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High-speed rail will take taxpayers for a ride

My wife and I are planning a weekend in Philadelphia with our three kids. I thought it would be fun to take everybody up from D.C. to Philly on the Acela Express, Amtrak's fastest passenger train. It's only 95 minutes from downtown to downtown. Then I checked the ticket prices: $1,320.00 round-trip for the five of us. Even the slow Northeast Regional would cost hundreds of dollars. Driving takes an hour longer than the Acela but costs about $115.00 round-trip for gas, tolls and parking. We're driving.

I recalled this as I read a recent blog post by The New Republic’s usually sensible Jonathan Cohn, in which Jon protests the fact that several Republican gubernatorial candidates who are running against federally-funded passenger trains in their respective states. The Recovery Act, a.k.a. the stimulus, contains $8 billion for high-speed rail, "one of those investments," Jon says, "that virtually every reasonable expert, from left to right, would agree is worthwhile. But reasonable people appear to be in short supply in the Republican Party these days."

Well, to paraphrase an old Luther Ingram song, if those Republicans are unreasonable, I don't want to be reasonable. As my Amtrak experience suggests, the economics of passenger rail, no matter how fast the trains go, are dubious almost everywhere in the world -- especially in the far-flung U.S. Once federal funding runs out, states would almost certainly be saddled with endless operating subsidies. Eight billion dollars for high-speed rail is $8 billion that could be far more effectively spent on conventional transportation needs like roads or harbors -- if it has to be spent at all.

High-speed rail boosters invariably cite the U.S.'s alleged backwardness vis-à-vis Japan, Spain, Germany or France. Yet even in Japan, one of the world's most densely populated countries, only one "bullet train" line, the one between Osaka and Tokyo, is profitable. Europe's passenger rail systems report profits -- but only because they hide public subsidies off-budget. According to a 2008 study by Amtrak’s inspector general, honest accounting shows that Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the U.K. and Spain subsidize their trains heavily -- up to $37 for every mile a train travels in Germany.

The reason is obvious, or should be. Trains are very expensive to operate -- yet they must compete against alternatives -- cars, buses and planes -- that are often cheaper for travelers on a per-mile basis. In the U.S., with its well-developed interstate highway system and thousands of airports, this problem would be even worse, as Amtrak's consistent money-losing suggests.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has likened the Obama administration's vision for a high-speed rail network to President Eisenhower's support of the interstate highway system. It never seems to occur to him that the interstate highways helped destroy what was left of passenger rail in this country, because it made it cheap and easy for Americans to drive where they wanted to go. And those highways will still be around to compete with any new system.

For cost and convenience, cars beat almost any passenger rail system you can imagine, even a high-speed one. That would be true even if the U.S. adopted European-level gas taxes, which isn't going to happen, anyway. Consider the proposed Tampa-Orlando route, which President Obama promised $1.25 billion in seed money amid much fanfare a year ago. The trip would take about 55 minutes, compared to 90 minutes by car. But the route starts in downtown Tampa and ends at the Orlando International Airport -- which is, like, in the middle of nowhere, roughly 15 miles from Disney World. So once you get there, you'd have to rent a car or schlep your stuff on some bus. After all the hassle and expense of getting to and from the train, you won't have saved any time and you’ll be sorry you didn't drive.

And Florida is a relatively propitious place for high-speed rail since the state already owns the necessary land. In California, where the Obama administration and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) are promising to support a proposed $42.6 billion L.A.-San Francisco line, the new system would have to use existing corridors that belong to freight railroads. And the freight lines don't want to share, noting, rationally, that it wouldn't be safe to crowd the lines with trains traveling all sorts of different speeds. Similar hassles have arisen in other states. Resolving the freighters' issues will drive up the costs of passenger rail, assuming they can be resolved. So far, the Wall Street Journal reports, freight carrier resistance has helped delay the distribution of all but $597 million of the planned $8 billion in passenger rail money. In Europe, subsidized passenger rail has displaced freight from trains to trucks; given traffic, highway safety and the environment, the U.S. has no interest in duplicating that experience.

I have ridden the Shinkansen -- Japan's bullet train -- and, let me tell you, it's cool. But in their techno-envy, American advocates of high-speed passenger trains lose any sense of economic rigor. Yes, fast passenger trains may be awesome -- but exactly why do we need them? Cars, buses and planes are already doing a good job of moving people around. If the purpose of high-speed rail is to create jobs, other infrastructure investment can do that. If the purpose is to save energy or limit greenhouse gases, then rail, which uses massive amounts of electricity, much of it presumably generated by coal-fired plants, may be inferior to air or car travel.

If there were a compelling passenger-rail business model in the United States, the private sector would have pursued it long ago. Federally-subsidized trains will take this country nowhere, fast.

By Charles Lane  | October 8, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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If I were going to design a highspeed electric rail system in the US I'd line all the tracks' transoms with solar panels and wind generators. These would cut down costs in the long run and would make the system much cheaper per ticket than in any other country.

Posted by: glenglish | October 8, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Charles, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, your post is a good example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, and it contains the usual Republican/Libertarian talking points against high-speed rail.

You write that in Japan, only the Tokyo-Osaka line is profitable, but the purpose of public transportation isn't to make a profit. It's to provide a means of getting from Point A to Point B without having to worry about gas, traffic, parking, security checkpoints or flight delays. Profitable or not, it has a habit of working wonders where implemented. In France, the Paris-Lyon line was so successful that air service between the two cities was eliminated.

Second, you argue that the U.S. is "far-flung." Um, no it isn't. Nobody is advocating bullet trains from New York to Los Angeles, but the Northeast Corridor, California, the Pacific Northwest and the major cities in the Midwest are all areas that would be ideal for HSR, which is usually built between cities within about 600 miles of each other.

Third, you talk about rail being subsidized. Guess what? So are the roads you're driving your family to Philadelphia on, not to mention the whole Interstate Highway System and most of the airports, to say nothing of public transportation in general in this country. This goes back to the usual Republican/Libertarian attitude that public transportation should pay for itself. It almost never does, but again, it's not there just to make somebody rich.

Posted by: james44 | October 8, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

You act like it doesn't cost the government any money at all to maintain the interstate highway system or all of the airports and air traffic control system. Might want to factor in those costs before you start ranting on about how much the railway system would cost.

Also you basically imply that all of the European and the Japanese governments have been bought off by techno-envy and are wasting money themselves on high-speed rail. Yet every single one of those governments are actively expanding their high-speed rail networks under the enthusiastic response of their taxpayers that utilize them. Why would they do that if high-speed rail was so ineffective and a waste of money?

Posted by: rademaar | October 8, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

@james44- It is not a "republican" attitude that public transit should pay for itself, rather a libertarian one. There are plenty of republicans who are big advocates of high speed rail and increased public transit in general in this country.

Posted by: rademaar | October 8, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Charles, but you missed a lot of the costs of driving. Auto's are also heavily subsidized. You didn't think all those roads popped out of the ground like mushrooms, did you? You also don't account for the other costs of driving (insurance, auto depreciation, maintenance, the various indirect cost). Autos generally cost you directly, or the public indirectly, about a buck to a buck fifty per mile, depending on how much indirect you want to include.

Comparing apples to apples, trains are by far the most cost efficient means of moving a ton of anything, be it grain or people. You make a good point, though, that train fares in this country can't compete. Don't blame this on the trains, though. They are the cheapest form of transportation when all costs are figured in. They only lose out cost wise in the competition for subsidy dollars that all the other forms of transportation currently enjoy.

Posted by: truthwillout | October 8, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Like those that mantain nuclear generated electricty is cheaper than... but do not account for the cost of the facilities needed to treat and keep the spent nuclear fuel.

If just the cost of porperly getting rid of all the used tires of cars, trucks and buses would be added most likely rail transpotation will be cheaper.

Posted by: erikavanheusen | October 8, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Agree with all of the comments above about subsidies spednt on automobile travel and the relative comparative price advantage of mass transit once all subsidies are factored in. One further point, your discussion seems to assume that the price of gasoline will remain fixed forever at the current price. First of all, the current price of gasoline is not the actual cost of the gasoline use since it does not account for the externalities like the pollution and human suffering to obtain the gasoline (see the Gulf and recent refinery explosions, not to mention the Niger Delta), along with the pollution and human health problems caused by using the gasoline (e.g. asthma, ozone hole, greenhouse gases, etc.). And let's not forget the cost of traffic.

The world is a lot more complex than you make it out to be. Your hypothetical is a simplistic comparison that is not applicable to the real world.

Posted by: ado211 | October 8, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Great article. I love train travel, but oh, is it expensive. My wife and I took auto train from DC to Tampa several years ago. It took 16 hours and cost more than flying and renting a car. High speed rail is another liberal shibboleth like solar and wind power. Trendy, virtuous and green. Except it costs 5 to 10 times as much as conventional energy. Although these facts are indisputable Obama would rather spend a billion creating 100 green jobs than using the same funds to create 1000 jobs in the oil or gas industry.

Posted by: jkk1943 | October 8, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Great article! In fact, I'm shocked to read it in the Post. LOL. Let's fact, HSR is a fantasy of the so-called Urbanists who hate cars with a passion that most of us reserve for child rapists and who are determined to make life as difficult as possible for any body who dares to drive a car. For them (as can be witnessed in the comments already posted here), no price is enough to pay -- which means for SOMEBODY ELSE to pay -- for HSR.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | October 8, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Currently, only "two" HSR's in the world actually make money! All the rest require Gov't subsidies!!!!!! Sounds like another waste of taxpayers money to me.

Posted by: Jimbo77 | October 8, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

rademaar: You have a point, and you're correct to an extent, but unfortunately, libertarianism and the GOP are quickly becoming conflated. The old hard-nosed, pragmatic, get-it-done GOP is extinct in most places and being replaced by the GOP of not raising taxes on anything for any reason, doing everything on the cheap without regard to quality, denouncing any kind of big infrastructure project as "socialism" and always deferring to big business.

Posted by: james44 | October 8, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Poorly researched article.

The infrastructure necessary to drive a car is almost completely socialized. The cost of the road itself, the ongoing maintenance, police to patrol the road, EMS to attend to accidents, electricity for the street lights, etc. That small tankful of gas you paid for was was nothing. The socialized roadway is what got you there.

The facts are clear: rail moves more with less fuel than cars. MUCH more. Railways require less maintenance, and have far less impervious cover than highways. The list keeps going.

Bottom line: highways are not "free" - we all pay for them, and don't charge motorists a fee to use them.

Posted by: Texican512 | October 8, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with all those who point the unaccounted for costs of the interstate highway system and car depreciation.

In addition, it should be noted that the federal government spent about $70 billion between 2002-2008 subsidizing the fossil fuel industry through tax breaks and direct spending - that's about $10 billion a year. How much did you say they allocated to HSR again?

We also have to consider the issue of peak oil (google it), and the fact that the spike in gas price in 2008 is only the beginning of an indefinite upward trend as we deplete our beloved fossil fuels. So I'd say we'd better start planning now for ways to get around when gas is a heck of a lot more expensive.

Posted by: tbone9898 | October 8, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I see three problems with high-speed rail in the U.S.:

1) The proposed rail lines are, by and large, not high-speed. A Midwest line approved between Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, for example, will run at speeds of about 80 mph, and that's when the train isn't running in cities, where it will crawl at 25-35 mph at most. The train service will be no faster than a car, and it is not "high-speed" by any accepted definition. Internationally, "high-speed" means traveling over 150 mph, and even this is slow by modern standards as new high-speed trains now travel 200-250 mph easily.

2) The cost of these train services makes them a waste. Trains work as local transportation within cities, but for regional transportation, ticket prices are high enough that if more than one person is traveling, a car is so much cheaper that anyone would be nuts not to drive.

3) Oil and road subsidies mean that trains will never catch on in the U.S. Freeways ruin the potential of train lines as long as the roads aren't so packed with cars that traffic jams push people back to trains. Tolls can help convince people to ride instead of drive, too, but tolls are rare outside of heavily populated areas. Roads are expensive for governments to maintain, but cheap for consumers to use when faced with a train ticket vs. driving. Most consumers only directly pay the price of gas. As long as gas prices are under $5 per gallon, train tickets are always going to be too expensive compared to driving. At $10 per gallon, gas prices might start to force more people toward trains. Oil subsidies keep the price of gas down, which, along with road subsidies, also helps keep the prices of other consumer goods, including food, down, but the result is that we aren't motivated to use trains.

Trains should be competing with airlines, not with cars. If we want trains to compete with cars, we're going to have to double or triple the price of gas, and then implement electronic tolling systems on all freeways and most highways that could serve as alternatives to train lines. Doing so would double food prices, hurting the poor, and upend so much of our economy that it would take us a decade or two to recover. There isn't a good model for replacing cars with trains. Trains can cut into air traffic, but they make no sense as replacements for cars.

Heck, even in Japan, where I've lived, outside of a few major cities, people regularly choose to drive instead of ride the train. Even there, with gas prices significantly higher than ours and tolls on most major highways, driving is cheaper and more convenient in most situations.

Posted by: blert | October 8, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

There will always be good arguments against new transportation technologies; it is a tradition.

Would we have our rail network without massive Federal subsidies, largely in the form of land grants of right-of-way, and town sites?

Would we have automobiles, if anyone had examined the state of our roads in 1900? What about airplanes, given we had no airports at the time?

While high-speed rail development consists of disconnected "proof of concept" projects, I do not expect it to be either efficient or profitable, any more than other forms of R&D are, but these projects are a necessary step to a network/system that is efficient and profitable.

Our Interstate Highway System has never even come close to break-even, but it has contributed greatly to our nation having the world's second largest economy (outside the euro-zone). I would not call that a waste of money, would you?

Posted by: OldUncleTom | October 8, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

The Northeast Corridor, DC to NYC to Boston, which Mr. Lane wrote about, is the only Amtrak route profitable in most years. It may be the best U.S. case for high-speed trains. Amtrak recently announced a plan to upgrade the Northeast Corridor. Its cost estimate was about $120 billion dollars, or $300 million a mile. That compares to about $50 million a mile for the British channel link or $80 million a mile for the planned California system.

We live near Boston, with customers and family in NYC, so we travel frequently between NYC and Boston, more than 50 times a year. At one time or another we have used most options: the air shuttles, Amtrak "regional" and Acela, Peter Pan bus, Fung Wah and other Chinatown buses, Metro North from New Haven and automobile all the way. We have become familiar with alternatives to high-speed rail in the northern part of the Northeast Corridor. The likely NYC-Boston fares well above $200 would make make high-speed rail service attractive to us only when time is very tight; we would probably not use it often.

Some observers call attention to "great eras" of U.S. transportation, including 19th century canals and interstate highways. Those were solutions to major problems of slow and hazardous transportation. High-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor does not have a similar opportunity. There are many alternatives other than the automobile already offering a wide range of service and convenience, with which it must compete.

Posted by: AppDev | October 8, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Barrack Obama and the Democrats are he11 bent on taking America to not only bankruptcy, but also obselesence. If American's wanted train service, enough of them would have used such services when we had trains, and they would have been profitable and cost efficient. But reality is Americans DON'T want trains. They like the freedom of their automobiles.

Posted by: FormerDemocrat | October 8, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Funny how the comments in favor of high-speed rail are thoughtful and informative, while those against are rambling, incoherent and paranoid.

Lane's argument, as noted above, misses the point because it ignores the massive costs, both direct and indirect, associated with highways. Anyone who thinks the interstate highway system was simply the product of free market forces is insane. Lane also assumes oil will forever be cheap and plentiful. Maybe we should build more canals while we're at it?

Posted by: simpleton1 | October 8, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

Alexander J. Cassatt and his successor, presidents of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built part of the Northeast Corridor. The Pennsy was a private company and it built the whole thing off its then profits and loans (at the time, there were no government-subsidized superhighways, no government-subsidized airports, and the autos that existed were comparatively few and primitive). I am not sure how much this investment (which included grade-separated rights of way, the Pennsylvania Station in New York City, tunnels under the Hudson River, and bridges) cost per mile, but I'll bet it would be a lot back then and a lot now (on par with today's public works projects). Cassatt had turned the railroad around from the brink of financial ruin, and with money coming in, he built a route which today helps plenty of Americans and contributes to the economy, including the vibrancy of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and other places. Amtrak's expensive trains, the stretch limo of the railroad tracks, are complemented by commuter trains that are very heavily used (at least in NJ Transit territory) (they are pretty long and sometimes crowded). But well-heeled businesspeople like the Acela Express, which explains how it can command the high fares that it does. As for driving, I wonder how much money a month the typical driver spends on feeding and watering the car, fixing the car, paying for insurance, paying for tolls, paying for accidents, etc. Also, there are hidden costs - the costs paid to build parking spaces and maintain them, the costs of building and maintaining highways and roads - that come with driving. So, no, I'm not sure if the car is naturally cheaper than train travel or not, but driving tends to be more convenient. The train has a niche - short- to medium-range travel, particularly middle-and-upper-class for the fast trains, middle class for commuter trains, and subways and light rail/metro for the poor - that it fills better than airlines, although perhaps evenly with the intercity coach and not as well as the urban bus (trolleys really need to move more quickly than they do in Newark for them to do better than buses).

So, yes, building high speed rail is warranted, even if the economics appear to be iffy to market-economy enthusiasts.

I wonder if the economics of trains would be any better if people were crammed into them in the same fashion that they are onto buses and airplanes. Likely so. Then again, that wouldn't make as pleasant a ride, eh?

Perhaps all modes of travel should be subsidized just enough to make sure people travel comfortably.

As for Japan, it's a rail-friendly country because so many of its people live in the big cities. Nagoya's metro area is comparatively car-friendly, as is perhaps Sapporo, but Tokyo-Yokohama is comparatively train-friendly.

Posted by: rickyrab | October 9, 2010 2:05 AM | Report abuse

"If there were a compelling passenger-rail business model in the United States, the private sector would have pursued it long ago."

Ever heard of the Alaska Railroad? Or the Copper Canyon line? Also, the public sector is already heavily involved in passenger rail, so the private sector has no obvious reason to try (except in the Los Angeles-Las Vegas corridor, and I'm wondering what's happening with that).

Part of the rail problem is that railroads, unlike roads and highways, are typically owned by the same entity that also runs the trains, or, in cases where the entities differ, the owning entity's traffic overwhelms the other entity's traffic and charges the other entity rent. I wonder what the cost of running a train would be if it ran independently on an Interstate Highway.

The economics to a customer of train travel, and of transit travel in general (ferries, airlines, and buses included) need some work so it can better approximate the economics of the car in some situations. The primary example we have of such economics in transit is room charges on sleeping cars or other transit that involves rented rooms (you are charged for the room, and the price drops if you stuff more people into the room, like the case is with the car). Such pricing is most useful on long-distance and medium-distance non-business routes (business travelers tend to be more solitary than vacationers and family travelers). This can be extended to coach travel, too - we could designate "carships" or groups of seats that would be cheaper per person when more people are stuffed into those groups. I think four to six seats would be the best group size, as that approximate the number of seats in a car, and perhaps eight seats at most on an airplane. (Six seats can fit onto one side in two rows, three per row; the same goes for four, with two per row. On a wide body jet, we could have four people between the aisles in a row, and some airplanes take five).

Posted by: rickyrab | October 9, 2010 2:29 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and by the way, Apex Bus would not be that much more expensive than driving ($150 round trip for 5 people) and lone travelers would find it cheaper. I'd like to know what is so expensive about a train that isn't as expensive with a bus. My guess is union employees on railroads and generosity with legroom and other room, as well as Federal safety mandates on its own passenger railroads. Also, don't forget that the government subsidies for bus travel can have similar items to those of driving, because buses share the same roads (I wish they used dedicated rights of way like trains do, so they don't get stuck in traffic, and I also wish they were wider, like trains are.)

Posted by: rickyrab | October 9, 2010 2:41 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: maxjulien09 | October 9, 2010 4:06 AM | Report abuse

What, specifically, did you attempt to make reservations for?

I did a couple of test reservations for Washington DC - Philadelphia -round trip on the Acela site. My test for 2 adults & 3 children came out as a lot less than your $1,320.00 on a weekend. Where did you get your figures?

Please specify what parameters you put in for your Acela trip vs. the car trip, so we can do a true apples-to-apples comparison. Thanks

Posted by: herbop | October 9, 2010 4:22 AM | Report abuse

I am a former Railroader. Remember when you read these proposals for high speed rail that the cost estimates are off by a factor of 10. Add at least a zero to the current cost estimates.
These foolish proposals all have one thing in common they do not have a right of way and their estimates to not include the cost of obtaining one. Using freight tracks is very dangerous and utterly unworkable, that is why all high speed rail in every other country have dedicated passenger lines.
High speed rail is a great idea for Europe were major cities exist every 50 to 100 miles. In the USA such systems are impracticable to to the greater distances and the capital costs.
These trains will not be built in our lifetime. The money spent will go to shysters and consultants who will promise the moon and deliver a stinking mass of rotten cheese.

Posted by: devluddite | October 9, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

The previous post is simply not true. High speed lines are used all over the world for mixed freight and passenger traffic. Modern signalling insure that its is extremely unlikely to be a collision between passenger and freight trains. Italian high speed lines with maximum speeds reaching 186 MPH are heavily used by freight trains. This brings me nicely onto my second point. Thousands of road users die or are seriously injured on the interstate highway network every year. Modern rail is one of the safest forms of travel. The Shinkansen has transported over five BILLON passengers without ANY deaths or serious injuries. The French TGV has yet to record one fatality since it began operations in 1981!!! Don’t be hoodwinked by private interest groups such as the aviation or big oil lobby (a full Siemens high speed train manages 700 miles/gallon of gas per passenger). High speed rail is increasing productivity, competitiveness and prosperity in practically every other developed and many emerging economies in the world. Don't let this chance to catch up slip by.

Posted by: paulc3 | October 9, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

If Northwest Corridor trains are not selling tickets, tickets for DC to Philly are about $16 for adults. Tickets for his trip because almost all the tickets were sold.

A train that can sell out even with high prices is a success.

Posted by: trainstar | October 9, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

U.S. motor vehicle fatalities in 2009:
42,031 (according to the CDC)
33,808 (according to the NHTSA)
U.S. motor vehicle injuries in 2009:
2,220,000 (according to USA Today)
Trains are much safer and have much less environmental impact. The average U.S. household spent $5,477 on gas and auto expenses last year, an amount which accounts for about 14.5 percent of daily spending. That's more than we spend on groceries or utilities, and more than we spend on travel, entertainment, clothes, shoes and hobbies - combined. (according to Bundle)

Posted by: Kintetsu | October 9, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

Mostly everybody is missing the boat here.

the $8B federal money for rail won't make a dent in any sort of high speed rail build-out. It couldn't. Railroads are expensive to build and maintain. The $8B is basically intended to do study what its going to take to build high speed rail.

"high speed" as defined in the federal act is about 110MPH. I think people have accepted the cost of building true "high speed" would run in the trillions of dollars and not feasible on many levels.

Finally, everybody knows, including congress and Amtrak that a nationwide high speed network isn't feasible or practical, but there is work to define high speed corridors, include the northeast, something in Florida, California, Chicago, etc.

I'm neutral on it myself. I heartily agree with the concept, but congress is so dysfunctional that they can't/won't create a definition for Amtrak that can actually fulfill its mission. And they funding they do give Amtrak is not enough for its stated purpose and so creates an environment where Amtrak has to do bizarre things with the funding which don't always make sense.

Nonetheless, while cars are ultimately a better way to move people around long distances, the political reality is that for the next 10-20 years, people won't have the stomach or the finances to expand our roadways, so trains will have to do.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | October 10, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

"Finally, everybody knows, including congress and Amtrak that a nationwide high speed network isn't feasible or practical, but there is work to define high speed corridors, include the northeast, something in Florida, California, Chicago, etc."

So why is China building a high speed rail network? China is almost the same size as the USA, and, admittedly, its cities are much denser and more compact than ours, but it's building a high speed network anyway.

"Nonetheless, while cars are ultimately a better way to move people around long distances, the political reality is that for the next 10-20 years, people won't have the stomach or the finances to expand our roadways, so trains will have to do."

How so? I can see cars doing better in moving from one part of suburban sprawl to another part of suburban sprawl, but a long-distance trip would entail a lot of gawking at the road for a driver. True, there'll be robotic cars in several years (Google already has a few but nobody's mass producing them, and there are bugs to work out), but people will probably want some elbow room on board (sure, they can always stop at rest stops, but there's more room to do stuff on a train) and trains are compact and potentially economical (they have outcompeted airplanes on some routes in Europe, and been competitive against airplanes - today's major high-speed mode of transit - in the Northeast Corridor as well). Carpooling is admittedly more economical (mainly because you have less room per person on board and you don't have to pay the driver or staff), but if you cut the staff down enough and put enough people on board, trains could be more economical (less mass to move per person and perhaps less traffic to have to stop for). But I prefer a less crowded train to a more crowded one, everything else being equal.

Posted by: rickyrab | October 10, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

China may also be thinking of national defense. If you're looking for capacity and speed on the ground, with both freight and passenger, something that is important when mobilizing for a war, then why not a railroad? Railroads conserve energy, too, particularly with large trains at slow speeds, but faster speeds might still be doable with energy savings as well. Since high speed railroads would allow high speeds, people (and goods) can rapidly be shifted to the front, unloaded, and the train sent back pronto to get another load. Can this really be done with today's single-lane freight railroads? Perhaps, but not at as high a speed, and certainly not at as much high a capacity. A high speed railroad network would be a valuable contribution to the national defense.

Posted by: rickyrab | October 10, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Clarification on one of my points. "admittedly, its cities are much denser and more compact than ours, but it's building a high speed network anyway" - It may be building a high-speed railroad network partly BECAUSE it has dense cities. But the high speed rail concept might work with America, too, if we build up our downtown areas and encourage businesses to move to them. I think Detroit might make an excellent testing ground for this, as its inner city areas are so depleted that there's plenty of dirt-cheap territory to work with. So which should come first, the CBD development or the train?

Posted by: rickyrab | October 10, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

"If American's wanted train service, enough of them would have used such services when we had trains, and they would have been profitable and cost efficient. But reality is Americans DON'T want trains. They like the freedom of their automobiles."

They DID use trains, but then airlines got jetplanes and government subsidized the Interstate system in the name of "national defense". Then railroads, instead of fighting back, did something stupid - they waved the white flag. The American government and people in policy circles were astoundingly anti-railroad in the mid 20th century, seeing railroads as private businesses that could be sucked dry for the "public benefit". They lost post road status to the airlines, and then wound up losing both freight AND passenger business to the roads and highways. Instead of making agreements with bus services and airlines to keep up with the competition, they basically chickened out, asking repeatedly to abandon passenger service and forcing the creation of Amtrak, instead of managing their competition with cars better. They also allowed towns to tax their lines when double-tracked, leading to the need to remove one track of their lines. Now under deregulation, they seem to be focused entirely on freight, in spite of the fact that a market still exists for train travel in several quarters. This could've and should've been handled better. Why not put a railroad track on our Interstate highways?

Posted by: rickyrab | October 10, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

We forget some things when we talk about the "freedom" of the automobile. No "freedom' is free. The cheap gas that makes our degree of "automotive freedom" possible is paid for in part by the blood of soldiers who are sent to the Middle East to fight for oil. Yes, I said that they fight for oil. Bush's ridiculous claim that we are fighting for the freedom of Iraq's freedom runs up against the stark reality that democracy is not possible in Iraq or any other Muslim country for that matter. If there was no oil in the Middle East, we wouldn't have a military presence there. Anyone of military age who agrees with the Bush decision to go into Iraq should sign up and go ther themselves.

Posted by: robert_kresko | October 10, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

We forget some things when we talk about the "freedom" of the automobile. No "freedom' is free. The cheap gas that makes our degree of "automotive freedom" possible is paid for in part by the blood of soldiers who are sent to the Middle East to fight for oil. Yes, I said that they fight for oil. Bush's ridiculous claim that we are fighting for the freedom of Iraq's freedom runs up against the stark reality that democracy is not possible in Iraq or any other Muslim country for that matter. If there was no oil in the Middle East, we wouldn't have a military presence there. Anyone of military age who agrees with the Bush decision to go into Iraq should sign up and go ther themselves.

Posted by: robert_kresko | October 10, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

We forget some things when we talk about the "freedom" of the automobile. No "freedom' is free. The cheap gas that makes our degree of "automotive freedom" possible is paid for in part by the blood of soldiers who are sent to the Middle East to fight for oil. Yes, I said that they fight for oil. Bush's ridiculous claim that we are fighting for the freedom of Iraq's freedom runs up against the stark reality that democracy is not possible in Iraq or any other Muslim country for that matter. If there was no oil in the Middle East, we wouldn't have a military presence there. Anyone of military age who agrees with the Bush decision to go into Iraq should sign up and go ther themselves.

Posted by: robert_kresko | October 10, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Don't know why my previous comment got posted three times instead of one. Sorry. One more comment though. We make another serious mistake when we talk about the "automotive freedom" concept. We forget that driving a car is not a right, it is a privledge for responsible people, but we are so caught up in the idea that driving a car is a fundemental right, that we refuse to revoke almost anyone's driving privledges. Drunk drivers should lose their privledges immediately. People who want to text or talk on the phone instead of paying attention to the road should be on a train or a bus, but they absolutley no business or right being behind the wheel of a car while they are participating in these activities. People have a responsibility to keep their automobiles in safe running condition, but it is a safe bet that at least twenty percent of the cars in transit right now are not fit to be on the road. Driving a car is not a right, it is a privledge with accompanying responsibilities.

Posted by: robert_kresko | October 10, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

The arguments talking about how the interstate highway system has never been profitable or "free market," and thus highspeed rail needn't be profitable either, I think are missing a point.

The interstate highway system may have been subsidized, but the automobiles that drive on it, are free-market.

Similarly, while the airports may be government-funded infrastructure (I'm not sure?), the airlines themselves are a business that must be profitable.

With rail, while the TRACKS may be government-funded infrastructure (again, not sure?), the TRAINS themselves, should probably be profitable.

Historically, rail lines were profitable. In fact, in the 19th century, the rail lines that were government-subsidized were designed with very crappy tracks. It was the strictly private rail lines that were developed with the good quality tracks.

The New York City subway system also used to be privatized and profitable. It only fell to the city government when the city made it illegal for the subway company to continue raising its prices as inflation occurred.

It may be fine to perhaps subsidize the development of the tracks the trains will run on, but if the trains themselves cannot pay for themselves, then we might want to think twice.

Not saying high-speed rail shouldn't be developed though, just saying to consider some other points. Freight trains in America are also profitable.

Posted by: MechMan183 | October 14, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

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