“It’s a success”

There are no more common words to hear shortly after the opening of a new rail project in the United States than “It’s a success”. The forecast of the declaration of success is far more accurate the forecast of ridership or costs.

For instance, Metrorail (WMATA) claims:

Metro: Silver Line ridership remains strong

Metro today provided updated Silver Line ridership information showing that, less than two months after opening, the new line is already performing at 60 percent of its projected ridership for the end of the first full year of service. As of last week, an average of 15,000 riders are entering the system at the five new Silver Line stations on weekdays for a combined 30,000 trips to or from the new stations.

In the planning process, Silver Line ridership was projected to reach 25,000 boardings at the five new stations after one full year of service.

Metro estimates that the Silver Line is currently adding approximately 6,000 new riders — making roughly 12,000 trips — to the Metrorail system each weekday. The balance, approximately 9,000 riders, are primarily former Orange Line riders who have switched to the Silver Line.

Some outlets have used the word “success” to describe the line, as has Secretary Foxx. Certainly it is still early, and maybe the Silver Line will exceed first year forecasts, or final year forecasts, or even have benefits in excess of costs, or somehow reduce inequity in the Washington region, or lead to economic development, or any number of other objectives hoisted on transit lines. It is arguably successful from a project delivery perspective, in that it was delivered, and opened for service, but that seems a narrow way to think about success.

In contrast, another new start, Metro Transit’s Green Line, has done a bit better, even with all sorts of traffic signal timing issues. It too is heralded as a success, with ridership exceeding forecast year ridership about 3 months in.  While many of its riders were transfers from existing bus services, it clearly is serving more new people for less money than the Silver Line.

Which is more successful? Which is a better investment? Time will tell, and I will leave that to the reader’s judgment.

I have two hypotheses as to why these words are so common.

First, it may be that all projects are successful. For this hypothesis to hold, we would need to see enormous transit market share across the country after several decades of more than 20% of all transportation funding going to transit (figure 2, but also this). Sadly the evidence suggests otherwise.

Alternatively, it may be that the appearance of success is important, independent of the actual facts on the ground. Calling “success” aligns you with “Team Rail” and rewards your supporters. The illusion of success is critical to obtain future funds. No one wants to give money to an agency that actively (if honestly) claims “It’s a failure” or “It’s a disappointment”, or “We’re still perfecting it,” or even “It’s a hobby“.

I hold this latter explanation as more likely. This is not to say there are no successes in urban rail transit. There are many. Starting in 1863 with the  London Underground, rail transit globally had an extraordinarily good run for 60 years. In the US, it sort of petered out after that for the next 50 years or so, though in other countries, rail transit has continued at various levels of strengths.

Some of the lines in the past 40 years have been more successful than others, all depending on your definition of success. (For instance, a list of LRT systems by ridership per mile is here.) The best systems remain the ones built in the early 20th century, with only LA’s Metro Rail breaking the top 5 in riders per mile (and DC’s MetroRail coming 6th).  Yet as far as I can tell, all new systems have been declared successful by somebody (even the relatively low ridership per mile lines like Tampa’s TECO line, or Charlotte’s Lynx). Some are even pre-declared, like The Tide in Hampton Roads.

I find it hard to see billions being spent on the Silver Line so far to add 6000 riders (12000 trips)  as an unqualified success, (I would find it hard to see meeting these low forecasts as a success either). This is more $ per passenger than many commuter rail lines spend, which few outside the agencies themselves are calling successes (the advocates of course do use that exact word).

If spending $2B added zero or negative riders, that would be truly surprising, indicative of active destruction of money. I will just state there were plausible alternative uses of the funds that would have improved society in other ways. Every expenditure has an opportunity cost.

Do not believe or repeat the press releases of agencies and advocates uncritically.