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U.S. ‘stuck in reverse’ on fuel economy

Roland Jones, MSNBC
While Congress and the Bush administration debate how to improve fuel economy in automobiles, a new study says the United States is “stuck in reverse” when it comes to offering consumers a wide selection of fuel-efficient vehicles.

The research from the Civil Society Institute, a not-for-profit think tank that focuses on energy and ecological issues, shows a growing “fuel-efficient car gap.”

CSI found that the number of vehicle models sold in the United States that achieve combined gas mileage of at least 40 miles per gallon actually has dropped from five in 2005 to just two in 2007 – the Honda Civic hybrid and the Toyota Prius hybrid.
(28 Feb 2007)

Car mpg ratings going down

James R. Healey, USA TODAY
Fuel-saving gasoline-electric hybrid cars don’t save as much fuel as thought, according to new government fuel-economy ratings available to the public for the first time.

The new ratings go into effect beginning with 2008 models, a few of which will soon be on sale. But now it’s possible to tell what rating 2007 and older models would get using the ’08 standards.

The government’s fuel-economy website has a program than makes the comparison. Click on the button that says “Compare Old and New MPG Ratings.” It shows that vehicles typically bought for their fuel efficiency use significantly more fuel than the previous ratings have said.

Toyota’s (TM) Prius, best-known and best-selling gas-electric car in the USA, drops to 48 miles per gallon in the city under the ’08 testing procedure, from a 60 mpg rating under the current system – a 20% decline. Its highway mileage rating falls about 12%, to 45 mpg.

The Ford (F) Escape hybrid, which uses a gasoline-electric drive system similar to Toyota’s, goes down about 12%.

“What the cars get hasn’t changed. It’s just the numbers on the sticker,” says Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. The lowered Prius rating is “probably more reflective of real-world experience,” he says. “We hear people getting 46 to 50. I have one, and I get 48.
(23 Feb 2007)

Put the ‘public’ back in public transport

Kenneth Davidson, The Age
It has been clear since 2001 that the Kennett government’s 1999 privatisation of Melbourne’s public transport was an expensive failure.

The three franchisees reported earnings shortfalls due to their failure to achieve predicted increases in patronage and threatened to cut jobs and services unless they were given increased subsidies to run the system.

The Bracks Government did not have to cave in to blackmail. It could have re-established the Met without payment of compensation. Instead, the Bracks Government announced an interim “rescue package” involving an extra $110 million in subsidies and set up a review taskforce headed by the main architects of the failed franchise system – Macquarie Bank executive Jim McMeckan and Jim Betts.

McMeckan was hired by the Kennett government to head up the transport reform unit to oversee privatisation, and Betts was recruited by McMeckan from the unit that privatised British Rail with disastrous long-term consequences.

Connex and Yarra Trams have shown, almost from the start of their franchises, that they were not serious about making profits by improving service and lowering costs. They have performed as classic rent seekers whose profits have been based on their ability to extract generous subsidies from a captive government.

The franchises should be converted into operating contracts, where the government pays a fee to the operators for services. The operators would be given the routes, timetables and rolling stock by an authority made up of no more than 50 staff, based on the successful Zurich model. They would then be directly accountable to the government and the public.
(1 Mar 2007)

Seattle-L.A. train nation’s worst for on-time arrivals

Casey McNerthney, Seattle P-I
It was 8:45 Tuesday night at King Street Station, and the Coast Starlight, the Amtrak run from Los Angeles, was right on schedule … hours late.

The scheduled arrival of 8:45 p.m. came and went with nary a whistle. Midnight, an Amtrak ticket clerk said, was more like it for the train almost never on time. The Coast Starlight is not the only engine that can’t.

Last year, Amtrak was late more often in the worst showing in a generation. The Coast Starlight was on time a pitiful 4 percent of the time.

“I can’t remember the last time it actually got here at 8:45,” an Amtrak ticket clerk at King Street Station said Tuesday. “And nobody expects it to be here then.”

The main reason: In most of the country, the national passenger railroad operates on tracks owned by freight railroads, and the tracks are badly congested. That happens to the Coast Starlight.

With freight traffic soaring in recent years, Amtrak’s never-stellar on-time performance declined to an average of 68 percent last year, its worst showing since the 1970s. When the routes where Amtrak owns the tracks are excluded, the on-time performance last year fell to 61 percent.

…Alex Kummant, who took over as Amtrak’s president in September, has made improving on-time performance a priority. A former executive at Union Pacific Corp. — a freight railroad long considered hostile to Amtrak — Kummant says the relationship between Amtrak and the freight railroads is inherently complicated.

…But passenger advocates and others accuse the freight railroads of failing to live up to their end of a bargain struck in 1970, when Congress agreed to let the railroads unload the passenger service they said was dragging them down. In exchange, the railroads were required to give priority on their tracks to trains run by a new national passenger railroad. Amtrak pays modest fees to use the tracks.

Amtrak performs far better on the Northeast corridor, where it owns the tracks. Last year, 85 percent of its high-speed Acela Express trains between Boston and Washington arrived within 10 minutes of their scheduled time.

But where Amtrak depends on the freight railroads, the picture is far gloomier.
(28 Feb 2007)