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Why I Ride The Train (And Why I Don’t)

September 10, 2013

(Photo credit: rideuta.com)

Have you ever ridden the train? There’s a kind of peacefulness that always comes to me when I’m on a train, even a commuter train. I especially enjoy the image of the train rolling past farmland, cows, fresh cut alfalfa, a meandering river. I got to ride the Utah Frontrunner train from American Fork to Salt Lake City twice last week.

So, if a train ride is so enjoyable, why don’t we ride the train more often? Every city in the world wishes that it could get more people out of their cars and onto the trains (and busses.) I think the answer lies in two variables: money and time. And, of the two, time is the more critical.

Money
It cost me $9.60 for a round trip ticket. That’s a pretty good deal. The train drops me off at the Salt Lake Central Station. From this station, you can catch Amtrak, Greyhound, the city busses and Trax, the city light rail train. Trax and the busses are free in the downtown area, so my entire cost of the trip was simply the price of the train.

I also had to drive to Salt Lake twice last week. My Suburban gets 18 miles per gallon. It costs me about $0.25 /mile. It’s 90 miles round trip. So, driving to SLC and back cost me $22.50 per day, plus $5 for parking, compared to less than half that for the train. At those rates, why did I drive?

I had to carry a Suburban-load of show materials to Salt Lake Comic Con on Wednesday. Then, I had to bring them back on Saturday. (Convention Report: Comic Con Salt Lake.) But, if I had to choose between driving and riding the train, it makes economic sense to take the train. . .unless. . .If I had one additional passenger, then it starts to break even. If I have two people, it’s more economical to drive.

Time
But, I don’t think people are primarily motivated by the economics of the commute. Sure, it figures into part of it, but I think mostly people are interested in time. If I can save time, or more importantly, control the time I come and go, I will often drive instead of take the train. Salt Lake City, like many big cities has terrible traffic at rush hour. At that time of the day, it can take 60-90 minutes to make the 45 mile trip from my house to downtown. The train is a consistent 40 minutes from terminal to terminal. However, if the bus and train do not get me to where I need to go at the times I need to get there, it doesn’t really matter if they are cheaper.

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Utah Transit Authority does a great job of making it as convenient as possible for the commuters. The trains run every hour, every half hour during morning and evening commute times. When it gets to downtown, the light rail surface trains leave 5 minutes later.

In fact, on Saturday I knew that I would not be able to park anywhere near the Salt Palace. So, I picked a parking lot within the free fare zone. I hopped on Trax to the Convention Center and then at the end of the night rode it back to my car and drove the 8 blocks to the Salt Palace.

Several years ago I worked downtown. After a couple years, my company moved our offices to Riverton, about 20 miles closer.

Isn’t it nicer to be closer to home?

Not really. I could get on the commuter bus 2 blocks from my house and it dropped me in front of my office downtown. Now, I have to drive everyday.

When we were downtown, it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone wandering through the office at about 4:00pm looking for a “carpool” buddy so that they could use the carpool lanes on the way home.

Public transportation was much less convenient at our new building. One day one of the guys I carpooled with decided to take the bus and train from his house in Utah county to our new building in Riverton. He just wanted to see what the difference would be.

Two hours later than normal he walked off the bus and into work.

So, how was the bus and train?

Care for a carpool buddy?

That bad, huh?

Money and time and time is the most critical.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children. The Suburban is his family’s “small” car.

Follow him on
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or contact him at (rbliss at msn dot com)

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2 Comments
  1. Thanks for the article. I’ve actually had a lot of time to think about and complain about public transit. Sure, we live in the west where great distances are part of life. Public transit will never be as efficient as the other systems we hear about out east or even Europe, but UTA does do a pretty good job with the hand they were dealt. That said, I think FrontRunner is crap. It’s way too expensive. Public transit has to do at least one of these things: 1) Faster 2) Cheaper 3) More convenient. From my prospective, it’s none of those things. A car, even when you consider traffic, is still faster from point A to point B in most cases. A car will always be more convenient, even with downtown parking taken into account. Cheaper? No. I think a car still has the train beat. I always hear the argument, what about insurance, maintenance, etc, etc… But the thing is, you STILL have a car sitting in your driveway, right? There’s no insurance savings, you still have to maintain the car. And honestly, my car gets enough MPG that the cost per mile is so low, why would I ever consider riding the train? At this point the only incentive for me to ride the train is that it takes a car (and its emissions) off the road, but the economics are another story.

    At least they’re trying and there’s something to be said about that.

    • If I weren’t driving a Suburban, or I wasn’t going downtown, it would change the discussion. But, for me, it’s much cheaper and slightly faster to downtown. The $0.25/ mile is strictly gas and oil for me. The cars paid for and like you said, insurance is a constant cost whether your driving or not.

      The farther you get away from downtown the more the time factor starts to become an issue and not in a good way.

      When I was working downtown I got a subsidized UTA monthly pass. I paid $6/ month. So, the train/ bus was essentially free. Like I said in the column, commuting via UTA to Riverton was a two hour ordeal. Driving took 25 minutes. The car wins that one every time.

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