Friday, March 25, 2016

Transportation values are arbitrary - somewhat

This has been sitting in my queue for years, possibly in response to this post by Engineer Scotty, and tonight I realized it was pretty much ready to go:

For all you bus-haters out there, I wanted to post this excerpt from the world's greatest writer of train travel. In 1978 Paul Theroux traveled from his childhood home in Medford, Massachussetts to Esquel, Argentina, mostly by train. All over Latin America, he found that people not only preferred buses to trains, but they saw trains as dirty old conveyances for poor people, and buses as fast, modern, classy transportation. Here he is in El Salvador:
But no citizen of this town had any clear idea of where the railway station was. I had arrived from the frontier by car, and after two nights in Santa Ana thought I should be moving on to the capital. There was a train twice a day, so my timetable said, and various people, with hesitation, had directed me to the railway station. But I had searched the town, and the railway station was not where they had said it was. In this way, I became familiar with the narrow streets of Santa Ana; the station continued to elude me. And when I found it, on the morning of my third day, a mile from the hotel, in a part of town that had begun to tumble into plowed fields and cash crops, behind a high fence, and deserted apart from one man at an empty desk — the stationmaster — I understood why no one knew where it was. No one used the train. There was a major road from Santa Ana to San Salvador. WE TAKE THE BUS: it seemed to be a Central American motto in reply to all the railway advertising which said TAKE THE TRAIN — IT is CHEAPER! It was a matter of speed: the bus took two hours, the train took all afternoon.


Ryan Thomas-Martin Miller, O.P. said...

This is true in some parts of Eastern Europe as well, and presumably for similar reasons--the government train monopoly is corrupt/inefficient, underfunded for infrastructure, or both. Also there tends to be a sort of leapfrog effect, where whichever mode was more recently funded (and in many parts of the world, decent roads are more recent than rail) is naturally built to a higher standard and provides more efficient transport.

But I don't think that changes the underlying dynamics--it's cheaper for rail than bus to provide a decent-size seat, you can provide a dining/lounge car, and certainly with current technologies it's inherently faster for city-city routes, both because of top-end speed and traffic. So when and where buses are (rationally) preferred, and the density exists to support frequent train service, it's because the rail infrastructure is behind on upgrades or management is inept.

ardecila said...

This is a good response to all the people who think General Motors conspired to destroy American streetcar systems in the 1940s and 50s.

GM may have engaged in some anti-competitive behavior, but the only reason they could do it is because planners and riders alike in the 1950s thought buses were a more modern, efficient form of transit.

Since American cities tend to move in lockstep when it comes to transportation planning, virtually every city in America ripped out their streetcar tracks for buses - not because GM twisted their arm but because planners spread the gospel of buses and the public demanded them.

Capn Transit said...

It may well be that GM's role was overstated, Ardecila, but I don't think they were completely innocent, either!

Ryan, I agree that rail is more efficient than buses, all other things being equal. That's why I said "somewhat"!

GojiMet86 said...

Unless it is specifically Theroux in the 1970s, Central America is not really a good example to use if you want to put buses as sexy.

No one used the train in El Salvador because it sucked. Guatemala, El Salvador, and the rest of Central America have very bad railroad infrastructure. Guatemala's train hasn't run in 8 years, and it was still using a combination of diesel and steam engines. STEAM! The railroads of El Salvador and Honduras rarely run, and what they trot out are basically one engine and like two cars. Costa Rica is the only country outside of Panama that has anything that closely resembles a commuter line. This has been going on for the last 30 or 40 years. The private companies and the governments that took them over ran them into the ground.

Now I realize that this article most likely referred to long distance travel. Buses in Central America beat any train, mostly because the mountainous geography of those countries prohibits long straight stretches. Buses handle elevations and curves much more easily.

But as for local transit systems, had Theroux used the bus in El Salvador and Guatemala today, he most likely would have had his head hacked off.

Violence is incredibly high, especially in Guatemala City, where my family lives. When I visited in August, 3 drivers and a helper were killed. Bus companies are routinely targets of extortion, and buses are the most common target of violence for gangs.

I made a video of Guatemala transportation:

For a quick rundown of the bus system in Guatemala City. There are basically three systems: TransMetro, TransUrbano, and the red buses. The red buses are the most common buses and are run by an association of tiny private companies (they might be in the triple digits). They are the least safe and are in the worst condition. TranUrbano is relatively new and it does have modern equipment, but really the only good bus system there is the TransMetro, which has about 5 or 6 policemen or military personnel at each station, and has the most modern equipment, and is an actual BRT system. Our SBS is nothing compared to it. But people have to use the red bus because they have no other choice. You put a subway there (if that is even geographically, politically, and economically feasible) and most people will either jump to it or demand TransMetro to expand.

Now South America, on the other hand, is much better, especially the Brazilian systems, and the railroads are leaps and bounds ahead of Central America.

Capn Transit said...

You must not be a regular reader, GojiMet, or you'd know how much I hate the whole "buses should be sexy!" idea. I'm just saying that in certain circumstances, people can see buses vs. trains in a different light.

Don't try to tell me that mountainous geography prohibits long straight stretches for trains any more than it prohibits long straight stretches for roads. I've been through Switzerland on a train. It has nothing to do with geography, and everything to do with the priorities of the government.