow regional trains on the track. Amtrak is already screwing other NEC users by charging high rates for electricity (which is supposedly the reason Conrail deelectrified, having previously run freight service on the NEC with electric locomotives) and by coming up with infrastructure plans that make regional rail modernization harder and demanding state money for them. If anything, the political control makes things less bad, because congressional representatives can yell at Amtrak; they will have less leverage over a private operator. In the other direction, Metro-North is slowing down Amtrak between New Rochelle and New Haven for the convenience of its own dispatching, and is likely to keep doing so under any PPP deal.
I have written many posts about what it would take to institute HSR on the NEC at the lowest possible cost. All of these make the same point, from many angles: organization – that is, improving timetabling – is vastly cheaper than pouring concrete and building bypass tracks. In chronological order, I’ve written,
- A post about MBTA-HSR compatibility
- A post about Metro-North-HSR compatibility between New York and New Rochelle
- A compendium of cost saving measures I called NEC, 90% Cheaper, back when Amtrak’s budget for it was only $150 billion
- A followup about capacity in the New York commuter belt
- A look at track-sharing around Washington Union Station
- A criticism of Amtrak’s lack of integration between rolling stock and infrastructure plans
- Another look at planning coordination
- A criticism of NEC Future’s overpriced plan ($300 billion for full-fat HSR!)
- A very long and detailed look at New Rochelle-Greens Farms
Privatization is supposed to solve the problems of an incompetent public sector. But Amtrak’s incompetence is not really about wages or staffing; NEC trains are overstaffed relative to Shinkansen trains, but not relative to TGVs. Nor is it about unprofitable branch lines, not when the proposal is to privatize the NEC alone, rather than the entirety of Amtrak so that the private operator could shut down the long-distance trains. Some of the incompetence involves politicized procurement, but this is not the dominant source of high NEC costs. No: the incompetence manifests itself first of all in poor coordination between the various users of the NEC. Given better coordination, Amtrak could shave a substantial portion of its New York-New Haven runtime, perhaps by 10-20 minutes without any bridge replacements, and reduce schedule padding elsewhere.
To fix this situation, some organization would need to determine the timetables up and down the line and handle dispatching and train priority. In the presence of such an organization (which could well be Amtrak itself given top-to-bottom changes in management), a PPP is of limited benefit, because the private operator would be running on a schedule set publicly. Absent such an organization, privatization would make the agency turf battles that plague the entire NEC even worse than they are today.
In 2009, SNCF proposed to develop HSR in four places in the US: California, Texas, Florida, and the Midwest. The NEC, with its existing public intercity and regional rail operations, was not on its map. More recently, Texas Central is a private Japanese initiative to build HSR between Dallas and Houston. On the NEC the only Japanese initiative involved maglev between Washington and Baltimore, a mode of transportation that doesn’t fit the NEC’s context but is guaranteed to not share tracks with any state-owned commuter rail operation.
The invention of HSR itself was not privatized, and the European privatization paradigm involves public control of track infrastructure. Competing operators (some public, some private) can access tracks by paying a track charge, set equally across all operators. But even then, the track infrastructure owner has some decisions to make about design speed – mixing slower and faster trains reduces capacity, so if there’s a mixture of both, does the infrastructure owner assume the design speed is high and charge slower trains extra for taking high-speed slots or does it assume the design speed is low and charge faster trains extra? So far the public rail infrastructure operators have swept this question under the rug, relying on the fact that on high-speed tracks all trains go fast and on low-speed ones few HSR services go faster than an express regional train.
Unfortunately, the NEC requires large speed differences on the same route to avoid excessive tunneling. This complicates the EU’s attempts at a relatively hands-off approach to rail competition in two ways. First, it’s no longer possible to ignore the design speed question, not when regional trains should be connecting Boston and Providence in 51 minutes and high-speed trains in 20 minutes, on shared tracks with strategic overtakes. And second, the overtakes must be timed more precisely, which means whoever controls the tracks needs to also take an active hand in planning the schedules.
Handwaving the problems of the public sector using privatization works in some circumstances, such as those of Japan National Railways, but could never work on the NEC. The problems a PPP could fix, including labor and rolling stock procurement, are peripheral; the problems it would exacerbate, i.e. integrating infrastructure and schedule planning, are the central issues facing the NEC. There is no alternative to a better-run, better-managed state-owned rail planning apparatus.