Thursday, February 3, 2011

Michael Barone compares HSR in China and the US

Barone touches on a number of points we have been discussing in this blog for some time.  He's not an absolute HSR opponent, but certainly has a more realistic understanding of what's sensible and what isn't.  

We will be hearing ever more about China.  They, still bent on paving all of their country over with HSR lines and highways, have so rushed construction of rail lines that they are only now coming to realize that even if their ticket prices are less than any other country, they are still too high for the majority of their transit-seeking population.  As Barone points out, HSR in China is not mass public transportation.  It is elitist.

Those who like to use the word 'Socialist' as a form of condemnation will have to agree that China (a Communist country) is building a transit system that may be 'Socialist,' but only for the upper classes.  And that's what it will be in the US. It will not be the commuter rail service that get's the working classes to work every day.  It will be for well to do tourists and business professionals with expense accounts.  Is that what our Government ought to be doing with hundreds of billions of dollars?

(You do know that on the Bay Area Peninsula, there are clear income level and occupational class distinctions between Caltrain riders and bus riders?)

Let's be clear here. Every HSR train ticket, regardless of cost, will be subsidized by our tax dollars one way or another.  Ticket prices, unless they become extremely high and do indeed cover all the operating and maintenance costs (totally unlikely), will have to be supplemented with state or federal support.  See Amtrak for the prime example.  What does that mean in practice?

It limits access to these luxury trains to those who can afford the premium price of a ticket. And yet, those tickets will still be supported by tax dollars.  

Republicans are profoundly averse to income redistribution; that is, having the money of the wealthy go
-- by way of government programs -- to support the poor and lower income classes.  Yet, here with HSR, there will be income redistribution from all the taxpayers, regardless of their level of income, to support the well to do HSR riders.  While fears of Socialism are based on government orchestrated transfer of income from the top to the bottom, HSR will require the opposite; transfer of income from the bottom to the top.  While this may be overstated here, it's not inaccurate either. 

My point? My fellow Democrats who support this train, for whatever reason, ought to be opposing it at least for ideological reasons.  Would they support a government program that provides Rolls-Royces at a great discount for the wealthy? 

Published on Washington Examiner
By Michael Barone
Created Feb 2 2011 - 4:33pm
High-speed rail doesn't make sense in China, either
Faithful readers know that one of my pet issues—pet peeves, really—is high-speed rail, which was the subject of one recent Examiner column and was mentioned in my most recent column Wednesday. Yes, high-speed rail might make sense in some high-density corridors connecting big cities with big downtowns, i.e., the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. But it doesn’t make much sense elsewhere. I have pointed out that, with one exception, continent-sized countries like Russia, Canada and Brazil have not contemplated building high-speed rail lines except for those that would connect their two largest metropolitan areas.

The exception, of course, is China, which is lauded by the likes of Thomas Friedman for its supposedly far-sighted program of building a network of high-speed rail lines over most of the country. Now comes Patrick Chovanec, an American who is a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, with the news that high-speed rail doesn’t make much sense in China either. mess. Key paragraph:

“The problem is that high-speed rail is expensive both to build and to operate, requiring high ticket prices to break even.  The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low.  Even if they could afford a high-speed train ticket — which is doubtful given their limited incomes — they would probably prefer to conserve their cash and take a slower, cheaper train.  If that proves true, the new high-speed lines will only incur losses while providing little or no relief to the existing transportation network.”

We already see this phenomenon in the United States, as I mentioned in my Wednesday column. Bargain-minded travelers don’t use the Acela express or cheaper Amtrak service from Washington to New York; they ride the somewhat slower but quite comfortable bus lines that are far cheaper. High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it’s not a form of mass transportation.