Wednesday, February 9, 2011

High Speed Rail Haters

High speed rail lines have come in for special criticism by a loose confederation of libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and critics of the President.  A side benefit to such criticism is the opportunity to lampoon the always compliant Joe Biden, Amtrak's most famous customer.  Such criticism (of high speed rail, that is--criticism of Biden is always appropriate) seems misguided to me.  Here's why.

1.  Conservatives should all agree that there are few things the government ought to do.  Among them however, must be a dedication to enhancing commerce.  Investments in transportation infrastructure that move freight and people more efficiently across this great land fall squarely into the category of "things the federal government ought to be doing." 

2.  To the extent that certain high-speed rail lines have come under special criticism for the routes they take, I would point to the construction of the interstate highway system as an example of the "if you build it they will come" theory.  Let's face it--if folks are going to complain about the cost of high speed rail, and then also complain about where it is put--then they've neatly stymied the entire conversation. OF COURSE we would all love bullet trains in the Northeast Corridor.  But have you ridden the rails between DC and Connecticut lately?  Going 60 mph on that infrastructure often seems unsafe, let alone 190mph.  The expenses associated with high-speeding already densely populated areas make lines like the one in Florida and in Nevada seem cheap by comparison. 

3.  Let us not forget the national greatness side of this, shall we?  What exactly did the average Joe get out of going to the Moon?  Zilch, nada, nil, nul.  He got a great sense of pride, but he didn't get a trip there.  He didn't sit atop the rocket.  But CW, what about all the great technology that was spun off from the space program?  What about all the jobs that were created in high technology to support the space program.....see where I'm going with this?  If you think that government has no ability and no role in "priming the pump", well then you will see no value in my thinking.  But if you think the government has SOME role and SOME value in such things, but that such activities should almost always be associated with 1) national defense or 2) the promotion of commerce, maybe you'll come around to it.


"The Hammer" said...

I'm no expert on this subject but do you really think AmTrak can do anything high speed? One of their trains is like watching geriatric porn. Plus, can you imagine the cost? Every union thug, speculator, political insider would seek to capitalize. They'd end up buying the rails from Roger Clinton or Obama's Ugandan aunt who lives in Boston. And last but not least, I heard that the gov't defines highspeed as any train that averages 40mph. I think the TGV's rep is safe.

One more thing, AmTrak ain't NASA and Obama ain't JFK so let's leave off the moon analogies. It's insulting.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Why Hammer, insulting you is the last thing I'd want to do.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Oh, and by the way....JFK was no JFK.

"The Hammer" said...

That's the truth. Like Joe Kennedy said "None of my boys will be God-damned liberals".

Ken Adams said...

Amtrak barely survives in the Northeast Corridor. It has the densest population in the country and is the only place where enough people travel between cities for a high speed rail line to make economic sense. Even then, it sucks up huge subsidies from the federal taxpayers in order to keep fares low.

I think the light rail projects in New Jersey serve as an example of the "benefits" of rail travel. Look at the Riverline, which will happily deliver passengers to 20 different stations between Camden and Trenton for $1.50. That fare covers a tiny fraction of the debt service from construction, never mind the actual operating costs of the system.
The linked Wikipedia article has an interesting history of the project, providing a flavor of the political machinations involved with a small, 34-mile project that cost a little more than $1 billion. Picture that mess multiplied by fifty or more.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Ken--why should Amtrak make money? My assertion is that it should help OTHERS make money--like the interstate highway system, the education system, and any number of other functions of government that are not run for profit (how much has our mighty military made for us lately? Do we demand that it be profitable?).

This is the provision of a public good by the federal government, one of the few things I believe the federal government ought properly to do. Promotion of interstate and international commerce is just below defending the borders in my opinion.

"The Hammer" said...

CW, what has happened to you? The gov't can't run anything with anywhere near the efficiency of the private sector. And the military is neither here nor there in this argument. It is a service performed by citizens for very different reasons than to make money.
Watch this, it's very good and it addresses these very issues.

Ken Adams said...

CW - I don't expect Amtrak to MAKE money, but I think we should invest in projects that return a tangible benefit commensurate with the investment. For people, the cost of rail travel is significantly higher than the cost of any other form. According to a 2008 article by Randal O'Toole at Cato (, automobile travel costs about 23 cents per passenger mile; airline travel about 13 cents; and Amtrak about 56 cents. Urban mass transit is even worse, at about 85 cents per passenger mile.
Unless there is some breakthrough in the laws of physics, I can't see "investing" $53 billion in rail travel having much effect on those relationships. To make rail travel more appealing and increase ridership, it needs to be more convenient for people who have many different places to go. That means more stops (reducing average speed) and creation of more expensive urban transport. But reducing speed also makes the trains less cost-efficient, because a train has a limited number of passengers it can carry for a relatively fixed cost, and a queuing problem on the rails that limits the number of trains that can run per day at a given speed.

"The Hammer" said...

According to the incredibly interesting and informative Stossel link I posted the feds spend a penny per mile on roads and air but 60¢ per mile for rail. All so some guy from Westchester County can be to work on time in Manhattan. I'm sure this is money is considered well spent to some guy in Denton, TX.

Let's step back a minute, this would be the greatest transportation boondoggle since the Big Dig in Boston (another Democrat bright idea).

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