Thursday, February 17, 2011

What are we actually talking about when we talk about high-speed rail?

Here's one from the Boston Examiner.  I wish I had written it.  Except for the examples at the end, that is.  There he is on very shaky ground, our author, Christopher Maider.  But, never mind.  His main points resonate well.

Where I disagree with Mr. Maider is his contention that HSR is justified in Russia or China "because the geographic distances are so great." That would suggest distances too far to support HSR which, ostensibly, is optimal between 100 and 500 miles. That even tells us that California's 800 miles of HSR is beyond the pale. Therefore, HSR is really not a great idea for China, Russia or us.  The best justification is population density, and there the Chinese have us five to one.

But my biggest concern are Mr. Maider's four examples.  I think he misses the point about NASA and its programs.  Initially, the race to the moon with the Soviets was the reason for NASA's existence, despite the fact that they also did great aviation research and development (That is, where my wife presently works!). But the space race lost steam after we beat out the Soviets to the moon.  And, since then, NASA has been floundering in search of a legitimate mission.  

Is going to other, outer planets a legitimate mission?  It will cost about as much as the high-speed train.  My answer is no to both programs.  The rationalizations for both programs are vague, subjective, and highly speculative. We have to have HSR because other nations have it. Silly.  We must explore space because that's who we are. Also silly. Both HSR and space travel ignore the immediate and real problems that surround us and remain grossly underfunded.  Saying that they will be fixed with visionary futuristic projects is -- sorry -- BS. 

Point #2 is a non-sequitur.

The third example, about military procurements, is heavily debated in Washington right now.  The US spends more on military programs than all the other nations of the world combined.  The question to ask is if we intend to be the policeman of the world and if we intend, to our benefit, to impose our conception of Democracy on all other nations, at the point of a gun if necessary?  When the entire globe becomes our national interest, should we control it militarily?  That's a discussion for another blog.

And the fourth point is about our Strategic Defense Initiative and whether to provide a ballistic umbrella for everyone.  Again, that has very little to do with whether the US government should or should not get into the high-speed rail business.

Well, after some consideration, I guess I'm not sorry that I didn't write Mr. Maider's article after all.  The problem is Mr. Maider's ideological persuasions.  They contaminate his reasoning and thinking.  That's why the article turned out so muddled.

I bring this, and this article, up for a reason of my own.  There is too much ideological horsepower at play within the discussions about HSR. The Republicans have their conceptions, the Democrats have theirs.   I would argue that these are irrelevant in a discussion of this project which, in its own terms, is a bad idea, badly conceived and badly executed.  It lacks a contextual framework.  It is whimsical and arbitrary, never mind its dazzling costs. It's a comic book solution to improvised problems.  It lacks a credible rationale. 

It doesn't get discussed on its own merits (or lack thereof),or what it is intended to be a part of, and that's a major failing.  If it had been discussed that way up to now, it would not exist.

Obama's High Speed Derailment
February 17th, 2011 11:38 am ET

By Christopher A.W. Maider

$53 billion dollars for a project not even on a drafting board. Special interest groups lining up with bendy-straws to siphon at the trough. Not one state able to accommodate, afford, nor need high speed rail.
The nation’s highway system is the envy of the industrialized world. We have a network of roads that are in the millions (yes millions) of miles. There is a road that leads everywhere. The rail system that transports our goods and services from borders north to south and coasts east to west ferries hundreds of billions of dollars annually and quite efficiently at that.
In order for a 200 mph train to operate it needs a state of the art rail system. Our rails are designed for freight and passenger trains that travel no faster than 75 mph. Here is an example. If you ever walked the tracks as a kid in your rural town you know that the rails, though straight, are wavy from trestle to trestle. A train, like the TGV, needs those rails razor straight or the train is going to wobble so much it will fly off the tracks or the porters have one hell of a mess to clean up on the floors.
VP Joe Biden has said that investments such as this are vital to the growth of our economy. He is wrong. What is vital to our economic growth is for Joe to stop talking about things he knows nothing about. What is vital is for the Government to get out of the way of private investments. There isn’t one CEO of CSX or Norfolk Southern who can deduce a net gain from high speed rail. The private investments these companies have made within their own systems insures reliable freight for the next century to come.
The main argument for high speed rail is to compete with other nations... In what? Transporting people? All of the European rail systems operate at a loss. The famous Japanese system operates at a loss. Every time the Discovery Channel does a story on high speed trains, they glorify the technology put into the idea but never compare the cost ratio and expenditures incurred by the nations that operate them. China, we cannot count because they screw so much with the yuan, whatever number we come up with is false at best. Besides, China may be the one place, next to Russia, where the system is needed and viable because of the geographic distances covered. This isn’t so in the United States. In reality, this all boils down to another Government Works Project and if Amtrak is any example, we can do without it.
What is always amazing about the logic behind allocation of Federal funds is the uneven, and misguidedness of the whole process. There are no ‘bean counters’ in Washington (except the CBO, another agency) to objectively stop defunding a working idea in exchange for a boondoggle.
Lets look at some examples:

1; The canceling of the Orion rocket that will take us back to the moon and outsourcing the ISS missions. For over sixty years NASA has directly advanced science and technology for America and has impacted everyone’s lives for the better.

2; The border fence has been cancelled under the ruse that it is too expensive and difficult to construct. But, $53 billion for a Government run rail system is the answer?

3; The F-22 and F-35 are effectively cancelled for any more production above the numbers we already have. The logic is we do not need them and they cost too much. China and Russia meanwhile, unveil their versions of advanced fighter aircraft.

4; Decades of SDI research have yielded a phenomenal missile defense system, The Avenger (next gen. of Patriot missile) GPS guided munitions and our allies are begging us to deploy them in their countries to defend against an aggressive North Korea and Iran. The President has stated that, “these systems are untested and unproven”..?
All of these cancelled projects have put hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work, have clearly put us into a third place status, leave us vulnerable to our enemies and the laughing stock of our allies.

The spending outlays of this Administration clearly have come from a Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum comic strip. They are silly, make little sense and the flavor is quickly wearing off.

Christopher A.W. Maider

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