Category: Labor

The Option of Profitable Transit

David Levinson’s post saying that transit should strive to restructure and be profitable stirred much discussion on neighboring blogs, including Human Transit (which broadly agrees with the idea if not the libertarian tone) and The Transport Politic (which does not), as well as multiple commenters who chimed in noting that it’s ridiculous to require transit to break even when cars get so many subsidies. While I agree with Levinson and Jarrett’s sentiments about core versus welfare services in principle, in practice the causes of transit losses are orthogonal to the subjects under discussion; the actual issues are somewhat related to what the commenters mention, but those commenters don’t go nearly far enough.

In the original post, Levinson proposes the following distinction:

Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.

We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:

1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the “core”.

2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the “feeders”.

3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them “equity” routes.

Jarrett, whose work has focused on priorities, not only agrees with the distinction but also downplays the importance of routes in category #2, and has often advocated that agencies let go of low-performing routes and concentrate on trunk frequency. While Jarrett is right and this distinction is critical when an agency needs to reduce its expenditure, it’s not going to make any agency profitable.

The number of routes in the US that break even financially is minimal. It’s easy enough to come up with routes that cover their avoidable costs, but transit has enough fixed costs that retreating to them is not going to be enough. For a New York example, see this spreadsheet, due to Cap’n Transit: although multiple bus routes are portrayed as profitable, once one checks the more detailed spreadsheet the Cap’n links to, it turns out that when including both direct and indirect operating costs, the best-performing route, the M86, drops from an operating ratio of 172% to one of 91%. Moreover, the best-performing routes do not form a trunk system, but are for the most part short-hop crosstown buses, with very high ridership per kilometer of route length. Most networks that actually are profitable consist of buses feeding into the Lincoln Tunnel, a choke point that has an exclusive bus lane in the morning rush hour.

Since in some other parts of the world urban transit is in fact profitable, we need to address causes other than the existence of lesser-used routes. I propose that instead of classifying American lines into profitable and unprofitable ones, a division in which one category is going to be very lonely, we classify whole networks according to what makes them lose so much money. I believe the following list of causes is relatively uncontroversial for good transit advocates:

1. High labor costs, predominantly overstaffing, but at some agencies (for example, Muni) also very high salaries.

2. Poor design, e.g. of intermodal transfers.

3. Low fares on some networks, which exist predominantly to provide minimal mobility of last resort rather than core transportation.

4. Bad regulations, especially when it comes to regional rail.

5. An auto-oriented policy.

Cause #5 is the elephant in the room. It’s not just ongoing auto subsidies and such mandates as Euclidean zoning and free parking. It’s also a decades-long history promoting auto-centric development, as a result of which uses are too widespread and low-intensity for transit to be of much use on most trips. Even edge cities are too dense sometimes; if you can find Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy’s sadly now behind paywall article Edgeless Cities, read it for a quick explanation of the limitations of the relatively intense but auto-centric development form of Tysons Corner or White Plains.

The best analogy I can give here is a growing industry or industrial zone. Early on in a country’s development, it will want industrial policy: subsidies, tax breaks, protectionism. The US railroads got it, most Japanese exporters got it, Samsung and Hyundai got it. As a country becomes richer and its economy becomes more mature, those industries become profitable and suddenly start advocating free trade and free markets, even for themselves, and whine loudly at the suggestion that rich regions or industries should subsidize poor ones.

There are plenty of routes in the US that, while unprofitable now, could be made profitable with better management and operating practices. This is usually what I write about. Those are causes #1, 2, and 4. Cause #3 applies to some but not the most relevant agencies; fares in large US cities tend to be average or high by international standards, though perhaps lower than the revenue-maximizing fares. Altogether, fixing what are essentially issues of competence is going to raise transit use, possibly to acceptable levels. But it will not turn New York into Tokyo, Boston into Taipei, or Providence into Zurich.

Buy America is a Scam

Streetsblog’s interview with Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Henley hits on the normal points regarding labor issues and transit, but one bit there deserves additional followup, regarding Buy America provisions:

Tanya Snyder: Some transit advocates are also critical of things like Buy America provisions because it costs transit agencies more money.

Larry Henley: This is the Wal-Mart question. This is whether or not we have a country at all anymore.

If the goal is to race to the bottom, to get the cheapest products, which means the cheapest labor, then we ought to be mindful that while we’re preserving the fiscal integrity of the MTA, we’re ruining the lives of American kids. We’re making it impossible for them to get a job. And if you look at the unemployment rates today, as staggering as they sound, it’s 9 percent overall, but for college educated kids it’s 4 percent. Which means that people who lack a college education no longer have a future in America. They just don’t.

…So that now, we have people in China and India and all across the world competing with American kids.

…This is about a moral crisis in America. And then they have the gall to come back and make all these arguments about American people being inefficient or American people not working hard enough and why shouldn’t they all be part time. But the central issue is that we have allowed corporations like Wal-Mart to wring every ounce of hope out of young Americans’ lives.

In the comments, Stephen Smith already justly mocked Henley for complaining about China and India when the major rolling stock and bus vendors are from peer developed countries, and Buy America’s most recent derailing of a light rail order was about imports from Spain, a country with 21% unemployment. But there’s much more at stake here.

Buy America’s purported role is to create American jobs. But let’s examine the costs. Amtrak’s Sprinter locomotives, compliant with both FRA regulations and Buy America, cost 30% more than the European locomotives they’re based on, and 50% more than competitor products built only for passenger trains rather than also for freight trains. A 30% premium works out to an extra cost of about $100 million, providing 250 jobs. Since the income earned by skilled workers is normally around $100,000 or less rather than $400,000, we can conclude most of the premium doesn’t go to workers. Or, for an even more egregious example, but without job numbers specified, look to SMART’s DMUs, at twice the cost of comparable European trains.

In other words, it’s a scam. Blocking parallel imports ensures only a select number of vendors can bid, driving up prices. Usually there’s a small sop to American labor, well-publicized in the media with photo-ops of people in hard hats – e.g. the 250 jobs heralded for the Sprinter order – but the bulk of the extra money goes elsewhere. It creates makework for consultants and lobbyists. It increases vendor profits, since fewer companies, typically the largest and most global ones, can bid. (This also goes for regulations: Caltrain applied for its FRA waiver in consultation with the biggest train manufacturers, potentially locking out Stadler and other small up-and-comers.)

When the number of vendors is very small, the result can be not just high cost, but also shoddy work. The reason the US has no legacy domestic rolling stock vendors is that two of the few that remained by the 1970s, protected by Buy America but servicing an ever-shrinking market, sold New York City Transit defective trains, the R44 and R46 orders; this was one of many mishaps facing the city in the 1970s. The subsequent lawsuits bankrupted the vendors. The R44 is still a lemon, though since refurbishment the R46 has performed well. In the 1980s, NYCT switched to global vendors instead; the next order, the R62, was not federally funded due to Reagan’s cuts, so NYCT went ahead and imported trains from Kobe, which worked fine.

There is another way, but, as with most other issues facing transportation, it requires importing ideas from other developed countries. The idea in question is that parallel imports are not a bad thing, either for the economy or for workers. The US and Canada import cars from each other; neither is any worse for it. To a much smaller extent due to trade barriers and different sets of regulations, North America imports cars from Europe and Japan – and the attempts to fight it have not resulted in a union revival, but in the proliferation of non-union plants in low-wage states.

Parallel imports are not an anti-worker or anti-union tactic. The Swiss Socialist Party is for them, and, far from a neo-liberal sop, it also supports linking trade to human rights and workers’ rights and has a general roster of policy positions that most Daily Kos contributors would love to see the Democratic Party endorse.

The majority of trade is within the developed world. To the extent Buy America is supposed to protect American workers from low-wage countries, it has failed; NYCT’s Buy America-compliant R160 trains were partially manufactured in Brazil to save money. The main function of Buy America is to protect companies that do business in the US from competition, period. At that it has done a very good job; it’s just not good for the public, which has to pay for it.

Organized Labor and the Housing Protest

In both the US and Israel, the power of organized labor is in decline, and union membership is increasingly restricted to public sector and legacy manufacturing employees, who are usually well-compensated and have a middle- or even upper-middle class income, but are still under attack by right-wing politicians who hope to privatize public services. However, these two countries’ lefts react to those employees and their representatives in diametrically opposed manner. American leftists typically support the major unions, Israeli leftists disdain them as sellouts. Although in both cases the left supports insurgent unions over well-established ones in intra-union fights – for example, UNITE-HERE over SEIU’s leadership – the attitudes toward the established unions are very different.

The relevance of this is the role of Ofer Eini, the leader of the Histadrut, in the emerging housing protests. Although the protest is grassroots, he’s started to play a role as well, demanding that the government negotiate with the demonstrators. For a selection of English-language mainstream sources mentioning his role, see Globes, the Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz, as well as Daily Kos, which bases its reporting on mainstream Israeli media. The general tone is that the protest began as a grassroots effort, separate from any mainstream organization, but now has a powerful player by its side.

In contrast the reporting I see from Hebrew-language leftist sources is quite different. 972Mag contributors Rechavia Berman and Yossi Gurvitz react uniformly negatively toward Eini. Berman explicitly and Gurvitz implicitly complain about Eini’s representing an establishment union whose members are predominantly public-sector. Berman even wrote a post on the subject entitled “Don’t Let Ofer Eini Coopt the Struggle,” calling Eini the biggest danger to the protests.

To clarify matters, neither Berman nor Gurvitz is an economic rightist, or even centrist. Both bloggers’ views on economic matters would place them in the middle of a group of Daily Kos contributors. Berman also took a hardline stance against Scott Walker’s anti-union law. But their view toward the mainline Israeli unions is hostile: they view them as representing the status quo, not the change that’s needed.

Put another way, the Israeli left is viewing its predicament and demanding wholesale changes in the economy, backed by grassroots activism. The American left is instead trying to cling to what the unions still have left; it welcomes struggles to unionize more workers, but views the mainstream unions as a succor of the working class rather than as part of the establishment.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, general interest. Second, more precisely, it shows that political stances come from not just ideology, but also political alliances, with all the implications it has. Third, specifically about good transit, it connects to what I said in my post about politicals vs. technicals, that the politicals are usually mainstream or moderate left while the technicals are all over, from the center-right to the radical left. Transit advocates with views similar to those of US labor liberals are just glad that they have APTA and Brookings on board and often want to expand from there. It’s advocates with views similar to those of the Israeli left – usually technicals, but not just politicals – who view those organizations as industry sops, with interests different from those of riders. It of course does not mean the latter kind of advocates are themselves left-wing – just that they view transit agencies the same way the grassroots left in Israel views the Histadrut.

Even on pure politics, it’s the latter approach that wins over non-leftists. The current housing protests in Israel attract everyone, even political groups that traditionally vote right-wing. The ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are fielding protest tents alongside anarchists and other people who demonstrate in front of the West Bank security fence. They argue heatedly about politics all day, and in the process build a new political arena that excludes the present-day establishment, but are united in their opposition to the status quo. The establishment right is doing its best to smother the protests, but its divide-and-rule tactics are no longer working. This couldn’t have happened if the protests had been started by the usual center-left organizations, with all their cultural baggage. People who want better services but are culturally indisposed toward joining with petrified organizations respond much better to grassroots efforts, even more radical ones, than to the same old.

On Privatization

My post identifying the FRA as American passenger rail’s biggest nemesis drew a lot of links due to the relevance to Rep. Mica’s proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor. So it is time to step back and ask in general which problems privatization could solve, and which problems are facing American rail travel apart from the FRA. The operating assumption here is that capitalism is not a magical thing that always works, but rather a system that solves some problems created by competing economic systems while creating others.

First, privatization can be done in two separate ways. In Japan, or in the US before 1971, railroads comprise both infrastructure and operations. They run their own trains on their own tracks, and negotiate bilateral trackage rights agreements when they need to access other companies’ tracks. They compete for passengers, but cooperate when necessary; for example, many Shinkansen trains run through the territory of both JR Central and JR West, but the change of drivers only takes a minute.

The other way to privatize, favored in Europe and by Mica, is to split track ownership and operations, on the model of airports (not owned by airlines) and highways (not owned by truckers). Tracks remain public, operations are contracted out to the highest bidder. Regional services in Europe require subsidies, so the highest bidder in this context is the one asking for the smallest subsidy. Depending on which country it is and whether the service is regional or intercity, the public entity controlling the track may fix the schedules and fares in order to guarantee seamless compatibility between different operators.

Both ways have subcategories – for example, in the first method, the government could provide zero subsidies (Hong Kong), minor subsidies for capital construction (Shinkansen construction in Japan, the electrification of the Northeast Corridor south of New York in the 1930s), or ongoing subsidies for operations (Metra, some US commuter lines until the 1970s or 80s). In the second method, the operators can be all private as in Britain, or they could be a mixture of private and state-owned as in France and Germany.

The competition in Japan and the US works, when the railroads have power. There is not much cooperation apart from bilateral agreements and trackage rights. Thus, while Tokyo’s Suica and PASMO are top-notch smartcard implementations, they are poor examples of fare integration; people can swipe the same card on any company’s lines, but transferring from one company to the other requires paying for a separate ticket. For travel between two different metropolitan areas’ companies, smartcards are compatible only based on bilateral agreements, even though all smartcards in Japan use the same FeliCa technology.

When the railroads are not in power, disaster can happen. This is not easily seen in Japan, where the largest cities have not undergone urban renewal or transit decline, but in the US, agency turf means competing for a shrinking customer base and making the customer experience worse.

Therefore, straight Japanese-style privatization requires modifications to ensure timetable and fare integration, and compatible rolling stock. Here, ironically, FRA regulations provided something positive, paving the way to make the Bombardier Bilevel Car a standard commuter rail coach, which different North American cities can lease from one another when necessary; this indicates that what is necessary is better regulations modeled after those of the UIC or Japan rather than a free-for-all.

The other issue with privatization is that one of its primary features, the pruning of marginal branch lines, can become a bug. Focusing on core products has led railroads to neglect markets perceived as marginal rather than try to improve them. Both France and Germany have neglected regional travel in order to look more profitable; although SNCF and DB are state-owned, they act like private companies. In Berlin the resulting deferred maintenance led to a total meltdown, in which three-quarters of the S-Bahn stock had to be recalled on a day’s notice; while German trains are for the most part all compatible, the Berlin S-Bahn is an exception because it was electrified earlier and uses a different voltage from the rest of Germany.

Even in Japan, this is visible once one notes that for JR East and West, the core products are both the Shinkansen and the Tokyo and Osaka commuter networks. All the rest on those networks is lumped together under “Other lines,” so that JR East’s reports do not distinguish the Sendai and Niigata commuter lines from legacy intercity lines. It’s perhaps telling that the fastest non-Shinkansen train in Japan is in Hokkaido, where tilting DMUs on curvy single track with a top speed of 130 km/h average 100 km/h between Sapporo and Hakodate.

Note that the regulations here are mostly irrelevant, except where they involve cooperation between different private companies. Bad regulations can exist both under a private system (e.g. the US before 1971) and under a public one (e.g. the US today); the same is true of good regulations.

We should now step back and look at what enabled the success of the breakup of Japan National Railways, and the subsequent sale of its three constituents serving Honshu to private investors. Restructuring slashed the labor force, improved the quality of management, shut down lightly used lines, and erased the debt that JNR has accumulated to cover operating losses (for it was not subsidized, unlike Western money-losing railroads). It was done slowly, and the government helped find jobs for the displaced workers, which was easy since at the time Japan’s economy was booming. Subsequently, safety and punctuality increased.

The problems privatization solved, then, include operational inefficiency, political meddling forcing the operation of marginal lines, and labor problems. JNR not only was overstaffed, but also was represented by four separate unions, split along political rather than professional lines, ranging from centrist to communist. In the years before privatization, this was mitigated by reforms to both management and labor.

The experience of the positives of JNR privatization further shows that instead of shock therapy or PPPs, a slow reforming approach is required. The best practice is to do this slowly, like in Japan, and postpone the final decision until substantial changes have been made. A government that is too incompetent to run things by itself is also too incompetent to ensure privatization works for the public rather than just for cronies; at least some increase in the quality of government is required if privatization has any hope of success.