Monday, June 27, 2011

"The Stupidity of High-Speed Rail" by Jonah Goldberg

Yeah, yeah, The National Review is a reactionary/conservative publication.  We've already beaten that 'issue' to death. Let's move on.

Goldberg's experience and his telling anecdote suggests that passenger rail, and particularly high-speed rail, intends to provide a relatively unwanted service.  Furthermore, that service will require subsidies from the government on a permanent basis.  

It raises the question the Brits put so well in one of their articles, which is, "Why are poor people being forced to pay for a train we can't afford so that rich people can get subsidized rides on it?"

Amtrak is a shambles. People don't ride it because they want to; they ride if because they have to.  That is the first and most critical flaw in the mismanagement of  public mass transit.  The way to get people to give up their cars is to make public transit more convenient and more desirable. Failing that, we have no business building or subsidizing a passenger rail system like Amtrak. And, the paradox is that we couldn't afford it if we were successful. 

Amtrak is one of those major public mistakes that just won't go away.  Passenger railroading was once the major 'vehicle' for public transportation over long distances, inter-city.  On certain trains, with premium tickets, the ride was really quite pleasant. Dining cars, club cars, compartments.  Quite good. (I remember it from my youth.)  But, today, because privately owned passenger rail was a money loser, it got dumped in the lap of Congress and pulled together under Amtrak.  Passenger rail has fallen a long way from its heyday fifty years ago.

Rather that using HSR to revive a failing industry, why isn't the Amtrak we already have being brought into the 21st century first? The answer is obvious and should be a warning flag for HSR developers.  If they could afford to do it, they would.  Even with the recent ridership increases, the 2/3rds of the inter-city operation is pretty much what Goldberg describes. And, Amtrak even with Acela is no great shakes.  Unaffordable to ride for most people and certainly not a substitute for flying. Yes, a few do. But, that's not a model we want to replicate. 

Amtrak outside of the northeast corridor would hardly be missed were it to go away.  Indeed, profitable bus services, with modern hybrid luxury buses full of conveniences, and far lower cost tickets, could do that job better anyhow.

Goldberg talks about how he and his wife would work on the train, presumably on their laptops. That is also possible on the bus, and if people are working anyhow, the time factor becomes less critical.

Let's be clear here. High-Speed Rail will not save Amtrak from the failing inter-city service that it is.

The Corner

The Stupidity of High-Speed Rail
June 27, 2011 4:07 P.M.
By Jonah Goldberg      

This last weekend, my wife, my daughter, and I needed to go up to NYC for the weekend (the grown-ups to attend Rich Lowry’s spectacular wedding to his spectacular new bride, my daughter to stay with grandma). For boring and ill-thought-out reasons we decided to take the train instead of driving. Basically, our six-year-old Volvo SUV needs to go to the shop and both the Fair Jessica and I are on brutal work deadlines and we figured we could get some writing done on the train. So we booked  three unreserved coach tickets, round trip, weekend rate. The total cost? $750. Unlike the more pleasant, and more expensive, Acela, the train was loud, dirty, and crowded. The bathrooms had the rich, earthy musk of — literally — a Port-o-John on rails.

Now, as I understand it, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service is by far its most popular. Something like a third of all Amtrak’s daily usage is in the Northeast. Amtrak, of course, loses money, though its biggest losses come from the long-haul service. Anyway, my point isn’t to get deep in the policy weeds or the service’s books. But come on! $750 to replace a drive to New York City and back. We feel like idiots for doing it.

Admittedly, it’s a small anecdote, but all I could keep thinking was there’s no way high-speed rail makes sense economically. With today’s low-speed rail, it would cost a family of four a thousand dollars to take a round-trip train ride to NYC and back from Washington, D.C., for the weekend. Meanwhile, a car ride would cost, with gas and tolls, about a tenth as much. Yes, I know that the real point of trains is to diminish commuter-drivers, not weekend vacationers. But how is high-speed rail supposed to do that, exactly? 

Obviously high-speed rail is going to be more expensive than the N.E. regional. Its competition won’t be cars, but planes, which will still be able to get places faster and, often, cheaper — that is, unless high-speed rail is absurdly subsidized. And subsidies mean business travelers would have their travel costs underwritten by working-class folks, because low- and middle-income people are never going to find high-speed rail to be cheaper than driving, are they? So why should normal Americans pay for Joe Biden to take the train?

I still prefer taking the Acela to and from New York to driving or flying, but that’s mostly because that travel is usually paid for by someone else. When I pay out of my own pocket, I usually drive. I’m at a loss as to how buying much, much more expensive trains will somehow change that dynamic.

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