Letter: In the USA, you need buses to make the trains work

Passengers board an Amtrak train in Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

One of our occasional forays into the CityMetric postbag

I was interested to read Simon Jeffrey’s article on what’s going on with buses in England (“We should talk trains less – and buses more”).

It’s nothing unusual, though: nearly every transit system in the US that has a rail line pours tons of money into it, sometimes cutting back bus service to cover it. Los Angeles was sued over that and lost, leading to court supervision at one point.

But the real sticking point is: you need buses to make rail work.

In the US, rail lines, except for some downtown subways, are often – even usually – not located where people live or work. There are many reasons for that, but a common one is that old freight rail lines, which urban rail transit tends to repurpose for light rail because they’re cheap, were built to serve industrial land uses that have mostly gone away (as rail-served properties, anyway).

So people who want to use those lines have to get to them in some way - either driving to a park’n’ride lot (in the ‘burbs), or riding a bus. And so, there’s a delicate balancing act. You need the buses to get the riders to the rail line, and need to coordinate services to minimise transfer hassles – but you don’t want to spend too much money on the buses because the rail lines need it.

One rail system I know of that has embraced buses with trains, rather than instead of them, is the California state-supported Amtrak service. The trains share freight tracks, as with most Amtrak trains. And those freight tracks are seldom where people live or want to go. So off-line service is needed to make the train practical to run as general transportation – otherwise, it’s too expensive for the state to support, relative to roads. To solve this problem, you can buy an Amtrak ticket on the state trains that are mostly, actually, a bus.

Say you want to travel from Eureka on the far north coast, almost in Oregon, to Sacramento: you ride a bus 4-6 hours from Eureka to Martinez, then the train for another hour to Sacramento. The buses are part of the train system, with through tickets and guaranteed (most of the time) connections.

In fact, the fastest public surface transportation from the San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento to Los Angeles currently is the San Joaquin train. That includes a bus from Bakersfield to Los Angeles: the journey takes 8 to 9 hours in total. Actually, there is an overnight sleeper bus from San Francisco to Santa Monica, that takes about 8 hours – but that doesn’t carry many people and charges more than double the Amtrak fare. Other bus options (Greyhound and Megabus) all start at about 10 hours overall, with comparable fares to Amtrak.

Of course, people who want to get to (or from) LA quickly fly (1 hour in the air; 2-4 hours total with terminal & access time). But the ground option does exist, and it’s mostly, except for one slow tourist train a day, a combination of train and bus.

Basically, you need buses to make the trains work.

Mike Brady

Folsom, California


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.