Boy, is this article's conclusions wrong. It comes from The Economist. It's like the author didn't read his own article and therefore came to the following conclusions:
The places that are objectively the best candidates for high-speed rail (California and the Northeast corridor) also happen to be the places that want to invest in it. The federal government should spend its limited high-speed rail money in those places instead of worrying about convincing GOP governors in Ohio and Wisconsin and Florida to accept hundreds of millions of dollars to build "fast-enough" lines. And if there isn't the political will to appropriate the money, then at the very least the feds should make it easier for states that want to work together on high-speed rail to do so and get out of the way.
That statement makes the basic presumption that somehow, under some circumstance, high-speed rail is a good and desirable thing for the US, and in those places "that want to invest in it" the government should get out of the way.
What nonsense that is. Apparently, the only "investors" are the federal government's FRA, DOT and the White House. We want them to get out of the way says the author, but they won't, since they are the only source of funding that is even making it possible for the California HSR authority to start digging holes in the Central Valley.
Again the analogy fallacy between the European rail experience and ours surfaces as justification. Having flogged this dead horse far too much, all I want to say here is "apples and oranges."
The author fails to point out the central motivation for promoting the label "High-Speed Rail" regardless of the train speed that money is being thrown at. That impetus is politics, pure and simple. This is Obama's "legacy" project for "winning the future." (A race I didn't know we were in.) Actually American politics ought to be on the sports section of the paper, not in front. That's true at the domestic and foreign levels of competition.
The basic point for us comes down to this. If someone, say, wanted to build a high-speed rail as a business enterprise and raised capital to do so, it would be very hard to prevent that, other than obliging this private organization to "Primum non Nocere," -- first do no harm. After all, isn't the business of America "business?" That's how businesses operate. They invest, they provide goods or services, they either make money or they don't. If they don't, the investors lose their investment and the business goes under. Furthermore, competition makes these businesses operate to attract consumers, increasing quality and reducing costs.
Since the California project is nothing like that, intending to be a sole-source provider, totally depending on federal financing, why they must produce a "business plan" escapes me. They are no more a business than Amtrak is a business.
Their so-called business plan, in its many permutations, is a wishful thinking document full of worthless promises. The reality is they will try to get as much government funding as they can and spend it. Period. That's their plan. If they build a train, good, but if they don't, they will still have succeeded in spending as many dollars as possible and we all know that having and spending money gives people power. As we always say, it's not about the train; it's about the money.
Since government funded passenger trains don't operated profitably, politicians are pressured or seduced by railroad industries and land speculators to promote such trains on the taxpayer's dime. Whereas, as a private enterprise, the train would or wouldn't make it on its own hook as a business proposition, a public infrastructure project as grandiose as this immediately acquires the aura of being "too big to fail." Big first mistake. The justifications tumble out of the advocates' lips in numbers too large to count, their "business plan" being one such marketing document.
But, the bottom line remains the bottom line. It will cost taxpayers dearly to build it, and it will cost them dearly to operate this luxury train. That's what a public utility such as this is all about. If there are, downstream, any private investors, such as in a PPP (public/private partnership), the profits for those investors must also come from the tax base, since it can't come from non-existent surplus train revenues.
The Economist asks the wrong question. It's not a matter of ordinary trains vs. high-speed trains and "how fast is fast enough?" but "how much is too much for federal and state revenues to be expended?" What, exactly would a cost/effective high-speed train in California look like? How much would it really cost? How many riders is it really likely to carry? How much would tickets have to cost? How much would tax payers have to subsidize this train and pay off the debt? And what numbers would render the only likely answer to be NO, do not build this train?
Let me say all this another way that The Economist doesn't touch on: "Why should poor people be paying to build a train for rich people?"
How fast is fast enough?
Jul 3rd 2011, 23:34 by N.B. | SAN FRANCISCO
AMERICA'S Republican party has succeeded in blocking many of the Obama administration's planned high-speed rail initiatives. (Some of them were bad ideas anyway.) Now Phillip Longman has taken to the Washington Monthly—a publication not exactly sympathetic to the ideals of the modern GOP—to argue that the death of Obama's high-speed dreams may be a good thing. His argument isn't what you might expect:
Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph [290 kph] or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, "fast enough" high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn't going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that's a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.
Mr Longman contends that America's passenger rail system is so bad that even simply upgrading to "fast-enough" trains would represent a vast improvement in service that would build ridership and political support for further upgrades. Right now, he argues, building true high-speed rail in America would be "so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible."
The key tipping point, Mr Longman says, is when taking the train becomes faster than driving. And several factors are more important than speed. On-time performance is crucial, and perhaps Amtrak's biggest problem. Mr Longman thinks this can be fixed with "incremental investment in new sidings and track capacity to make sure freight trains don’t get in the way." Improving frequency of service could also help, Mr Longman argues.
Blogger Matt Yglesias says he agrees with Mr Longman, but I don't think he actually does. Here's how he wraps up his post on the subject:
I do find the whole conversation slightly frustrating. The United States is a really big country. You wouldn’t hear a debate in "Europe" about whether "Europe" should be building a train from Madrid to Barcelona "or" a train connecting the cities of the Rhineland. Nothing about [upgrading a slowish Portland-Seattle line to medium-speed] actually prevents you from building a brand new true HSR connection elsewhere in the country. The overall pot of infrastructure spending money in the United States is currently too low, which prompts a bunch of should-be-avoidable conversations about project priority.
That last sentence is crucial. Mr Longman's article rests on the dubious idea that if we spend less on high-speed rail, politicians will for some reason feel compelled to take the money that would otherwise have been spent on high-speed rail and use it to upgrade slow-speed lines to "fast enough." But there's no evidence that is actually true. After all, the reason that the lines are so slow in the first place is that America has never spent the money to make them any faster. It's not as if building more sidings for freight trains and improving signalling are new ideas. Contra Mr Longman, there's not much for America to "learn" here: Europe invested in making its less-than-high-speed lines "fast enough." America didn't. It's a short story.
One problem is that it's hard to get politicians to spend money on incremental improvements. The difference between an older service and the newer, incrementally improved service is only noticeable over long periods of time, if at all. Amtrak's Northeast corridor service has gotten incrementally faster over the past few decades. But that hasn't increased the political support for further improvements—in fact, Amtrak's continued failure to make dramatic improvements has been fodder for its critics. "Service between New York and DC is a few minutes faster" is not the kind of statement that fires up members of Congress. It's not the kind of thing you can put on a bumper sticker, either.
When Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, nixed a flagship Obama administration high-speed rail project there, I argued that the White House had paid the price for its lack of vision:
Much of the blame for how all this turned out has to rest with the White House. The Obama administration's political team didn't seem to anticipate the danger that putting Mr Obama's name behind high-speed rail (or just about anything) would galvanise Republican opposition. If they did anticipate the GOP backlash, and embraced modest rail plans in order to soften a blow they knew would come, that's even worse. If the White House was going to take the political risk of putting its weight behind high-speed rail, it should have gone all-in. A Tampa-Orlando line and some track improvements in the upper Midwest weren't enough to inspire anyone.
The best way to get high-speed rail to succeed in America is to actually build it somewhere, and then to wait for the other states to say "I want that!" The Obama administration doesn't have to "settle" for incremental improvements. The places that are objectively the best candidates for high-speed rail (California and the Northeast corridor) also happen to be the places that want to invest in it. The federal government should spend its limited high-speed rail money in those places instead of worrying about convincing GOP governors in Ohio and Wisconsin and Florida to accept hundreds of millions of dollars to build "fast-enough" lines. And if there isn't the political will to appropriate the money, then at the very least the feds should make it easier for states that want to work together on high-speed rail to do so and get out of the way.