Archive | Light Rail

Breaking down the economics of bus vs MAX

There’s been a bunch of stuff in the comments of the SW Corridor: Transportation Bundles article about the relative (operational) efficiencies of bus versus light rail. The discussion mirrors a debate that occurs in the wider community. Two dueling theories are commonly articulated:

  • That MAX is more efficient, operationally, than bus–that in busy corridors, it can move far more people than can the equivalent number of busses, and requires a lot less subsidy. TriMet frequently articulates this position in its public messaging.
  • That MAX is economically inefficient–an unwise investment at best, and a rip-off at worst; diverting resources from (and starving) the bus system, and a major contributor to the agency’s budget problems. Many agency critics make this charge–ranging from conservative/libertarians broadly opposed to any capital investment in transit, to poverty advocates on the left, to “good government” types suspicious of any large capital expenditure, to many in ATU757, to riders of “marginal” bus routes whose service is imperilled by the agency’s budget woes.

Who’s right? As usual, things are a bit more complicated than a bumper-sticker slogan can capture. After the jump, we get into the numbers. I’m only focusing (for the most part) on operational expenses–the question of capital costs are ignored. The article also focuses on bus service vs light rail–the Streetcar, WES, and LIFT are discussed, but in far less details.

The raw data
A few resources which are the primary sources for this article; all are published by (or based on data published by) TriMet.

There are several different ways to approach the numbers; we consider each in turn:

The big picture: Looking at the budget (pp20-22), we find that TriMet has allocated $314M for its Operations Division, by far the biggest chunk of its total operating budget of $473M. (Other expense items include $16.5M for non-grant-funded capital projects, $47.8M for pensions/OPEB, $48.2M for debt service, and $47M for various administrative functions). Of that $314 M, we find the following:

  • $157.1M for bus service ($100.9M for operations, and $56.8M for maintenance)
  • $52.5M for MAX ($16.4M for operations, $15.7M for ROW maintenance, and $20.4M for equipment maintenance
  • $9.3M for Streetcar expenses, including both TriMet’s subsidy and pass-through funding from the City of Portlandsubsidies to the Portland Streetcar
  • $47.5M for Accessible Transportation programs ($31.M for LIFT and $16.4M for TriMet’s Medical Transportation Program)
  • $6.4M for WES
  • $14.3M for facilities
  • $24.5M for dispatch, supervisors, planning, and other support.

Total ridership on TriMet (excluding Streetcar) in FY2012 was as follows: There were a total of 102.2 million boarding rides on the system–42.2M on MAX, 59.6M on bus, and 481k on WES. (For those unfamiliar with terminology, a “boarding ride” is counted whenever someone steps on a transit vehicle–a journey with two transfers counts as three boarding rides). 41.3% boardings were on MAX, 58.3% on bus, and 0.41% on WES.

Total passenger revenue in FY2012 was–coincidentally–$102.2 million, giving an average system-wide revenue per boarding ride of $1.00. This figure is noticeably less than the full-price fare, due to various factors like discounts, transfers, Free Rail Zone (which was still active during FY12), and fare evasion. TriMet had a total Farebox Recovery Ratio (FRR) of 27.8%, vs total system cost. Mode-specific FRRs were: MAX, 44.2%, Bus, 24.8%, WES 6.9%, LIFT 4.8%.

The details: The Service and Ridership table above gives lots of interesting data, including historical data for the past fourteen service years. Complete data is at the link above, and some of the more interesting stuff (for this discussion) has been summarized here. The table below excludes WES and LIFT (they’re expensive, no surprise), and only includes every third year, to increase the chances it looks nice on your device. Apologies for the crude formatting.







Bus Sys Costs






Bus Op Costs






Bus Veh Miles






Bus Veh Hrs






Bus Rev Hours






Bus Boarding Rides






Bus Revenue/Ride






Bus In-Svc %






Bus Op Cost/Hr






Bus Sys Cost/Hr






Bus Op Cost/Ride






Bus Sys Cost/Ride






Bus Subsidy/Ride






Bus Rides/Veh Hr






Bus FRR (System)






Bus Break-even Rides/Hr







MAX Sys Costs






Max Op Costs






MAX Veh Miles






MAX Veh Hours






MAX Rev Hours






MAX Boarding Rides






MAX Revenue/Ride






MAX In-Svc %






MAX Op Cost/Hr






MAX Sys Cost/Hr






MAX Op Cost/Ride






MAX Sys Cost/Ride






MAX Subsidy/Ride






MAX Rides/Veh Hr






MAX FRR (System)






MAX Break-even Rides/Hr







Additional breakdowns on per-service subsidy are also made available by TriMet. In particular, the operating subsidy on the following modes/routes in FY12 was as follows:

  • Blue Line: $0.55
  • Red Line: $0.90
  • Green Line: $0.92
  • Yellow Line: $1.32
  • NS Streetcar: $1.32
  • Frequent bus: $1.54
  • “Standard” bus: $2.73.
  • WES: $18.55
  • LIFT: $27.93

The figures in the Service and Ridership table don’t line up exactly with line items in the published budget, as many budget items are allocated between bus, MAX, and other modes; and still others are not assigned to any particular mode’s cost center at all.

More details on the cost breakdown. Portland Afoot gives the following breakdown for the per-vehicle-hour costs of operating both bus and MAX. The figures cited here also don’t line up exactly with any of the numbers published for a given year (they may be budgeted figures rather than actuals), but they are sufficiently close that we will repeat them here. According to Portland Afoot, a bus costs $120.95 per hour to operate, as follows:

  • $9.84 for fuel and tires
  • $59.24 for driver labor ($29.29 wages, $30.95 benefits)
  • $20.25 for maintenance and supplies (excluding tires)
  • $8.73 for non-vehicle maintenance (I assume primarily stops, shelters, signage, etc).
  • $26.78 for administration and “other”.

For MAX (total $328.11):

  • $13.21 for electricity
  • $77.66 for driver labor ($33.79 for wages, $43.87 for benefits)
  • $61.21 for vehicle maintenance
  • $73.86 for non-vehicle maintenance (tracks, wires, signalling, stations)
  • $178.35 for administration and other (including “other wages”).

Rail’s direct vehicle costs (energy, consumables, labor, and maintenance) are more than that of bus($152 vs $89), but rail has significantly higher non-vehicle and administrative costs. Much of this is due to the need to maintain rail’s extensive physical plant–tracks, power lines and power systems, stations, etc.; as well as to operate the various train control systems, which have no analog on the bus. (Busses travel on public rights of way maintained by the state or by municipal governments; it should be noted that TriMet pays no weight-mile tax to help maintain the roads, despite the fact that busses–with very large axle loads–are among the worst offenders out there at chewing up asphalt). Many of these expenses, however, depend more on the amount of tracks installed, as opposed to the number of trains running–as a result, cutting (or increasing) rail service has less of an effect on TriMet’s bottom line than you might expect.

Some analysis

From a per-rider perspective, MAX looks great: The per-rider subsidy last fiscal year was almost a third on MAX vs the bus ($0.67 vs $1.96), and the farebox recovery ratio almost 20% higher (44% vs 25%). From a per-vehicle-hour perspective, on the other hand, MAX looks terrible: It costs nearly three times as much ($269 vs $98) to keep a MAX train on the tracks as it does to keep a bus on the road.

What is going on?

A key parameter that explains the difference, is ridership: MAX gets over four times the ridership per vehicle hour compared to the bus system. There are many possible reasons for this, pro and con:

  • Capacity: A 2-car LRT can carry 4-5 times as many passengers as a 40′ bus (and about 3 times as many passengers as a 20m articulated bus or a Streetcar). There are many times during the service day that vehicles are full, and passing up passengers as a result. The bus “break-even rides/hour”, which gives the number of hourly boardings required to break even, is greater than the capacity of a bus, whereas all 357 hourly boardings required for MAX to break even, actually could ride together on a MAX train.
  • Corridor strength: MAX has generally been deployed on corridors with either excellent existing ridership, or good untapped potential; there are no “social service” routes on the MAX system. Many bus lines, on the other hand, are “coverage” routes with low ridership ’round the clock; these drag down the numbers of the bus system tremendously. Unfortunately, I don’t have more detailed data on TriMet’s frequent service bus routes–though some of them come close to MAX in terms of financial performance (and may even exceed the lower-performing MAX lines).
  • Service quality: It’s long been claimed by rail supporters, that rail is more attractive (to riders) than bus. There are many anecdotes of yuppies who won’t be caught dead on a bus but will happily ride a train. While TriMet’s data doesn’t contradict this (rail ridership is much higher), it doesn’t say anything about why–there are many factors at play. In addition to the allure of steel wheels, there’s the issue of frequency, speed, and reliability; somewhat better amenities (particularly at stations–though nobody will confuse a MAX train with an Amtrak sleeping car, or even WES). There are many ways in which MAX is a better product for the transit rider than local bus service–assuming, of course, that it goes where you need. Of course, many of MAX’s desirable attributes have nothing to do with bus-vs-rail; a good-quality BRT line could conceivably offer similar operating parameter. OTOH, the N/S streetcar is an excellent performer despite being slow and unreliable–that said, it’s got a lower fare and runs in a dense urban neighborhood. (The CL streetcar, on the other hand…)
  • MAX-centric service configuration: One common complaint about MAX is that many suburban transit trips require a transfer to MAX to get downtown, whereas prior to the service being installed, one could ride a bus all the way in. No bus that serves Hillsboro or Aloha, for instance, reaches downtown; the only transfer-free service between Tualatin and Portland runs during peaks. When MLR completes, many Clackamas County bus riders will likewise get to transfer to MAX in Milwaukie, as many of the current busses that run from downtown to Milwaukie TC will likely be curtailed in favor of LRT. Certainly the 33 will terminate in Milwaukie; though I expect the 70 to keep running. While TriMet has a nice grid system in Portland itself, out in the ‘burbs it uses more of a hub-and-spoke system; this is particularly an issue in suburbs with rail. (Of course, riders in Tigard see the same issue with forced transfers to the 12…)
  • Transit-oriented development: While the impact of this is perhaps exaggerated by those touting its benefits (as well as by anti-urbanists panicking about “Portland creep”, as though Oak Grove is going to somehow turn into the Pearl District), much upzoning has occurred around the MAX line–and many developers, homeowners, and renters consider proximity thereto to be a valuable amenity. Out in Washington County, now that the housing collapse is apparently over, oodles of new construction are occurring along SW Baseline, all of it within walking distance of a MAX station. (Much of it is single-family housing, but packed in like sardines single-family housing). Where development has occurred, development patters along MAX tend to be denser that development patterns in transit-poor neighborhoods; increased density drives ridership.

The wide gulf between “standard” bus and frequent bus is further evidence that ridership is indeed a big part of the story; there is little technical difference between the two types of service. (Non-frequent routes are more likely to get older busses, and frequent routes on busy corridors more likely to experience overloaded conditions). One might naively think that frequent bus would be less efficient, given that there are more runs and thus more expense occurred, but that’s not the case–good quality service is more likely to attract ridership; and that principle applies to rail just as much as to better bus service. Of course, there has to be sufficient potential ridership along a route for this to apply; turning the 84 into Frequent Service wouldn’t make it into an efficient, high-ridership run.

Of course, none of this answers the questions as to whether continued investment in MAX remains a good idea. Capital dollars are getting scarce; likely putting the breaks on future projects beyond MLR and/or the CRC. And with labor expenses continuing to grow (largely due to increasing health-care costs–it’s not as though operators and retirees are getting richer; it’s that a specific benefit is gotten considerably more expensive), operational squeezes will likely continue. While rail is cost-effective in the corridors it serves, it can’t be deployed everywhere, and in places where it is deployed, TriMet is committed to provide a certain level of service as a condition of funding grants. This commitment, along with rail’s higher fixed cost base, and greater pressure to cut low-margin routes during a budget crisis, does tend to concentrate most of the weight of the budget axe on the bus system.

The whys and wherefores of MAX bus bridges

In the previous post, we lamented the recent spate of (sometimes bizarre) incidents affecting MAX service, in particular a car which ran off a freeway offramp and landed in the middle of Sunset Transit Center, shutting down MAX service on the westside for the better part of a day. (Nobody was badly hurt; the driver was arrested for DUI).

The topic swiftly turned to the contingency plans TriMet deploys whenever there is a major outage on the rail system–the bus bridge. A bus bridge consists of a fleet of busses transporting passengers between two out-of-service segments on the line. Nobody likes it–it is inconvenient for rail passengers, who have their trip times lengthened considerably (but certainly preferable to being stuck). It is inconvenient for bus passengers, who often see runs cancelled due to the need to service the bus bridge, and it is expensive for TriMet, who may have to pay operators overtime due to the unplanned additional service need, as well as pay for lots of unplanned deadheading.

And some bus riders claim that the practice is unfair to them–that bridging MAX, Streetcar, or WES is a rail problem, and thus ought not have any adverse affects on bus riders.

The mechanics of a bus bridge

A bus bridge occurs when a section of track goes out of service for an extended period of time. This may be due to a broken-down train, a collision, a problem with the tracks, signalling, or power lines, or any number of other reasons. Short outages generally don’t produce bus bridges–and in some cases there can be an aggravatingly long wait before a bridge is ordered (if it is a mechanical problem for instance, TriMet may try to fix it on site before taking the line out of service–which requires a mechanic travel to the problem, troubleshoot it, and decide if it can be fixed easily or not; meanwhile, trains back up upstream of the incident).

If a bridge is ordered, the section of track taken out of service extends to the nearest turnaround points on either side. There’s a limited number of places on the MAX line where trains can reverse direction–generally, at transit centers with pocket tracks (such as Beaverton, Rose Quarter, or Gateway); as well as the Blue Line turnaround near Galleria downtown, and at the ends of lines. Most of the MAX system (outside these places) is signalled in only one direction; and MAX trains are forbidden to travel backwards (against the signals) under normal operations (and certainly not with passengers on board). Thus even if only one half of the line is affected (such as by a broken-down train), the bus bridge is bidirectional; trains cannot pass the broken-down train on the opposite track, and a balance of trains on both sides needs to be maintained.

Thus, when a bridge occurs, trains will enter the pocket track or turnaround at one of the stations at the end of the outage, unload passengers, pick up passengers heading the other way, and then leave in the opposite direction. Busses then transport passengers to the station at the other end of the out-of-service section, serving intermediate stations. Depending on the situation, busses may also pick up passengers from trains stuck in the closed section (though passengers on a train involved in an incident may have to wait, particularly if the train is stopped in a place where safe unloading is not possible).

To do a bus bridge, you need two things: 1) busses, and 2) bus drivers. #2 is often the harder resource to come by–TriMet keeps a number of busses in reserve, even at peak times, and at off-peak times (when MAX loads and frequency are lower, and fewer busses are needed) there are even more unused vehicles available. TriMet doesn’t, however, like to pay drivers to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, so when a bus bridge occurs, drivers can come from one of several places:

  1. Supervisors and mechanics still current on bus training and licensure, and thus legally able to operate a bus
  2. Busses (and drivers) deadheading at the end of a run
  3. Off-duty drivers who agree to be called in
  4. Drivers diverted from operational bus service

MAX operators are generally not available for a bus bridge–many may not have current training or licensing, and trains cannot be abandoned along the line.

In many cases, there are not enough of numbers 1-3 to go around, so bus bridges are staffed, at least partially, with #4. Generally, busses and drivers are only taken out of regular service at the end of runs, as terminating a run mid-route and booting off the passengers would be rather rude–but if it is a bus you are expecting that is taken out of service, and the line is not a frequent one (or is frequently crowded), you won’t be a happy camper.

Needless to say, bus bridges can be highly disruptive to scheduled bus service.

The equity issues

Some TriMet riders, particularly those who mainly use the bus system, consider this situation inequitable–questioning whether or not it is fair to disadvantage bus riders for the benefit of rail riders. I generally take a holistic view of transit–both bus and rail are part of the same system (as opposed to competing modes); many users of TriMet use both modes, and to some extent view the distinction as a bit artificial. But given recent history (with a rail expansion coupled with the current financial troubles resulting in significant reductions in bus service), a decrepit bus fleet (with many vehicles lacking modern amenities like A/C or low-floor boarding), and a political culture which has appeared to view bus service as second-class (along with politicians and business interests who may advocate rail projects for reasons other than mobility benefits), it is understandable that bus riders object vehemently to the practice.

There have been suggestions that TriMet discontinue the use of bus bridges altogether–or at a minimum, restrict bus bridges to use of “spare” assets, and refrain from taking busses and drivers out of scheduled revenue service. When a bus breaks down, after all, it is generally not replaced for a while–passengers on board are simply asked to wait for the follower. (If it is an infrequent line, or if the follower is SRO, this obviously becomes inconvenient). Local bus service, while being subject to ordinary traffic jams, generally doesn’t suffer catastrophic disruptions. An incident involving one bus does not shut down the line, and busses can re-route around road closures in most cases. One could argue that if riders are to enjoy the advantages of exclusive-ROW rail (no traffic conflicts and a smoother ride), they should also endure the disadvantage (the possibility of catastrophic failure of the service).

On the other hand, if you view things from the point of view of causing the least inconvenience to the fewest number of passengers; a bus bridge makes sense. A bus involved in a bridge will generally be more full than one circulating through the suburbs–in many cases, more passengers will benefit from the bridge than will be inconvenienced by it. On the third hand, the benefit is asymmetrical, as the same groups of passengers “win” and “lose”, time and time again.

One other issue is finance. Erik H, in a comment on the prior thread, proposes:

There’s a pretty simple solution:

Require MAX Operations (yes, Operations – not Capital) to buy 100 new buses.

Those 100 buses are then put into bus service – and DEDICATED to bus service. Meanwhile, MAX then takes possession of the 1400 and 1600 series fleet. They are stored at Ruby or Elmonica. They become MAX specific assets.

When MAX craps out, the MAX Operators get to drive those 22 year old POS buses – with zero impact to bus riders.

As noted above, the critical resource is drivers and not vehicles. TriMet does keep a number of vehicles in reserve, and reserve vehicles are more likely to be older ones (newer busses are run all day, older ones mainly during the peak and/or emergencies; this is a big reason why express lines, including the 94 which Erik commutes on, often use the dregs of the fleet). As Bob points out, vehicles are capital goods and should be bought with capital dollars–using operating funds to buy rolling stock is simply not wise. And TriMet doesn’t, to my knowledge, a priori dedicate X% of funding to bus and Y% to rail; its funding allocation strategies are more flexible. That said, Erik makes a good point: Any time a bus is used or diverted for bridging a rail outage, its corresponding expenses (fuel, driver labor, and pro-rated maintenance) ought to be “charged” to the rail accounts and not to bus service, in order to be an adequate representation of the cost of offering the different types of service. This may be TriMet’s practice today; it may not be. Given that a claimed benefit of rail is that it is cheaper to operate on a per passenger-mile basis, this ought to be true even if contingency measures are taken into consideration.

Does somebody out there have a MAX-shaped voodoo doll?

Westside MAX is down today, as a speeding car trying to negotiate the loop ramp from US26 to OR217 ran off the highway, landing on the MAX tracks at Sunset Transit Center. Nobody at the station was hurt; the driver (who was intoxicated) only suffered minor injuries, and no MAX trains were involved, but the overhead wires powering the MAX line were destroyed. Service is not expected to be restored until this evening.

TriMet users have had it rough in the past several years, and rougher in the past two months, since the latest round of fare hikes and service cuts went into effect. But it seems that the problems have been exacerbated by an unusual number of incidents (many involving MAX) that are, certainly, outside the agency’s control: A car runs into a pole, disabling Transit Tracker for a couple of weeks. This morning’s happenings. Numerous other collisions between MAX trains and motor vehicles–all of which, AFAIK, the fault of the motorist rather than the TriMet operator? It seems as though someone out there has a voodoo doll…

…but that said, there’s an old saying: “You make your own luck”. While the incidents themselves are probably things that TriMet cannot reasonably do something about–should we cover the tracks everywhere just in case a car runs off the road and lands on them?–TriMet’s ability to respond to these things has been compromised. Reduced bus service means that when a bus bridge is needed, then there is a greater impact on bus riders–each bus run which is cancelled is a greater percentage of the total. Reduced staffing levels reduces the number of “spare” operators (including supervisors who are trained and licensed to drive a bus if necessary) available. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that deteriorating relations with the union has meant fewer drivers are willing to come to work outside their scheduled shifts to help man a bus bridge.

Dedicated-corridor rapid transit is generally considered more “reliable” in that under normal circumstances, it doesn’t have to contend with traffic jams and other things which may impact its ability to keep to schedule (or maintain a specific headway). But the downside of dedicated-corridor running (particularly rail) is that when something does go wrong, the entire line can be taken out of service, rather than just one vehicle. TriMet is actually fairly good about being able to get fallback service running when an incident shuts down MAX (it gets plenty of practice, after all), but a good argument can be made that in this time of reduced budgets (and reduced operational flexibility), doing so is materially affecting service in other parts of the system–far much moreso than was the case prior to the service cuts.

Restoring service hours on the existing network (mainly bus, but also under-served portions of MAX–light rail with 20 minute headways, or worse, is not at all cost-effective) needs to be the agency’s, and the region’s, focus. Given some of the news that has come from the SW Corridor planning, it appears that at least a few folks at Metro have gotten the message, and that business is no longer as usual–but there are plenty in the region who still view public transit through a capital-projects prism. Rapid transit doesn’t make sense unless you have a good, basic, high-frequency bus service for it to networ with. Five years ago, when many of the current plans were drafted, we did; today, we don’t (or are on the knife’s edge). TriMet ridership reached record levels this past summer; unfortunately, these riders were served by fewer service-hours, meaning longer waits, more crowded vehicles, and less reliable operations.

But in the meantime: whoever has the voodoo doll, could you pretty please–with sugar on it–remove the pin?