Sunday, October 24, 2010

Numbers and The Madison Choo-Choo

While in the course of running a number of errands late last week, I heard a clip on WIBA-AM of Mayor Cieslewicz talking about the choo-choo. It’s no secret he’s a big fan of light rail, passenger rail, heavy rail, medium rail, trolley rail, and all the kinds of rail there are. But what he said stuck in my mind, and I spent a couple minutes with a calculator and the internet to try and figure out if what he said made any sense at all.

Mayor Dave said estimates are that there would be around 500 thousand (half a million) passenger boardings per year at the soon-to-be-built train passenger terminal in Madison, near the Monona Terrace Convention Center. Half a million a year.

Since most people don’t listen with a critical ear, this stuff just goes past them. But let’s break it down a bit. If there are to be half a million passenger boardings a year in Madison, simple division tells you that’s an average of 1,370 passengers per day. I know, some days would be heavier use days than others, but let’s just go with the straight average.

The average Greyhound bus carries 50 passengers. So according to the figures the Mayor is using, that would mean an average of 27 busloads of passengers would board the train in Madison daily. That, for those of you who aren’t good in math, means a busload full of people every hour on the hour, plus 3 “extra” busloads, on average, every single day of the year.


Do you believe that number? I sure don’t. It’s no wonder there’s so much to-do about this whole rail thing. I believe that the people who support rail are people who are not exactly fans of the automobile, nor the bus, since both burn fossil fuel (gee, I wonder what the train runs on…….) and use the roads, which leads to the evil URBAN SPRAWL and LOW POPULATION DENSITY and on and on.

But half a million passengers a year, boarding in Madison? Really???


  1. Colonel,

    I am proud of you, my son! Oh, gosh! I'm tearing up as I write this! Kudos for the arithmetic analysis!

    I can't tell you how many times I read an article on-line or in one of those big, multi-paged deals that seem to appear on a regular basis... (newspapers! Those are the things!) and find some number without any supporting documentation that is off by an order or two of magnitude, or is what's left after somebody threw a number against the wall and the majority slid off.

    Your skepticism is spot on. 1370 people a day that have to first get to the train station to make their trip. I wonder if there are going to be shuttle buses to drop off eager train riders at the station...and then take them back to their homes when they return?

    As Randal O'Toole has amply demonstrated in both his book, The Best-Laid Plans, and his Cato Institute Policy Analysis paper, Defining Success: The Case Against Rail Transit, projected ridership of new rail projects is inflated while projected costs are downplayed every stinking time.

    Again, Bravo! for the succinct analysis. I wish more people would do it. Math works every time it's tried!

    The Town Crank

  2. You don't understand. NEITHER of you get it yet.

    First, the Feds and the State will make it illegal to drive a car.

    THEN there will be 500,000 passengers/year at the choochoo station.

    All with one-way tickets outta Wisconsin.

  3. It's a political number, to be sure, but people who would ride the train would likely never take a Greyhound because buses are dark, dirty, slow and suffer from an image problem. Think about how many people take Badger Bus and Van Galder from here. I mean, Van Galder now has double-decker coaches to accommodate increasing ridership.

    I say this confidently: When a train starts running between here and Chicago, I'll ride it every six weeks or so and my friends who live in Chicago will do likewise.

  4. I think Mayor Dave gets his ridership estimates from the same math geniuses who projected the jobs to be created by the Edgewater project.

  5. I can't resist. Referencing Randal O'Toole in a comment on a blogpost about reliable statistics is like referencing George Bush Jr. in an article about elocution. Only, only, as examples of the opposite.

  6. Well, George H., I don't mind a bit of sniping now and then...but it would help if you could steer me towards something that shows that O'Toole's stats are questionable rather than simply asserting it.

    The Town Crank