Economists Clifford Winston, of the Brookings Institution, and Vikram Maheshri, of UC Berkeley have drawn much attention for their paper On the social desirability of urban rail transit systems, an actual peer-reviewed look at train-building. They find that with the exception of San Francisco’s BART system, every one of 25 light and heavy rail systems they look at is a net loser for the general public.

Randal O’Toole notes that the train fans have already moved to try to debunk these conclusions.

Well before the Winston-Maheshri paper saw print, loyal Antiplanner opponent Victoria Transport Policy Institute published a critique by Jay Warner, a metallurgical consultant from Racine Wisconsin. The critique includes a lot of technical jargon like “auto correlation” and “exogenicity,” but basically Warner’s conclusion is that Winston & Maheshri’s paper is overly simplistic. Warner also criticizes the paper for failing to include commuter rail.

I think Warner is correct. But, possibly unlike Warner, I think that a more detailed analysis would conclude that all U.S. rail systems, including commuter rail and BART, are socially undesirable.

Warner says that the paper’s “treatment of pollution reduction benefits is intellectually questionable.” I agree; the paper gives pollution a short shrift. As the Antiplanner has shown, most transit systems that include some form of rail transit consume more energy and emit more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average passenger automobile. The evidence available also suggests that rail transit systems emit more nitrogen oxides (a precursor of ozone smog) and particulates than automobiles.

My analysis did not include many of the recent commuter-rail systems such as Dallas, San Diego, and Seattle because those agencies did not submit fuel-consumption data to the Federal Transit Administration. But their ridership levels are so low that it is likely that their Diesel-powered trains are also heavy polluters per passenger mile.

This is particularly relevant for CATS’ $470 million North commuter line. With its miniscule ridership of at most 4600 per day, the diesel trains are virtually guaranteed to be heavy polluters per passenger mile. So not only will this line fail to reduce congestion — hence emissions — produced by road traffic, we may see people trade their less polluting auto commute for a more polluting train commute.


We need a new plan.