Friday, April 22, 2011

Academics who are wrong about High-Speed Rail

With his credentials, you would think this guy really knows what he's talking about.  It turns out that he's just another HSR promoter using the jargon of his field.  

Harrod wishes to construct the argument in terms of the urbanization of the United States, and therefore the greater reliance on public mass transit, which we rail objectors temperamentally oppose. 

He believes that those of us who oppose high-speed rail do so fearing cultural changes that, he argues, have already taken place.  He conflates the Republican, especially the Tea Party's cultural ideology with high-speed rail rejection.  He cites our innate anxiety over "European Socialism" which objectors supposedly fear will be created by high-speed rail.   He believes that we reject the centralized character of rail operations as symptomatic of cultural centralization.

We are fighting to preserve our individuality, "small town" or "village" character, when in fact those no longer exist. He points out that those of us who object to the trains have no experience with them, or fantasize them to be like in the movies.  And finally, he argues for high-speed rail by comparing us to other nations that have them, whereby we appear deficient.

He sums up his position with these thoughts:  "These emotional responses to passenger rail are troubling and obstacles to economic growth in the United States." "We are at very real risk of falling behind other developed countries, both in economic output, mobility and quality of life."

Our emotional responses are obstacles to economic growth?  Is that what he is saying?  Does he object to "emotional responses"? Do we have the wrong ones? Is he saying that we should be only rational and calculating?  Actually, I agree about that, but that's not what I'm reading here.  Does he encourage the "European Socialism" which we fear?  Does he advocate top-down centralization within our government which knows what is and isn't good for us since we've all become urbanites? 

Before I simply say that he's wrong and go on to make that point, I do want to recognize some of his arguments here.  If I understand him correctly, he is criticizing who and what we are and that this is a deficiency that inhibits "economic growth" in the US.

Excuse me?  We are who we are and the government has not business re-engineering our culture and its values.  In short, he is saying that those of us who object to the train are culturally deficient and ideologically wrong. Sorry, Steve Harrod, Ph.D. That's really over-reaching.

Then, the "Race."  We were once ahead but we are now falling behind.  Everybody else has zippy trains and we don't.  Therefore we are at risk of falling behind other developed countries and their quality of life.  We've heard that argument many times.  

Why don't we have faster trains and more of them than those Frenchies or Germans, or Chinese?  That is a question that Dr. Harrod should be asking.  Perhaps it's a good reason and that chasing these other countries' high-speed trains is a very foolish thing to do. Perhaps he should study what we do have that they don't, or why we migrated away from passenger rail in the US. 

Dear Dr. Harrod, we have already fallen behind any country that is growing its manufacturing capacity as ours continues to shrink.  We are losing permanent jobs and therefore have more permanently unemployed workers. Why? Because that is how the engines of our economy are being directed. Building high-speed trains won't turn that around no matter how many miles of track we build or how fast they go. Your problem should not be with Main Street, it should be with Wall Street.  Note that urbanized Wall Street is not investing in America's future by way of high-speed rail.

Now, about the real reason for objecting to this train. Dr. Herrod, do the numbers. (Read Grindley's papers.)  It costs too much to build. We can't afford it.  It will serve only a very small proportion of our population and therefore does not justify the use of our taxes to build it. And why is that? Because it will cost too much for most of us to ride. 

Citing China is a very bad way for Harrod to make his argument.  China has already vastly overbuilt its high-speed rail capacity and is still intent on building more.  Their HS trains run empty. People can't afford to ride them.  They have started to slow their fast trains down and pulled out the fancy seating to replace it will cheaper seating in order to cut the ticket costs. First they shut down regular trains to push people on the fast ones.  And now they are slowing down the fast ones.

Want to use Spain as another example? Remember, high-speed train builders always claim massive employment and boosting the economy.  So the Spaniards built this great high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona.  They are now reducing short-haul air carriers in order to push more people into the trains.  Their economy is in shambles.  Their unemployment rate higher than ever.

The bottom line here is that high-speed rail is not a catalyst for change.  It is an appendage.  It may work for other countries although that is ever less clear, but it certainly will contribute nothing to ours except vast debts we can't repay.  And those funds are being borrowed from China already.

Riled about rail: Why all the anger over high speed trains?
By Steven Harrod, Special to CNN
April 21, 2011 10:10 a.m. EDT

Critics emotionally identify rail as enabler of feared cultural values, says author.
Emotional response to rail creates obstacles to economic growth.
Many opponents mistakenly see U.S. as rural; it is increasingly urban, says expert.
U.S. risks trailing other nations in mobility and quality of life, he says.

Editor's note: Steven Harrod, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of operations management at the University of Dayton and specializes in the topic of railway operations management. He has traveled more than 25,000 miles, coast to coast, on Amtrak, and throughout the rail networks of the United Kingdom, Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

(CNN) -- "Stop the Train" was, literally, a rallying cry for post-Tea Party Republicans this past November.

Newly elected GOP governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have canceled already-funded high speed rail projects.

Much of the opposition to rail projects appears to stem not from economic arguments, but from fundamental cultural values on what "American" transportation should be.

A perusal of online commentaries about passenger rail stories reveals a curious linkage by writers between passenger rail and "European socialism."

Never mind that the majority of European passenger rail operates on a commercial basis. Many critics of passenger rail emotionally identify it as an enabler of cultural values they fear. 

Passenger rail is symbolic of many changes in our lives.
For example, passenger rail inherently requires central administration. After all, trains cannot depart from a station without authority from a central dispatcher. This very need for central authority is unique to rail and frightening to those who yearn for an individual freedom from authority.

Railroads rank among the most physically restricted of all transportation modes. Trains demand the coordination of every single movement for safety and economy.

'Urban' areas vs. small towns

Second, a passenger rail project labels a route as an "urban" corridor, and provides the infrastructure and incentive for even more urban development.

This contradicts a vision of America, held by many, as a small town society centered on the automobile. In reality, rural towns continue to decline. The 2000 U.S. census classifies 79% of the U.S. population as "urban." Multiple studies project that statistic will reach 86% in 2030.

It is difficult for many to accept the impact of these population trends. Many legislators who are otherwise hostile to passenger rail accept that Amtrak's operations in Boston-New York-Washington are "profitable," or commercially viable, but characterize the East Coast as a region not representative of the United States.

In reality, the U.S. Census Bureau projects through 2030 that New York's state population will remain flat, but Florida's population will exceed New York's by 50%.

Coffee at 150 mph

Third, most opponents to high speed rail simply have no experience on which to base their opposition. Those wishing to "Take America back" frequently glorify America between the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations, the peak of automobile enthusiasm in the United States.

A typical middle-aged voter knows of passenger trains only from movies like "Silver Streak" or "North by Northwest."

In my youth, I had the privilege of traveling extensively on traditional long distance passenger trains in North America, and abroad on modern high speed trains in England, France and Italy.

Whenever I discuss passenger rail with opponents, it quickly becomes apparent that they are visualizing Cary Grant or Gene Wilder in a sleeping car, and not the modern efficiency of a cup of coffee at 150 mph.
Rail vs. highways

Finally, particularly in the case of Florida, the tax-saving arguments against these projects ring hollow.

You see, none of these governors actually wishes to turn away the federal money. Each of these governors seeks to redirect those federal funds to highway projects. They are not opposed to government funding of transportation, they are opposed to funding of rail transportation.

Passenger rail is a threat to the subsidy of rural highway systems, and rural economic development in general. Like rural free delivery of mail, and the 1935 Rural Electrification Administration, the 1956 interstate highway program provides a subsidy for the development of rural areas with taxes collected in urban areas.

Popular understanding is that the highway funding system is a "pay as you go" system, a socially just system, supported completely by fuel taxes. The assumption is that fuel use is proportional to miles driven, and thus highway funding is proportional to use.

The reality is entirely different.

Fuel taxes are disproportionately paid by urban users, driving on local roads (which, by the way, are often not funded by fuel taxes), and idling in traffic jams.

These funds then frequently support the construction of highways in unpopulated areas for the purpose of economic development.

The last truism is especially upsetting to rail advocates, because while the rail projects in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida were required to show their utility in the first year of operation, highways are frequently built before the economic development and traffic demand exist.

Rationally or not, rural automobile owners perceive a highway in an urban setting to be accessible for their use, and thus part of a shared infrastructure for all.

Public funding of passenger rail, on the other hand, allocates general tax money to an infrastructure investment for a specific geographic region or corridor, and upsets the expectation, however tenuous, that all travelers have equal access to the transportation network.

These emotional responses to passenger rail are troubling and obstacles to economic growth in the United States.

We are at very real risk of falling behind other developed countries, both in economic output, mobility and quality of life.

Take a look at China. China was still operating steam locomotives 10 years ago. China has invested $292 billion in its railways in the last five years. By 2014, China will have twice as many miles of high speed railway as all the rest of the world combined.

For some, the Chinese investment in passenger rail signifies a forward-thinking investment in the future, and something to be envied. For others, it is further evidence that passenger rail is only appropriate for a planned economy, and incompatible with the American way.