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Monday, November 22, 2010

High Speed Rail Is An Expensive And Unnecessary Boondoggle

If you believe the hype coming out of Washington, D.C., about high-speed rail and its potential, you can be forgiven for thinking that it would bring world peace, solve world hunger, and put man on every planet in the solar system to boot!

The reality, the way I see it, just doesn't add up though. Rail ceased being a transportation solution in this country a long time ago, except in isolated areas like the northeast corridor. The rest of the country simply does not have the population density to support much rail traffic. I don't know the exact figures (and I don't know if anybody has access to such figures), but I doubt that Amtrak makes any money even on the heavily trafficked northeast corridor. Most rail systems in the world make no money on passenger traffic, making up for it by carrying freight at a profit. I doubt the economics are somehow different in the US. That is one of the reasons why private rail companies do nothing except freight in the US! There is simply no money to be made in passenger rail service.

Let us see what it would take to run passenger rail service that can actually make money: Viable rail travel requires that trains make few stops between the origin and destination. Each stop requires deceleration and acceleration, creating a huge impact on the average speed of the journey. So, trains have to run between hubs that can support trainfuls of travelers without having to make intermediate stops to pick up or drop off passengers. Most rail hubs in the country today do not support that kind of traffic.

At the very least, rail stations have to be laid out like airports are today: they should provide for vast amounts of parking so that they can collect traffic from all over the place and funnel it to the trains at the station. The downtown location of most train stations preclude this from likely ever happening. Train stations like the Union Station in Chicago have absolutely no long-term parking, so they fail this test right away.

Assuming that the parking problem is solved, and trains actually run non-stop most of the time, the next issue to resolve is that of speed. Long distance train service usually can not compete with air traffic because of the time taken to make the journey. Most of the high-speed rail projects being floated right now in the US are high-speed in name only. I am not going to say that my grandmama can run faster than some of the proposed trains, but they are certainly not high-speed trains even by some third-world standards, leave alone comparisons to trains in places like Europe and Japan. A train with a maximum speed of 110 mph is simply not going to attract a lot of passengers who want to travel more than a couple of hundred miles at most.

So, now you can see why this thing stinks so strongly of boondoggle! The system is likely to bleed money at astonishing rates. The hole in the federal budget is already big enough for every train in the world to pass through side by side. This will make it only that much bigger.

And the amounts being thrown around for constructing this system are truly astronomical. In some cases, each mile of high-speed rail is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Given the state of budgeting for big projects in this country, the most expensive lines will easily end up costing over a billion dollars per mile when actually implemented. At a time of gaping budget deficits, only complete economics ignoramuses or lunatics would consider this a good investment. And remember, there is no way to make any of this money back once the system is in place. In fact, it will take throwing a lot of good money after bad into this blackhole just to keep it operational!

So, is there some sort of silver lining to this? What about claims that rail travel pollutes less than other forms of travel? On the surface, this seems true, but I am not completely convinced of this. Obviously, they would be less polluting than everyone getting in their cars and driving to wherever they need to go.

But rail lines don't construct themselves out of thin air. It takes a lot of manpower, movement of men and machines and materials to construct rail lines. In fact, one of the reasons high-speed rail is being touted right now is to serve as a government jobs program, much like the interstate highway system was in the 1940's and 50's. When the government has a lot of extra money to spend, such a program may have been good public policy. But when the country is broke, with crushing debt, and expenses vastly in excess of income, it is sheer lunacy.

In any case, once you take the pollution that is created during the construction into account, I am not so sure that rail travel is as pollution free as it is touted to be. It will probably take several years of absolutely pollution-free operation for the pollution created during construction to be offset. Also, remember that there is no such thing as a pollution-free train: even trains running on electricity need that electricity produced somewhere. Given that we have not switched over entirely to nuclear or hydroelectric power, producing that electricity still creates pollution, just not along the rail track.

And putting rail tracks through urban areas causes other problems too. They are eyesores if they are on the ground or above ground. They also cause traffic problems if they are on the ground. They become even more expensive than they already are if they need to be underground. And underground rail terminals are not the most inviting places for passengers either. This is not pollution per se, but add to the problems facing construction and operation of a viable passenger high-speed rail network in the US.

So, what is the solution? Well, it is actually hiding in plain sight. We already know that air travel is the most preferred mode of travel for most people, especially over long distances. Why not expand on the success of something that already works? Expand airports to relieve congestion at the ones that are congested. Hire more people to modernize the air traffic control system so that air travel delays are reduced. Invest in new technologies to make air travel more secure. Encourage invention of new technologies that will make security queues shorter and less painful.

Think about it, and it makes perfect sense. Air travel is already run by private companies. So, profitable passenger transportation is a reality for air travel, unlike for train travel. Yes, in bad years, airlines do lose money, but when the economy is good, they do make money. And whether they make money or not, it is none of the government's concern, and it does not impact the government's budget deficit one way or the other, unlike Amtrak whose losses take money directly out of the federal budget.

In fact, by making improvements to the air travel infrastructure of the country, the government can make airlines more profitable, thus having them contribute more tax dollars to the government coffers. Rather than spending billions of dollars now, only to have to support the system down the road with more billions of dollars every year, the government can spend the same few billion dollars now, and actually stand a chance of making that money back in extra tax revenue in the coming years.

And when it comes to pollution, air travel is actually much cleaner than it would appear on the surface. The actual infrastructure for air travel consists of just airports, which are localized structures. The actual pollution created during construction does not depend on the distance between two cities, only the sizes of the airports at the two cities. This is in contrast to rail and road travel, where the pollution created during construction increases directly with the distance to be bridged. And you don't have to worry about physical features like mountains, canyons, rivers, or even seas and oceans between the origin and destination! In fact, these physical features are untouched and pristine with air travel, which can not be said about road or rail travel which are likely to have serious environmental consequences on sensitive areas that lie on the path between two cities.

The pollution during operation is higher than with trains, but still much lower (on a passenger-mile basis) than with cars and other individual road vehicles. But, given the much higher speed, and the resultant convenience of air travel, the small amount of extra pollution over train travel during operation would seem acceptable to most people.

So, here is my idea: take the money that the government is hell-bent on spending on high-speed rail. Use it to make air travel much more convenient and secure. Expand airports (there come your construction jobs). Invest in new air traffic control systems (there come your information technology jobs). Invest in new security devices for the airports that make the pre-departure screening less intrusive and faster (there come your science and technology jobs). Encourage air travel over long-distance driving by raising gas taxes (there comes your extra revenue too).

At the very least, make airports transportation hubs by bringing rail connections, mass transit and air transportation together in one convenient location. Get rid of the petty politics that have made airports isolated from the cities they serve unless you have a car or other private transportation. Instead have a mass transit and rail hub in each major airport like they do in Europe. This will enable people to save time by taking air travel for the long distance travel and then connect seamlessly to train and other modes of travel for the last (hopefully short) leg of the journey to their final destination.

Mobility is one of the keys to wealth creation. Mobility reduces the friction of distance in commerce. Increased mobility, and higher speed of mobility, make for faster economic growth. As air travel and the airline industry expand, they create jobs that can not be easily exported. And none of these jobs will require constant government subsidies, unlike the jobs that are likely to be created by an expansion of Amtrak with high-speed rail. It is a win-win all around. Which probably means it is doomed in Washington, D.C.!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is literally no need, in an increasingly web-connected, mobile-device enabled world for high-speed rail.

High speed rail is the NASA of the current political landscape. It is (and this is its only true value, a gleaming possibility being proposed to make America recapture that feel-good, good old American pride that we experienced during the Kennedy administration). It is a futile american effort to correct planning mistakes that were made during the time that europe was making great decisions about infrastructure, whenever that was, decades ago. in any case.

A much more important need, in my opinion, is reimagining the milk train system that used to exist in this country. A light rail system that can be resurrected that will bring local agriculture (from agrizones which also, by the way need to be created, hopefully in the place of crumbling overdevelopment on previously working farms) and goods into cities that are only going to grow and grow in the decades to come. Why is there this continual focus on moving people around when it is increasingly clear that they can move shorter distances or not at all.

High speed rail is a glamour project.

There are a many more jobs (who's gonna do the projection on this?) that could be created from resurrecting the milk train/light rail system. Let the corn belt continue to do what it does well. Let the big trucks keep rolling along. There is no undoing the megafarms and their dependence on freight rail and trucking. We have to concentrate on creating agrizones, like the ones in Oregon, around ALL of the major metro areas in this country. And we have to focus on creating the lobbying pressure that will destroy the influence in Washington of the trucking and road building industry which has failed to offer any solution to the problems of agrizone distribution in the large urban centers in the east, first of all, and is doing everything in it's power to KEEP US GETTING IN OUR CARS.

The three major lobbies that need to be hobbled in this country are the trucking lobby, the road building lobby (let them repair as much as they want), and the auto industry. The latter of which still vainly hopes for recovering to their industrial age glory.

There is only truly future-oriented vision for the built environment of this country. It needs to more and more resemble The Web. It needs to be efficient, omnidirectional, low cost and open.

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