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The Real Problem With High-Speed Rail

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We’re borrowing late 21st-century money to build late 20th-century technology to benefit early 21st-century politicians.

Everybody loves trains, especially little boys and grown men who never outgrew their boyhood love for the iron horse.

And everybody loves futuristic-seeming, super-fast-moving trains that whisk us from city to city without our suffering Transportation Security Administration-inflicted indignities.

Trains are clean, quiet, and smooth. They lack turbulence, are generally spacious, are not hostile to cell phones (except in the “quiet car”), do not require you to show up hours before your departure time, and offer convenient luggage storage and retrieval.

So what’s wrong with the Obama administration’s plans to implant a high-speed rail (HSR) network around the country over coming decades?

High-speed rail’s problems stem mainly from implausibly rosy economic predictions followed by deeply disappointing financial results.

In two words: finance and politics. In a sentence: we’re borrowing late 21st-century money to build late 20th-century technology to benefit early 21st-century politicians.

HSR’s problems stem mainly from implausibly rosy economic predictions followed by deeply disappointing financial results. One expert calls HSR a “budget-buster,” contending that California’s high-speed costs have risen at least 50 percent.

Even the model HSR networks around the globe—supposedly exemplary of the wonders of fast train travel—leave much to be desired.

One observer has chronicled the multitudinous woes plaguing China’s HSR enterprise, which the administration has frequently touted as a model for our own:

Cash-flow problems have pushed the price of financing significantly higher, and may well be unsustainable. Substandard workmanship is widespread, with concrete bases for system tracks deteriorating to the point where trains may have to run below rated speed in the near future. Cost overruns are anyone’s guess, thanks to China’s opaque securities reporting. Foreign firms that have worked on the projects say China is stealing their intellectual property.

Others estimate that Japan’s equally illustrious HSR system has added more than 10 percent to the national debt, while cost overruns in Korea have surged into the 300 percent range.

‘High-speed rail is, relative to competing uses of public dollars, a fetish object.’

But worse even than cost overruns has been the political manipulation afflicting the speedy choo-choos. A recent eye-opening New York Times article revealed the cold, calculating politics behind HSR in sunny Florida, where the federal government pledged $2.4 billion of the total $2.6 billion cost of building an 85-mile-long high-speed track between Tampa and Orlando. The Sunshine State’s Republican governor refused the funds, however, worried that his state would have to foot the bill later for the cost overruns and excess debts that have vexed similar systems throughout the world.

The route itself, it turns out, was more or less useless, as critics had contended for years. “It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars,” the Times article states, “and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving.”

So why, then, spend billions on a useless rail project? According to the article, the White House apparently believed that “simply building new futuristic trains zipping around at more than 150 miles an hour would be an accomplishment in itself, one that could lift the spirits of a recession-battered nation.” But, alas, the project’s demise will “deprive the Obama administration of what it had hoped would be a showpiece that would sell the rest of the nation on high-speed rail.” Such a shame when facts interfere with perception.

National Review’s Reihan Salam, who has done yeoman’s work tracking the excesses of HSR projects, aptly notes that “HSR is, relative to competing uses of public dollars, a fetish object.” Instead, Salam writes, the billions the feds were lavishing on the Florida route could better have been spent “to encourage higher density and traffic-calming efforts in Sunbelt cities, to reduce the energy-intensity of various regional economies, reduce the number of motor vehicle deaths, improve public health, and facilitate mobility for less-affluent people.” Amen to that.

The sheer politics of establishing ‘facts on the ground’ in California are, for high-speed rail enthusiasts, the means to a greater end: gaining a foothold somewhere, anywhere, to build momentum for further rail development.

Closer to my home, in California’s Central Valley, the first leg of the vaunted San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line is expected to cost $4.3 billion to span a mere 54 miles near Fresno. This “rail line to nowhere” outstrips even the Tampa-to-Orlando route in per-mile cost and utter uselessness. Even a liberal Democratic member of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority expressed angst over the plan. “I’m concerned this staff recommendation makes engineering sense,” former U.S. Representative Lynn Schenk told the San Francisco Chronicle, “but not common sense.”

And even if HSR successfully links Los Angeles to San Francisco, ignoring significant NIMBY problems, how many Californians will opt to abandon their cars to travel from one car-dependent megalopolis to another? Even if the trip saves a few hours and a bunch of aggravation, how would passengers get around the Bay Area or the L.A. Basin without wheels? Still, the sheer politics of establishing “facts on the ground” in California are, for HSR enthusiasts, the means to a greater end: gaining a foothold somewhere, anywhere, to build momentum for further rail development.

Now, none of this means that high-speed rail cannot work well in certain corners of the country. The Boston-New York-Washington corridor, of course, is ideal: several densely populated metropolitan centers that are relatively close, each of which enjoys central city cores and extensive public transit networks. It’s no surprise that Amtrak is profitable only in this corridor, and HSR appears well-suited for the region.

But Americans as a whole, enthusiastic as we are about trains in general and dandy new rail technology in particular, should put the brakes on expensive, politicized boondoggles that will wind up doing little else besides saddling our grandchildren with yet more debt while foregoing the opportunity to put the money to good use. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, even at 150 miles per hour.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also explores “The Real Problem with Government Employee Unions,” “Thwarting Cyber ‘Predicaments,’” and “Ripped Off?”Michael Barone says “High-Speed Rail Is a Fast Way to Waste Taxpayer Money,” R. Richard Geddes writes “Build Roads, Save Money with Private Investors,” and Steven Hayward discusses “A Fossil Fuel Renaissance?”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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