Monday, August 1, 2011

High-Speed Rail: You can't just blame it on the President

Amy Alkon's article incorporates a great deal of the Wall Street Journal's article by Holman Jenkins.  There are some good points, but also a number of problems that should be addressed.

Passenger rail has not, contrary to Jenkins' statement, proven "unviability" in the US for almost 100 years.  It was "viable" until mid century and then declined.  While it was never a major revenue producer, like freight, it did manage to at least break even and did serve as the major inter-city transit modality since its inception.  It was the advent of affordable cars and affordable air tickets that spelled the demise of passenger rail in the US.  We've discussed this in detail in prior blog entries.

But, yes, I too fault the President I voted for for overreaching with his dramatic fantasy-vision of HSR as his "sputnik moment" or Kennedy-esqe "moon shot."  HSR will not benefit the United States in any of the ways he envisions it.  It will benefit, with endless government subsidies (just exactly like Amtrak), all those affluent enough to buy the most expensive train tickets to be available.

And yes, especially high-speed trains, if they are ever built, will be tempting terrorist targets, if only because of their high visibility as national symbols, which is their actual entire purpose. Making a fruitless comparison with faster airline trips by suggesting the many on-the-ground delays, ignores what will be ever more present, including for rail, so long as terrorism remains the  strategy of choice for political or religious radicalism.  

I agree with Jenkins' cynicism about, as he puts it, "Politics has long been defined as the process of determining who gets what. Politicians are professionally motivated to enlarge the resources under their control."

High-Speed Rail is bureaucratically driven the way any organism is. It needs to be fed (with money as the nutrient) and seeks always to increase its size (headcount) and territory of control.  That's what political leverage is all about. High-Speed Rail has a life of its own.  It exists for the sake of existing.  There are no ulterior benefits; only major costs.  Or perhaps, like a pet, very expensive to acquire and maintain, but it makes us feel good to have it and show it off.

But, perhaps the best part of this article is the cost-benefit arithmetic at the end. While I don't agree that "half of the HSR passengers will come from autos," there is a persistent habit on the part of the train promoters to compare 'bad' cars with 'good' trains.  It has been a specious comparison and will become ever more so as automobile technology improves along the current trend lines. 

And, the article conclusion is one that you have been reading in these blogs since they started.  High-Speed Rail is travel for the affluent who can afford the train tickets.  Most of us in the US and in California will not be able to afford them.  

At the very least, that's a gross injustice.

The Handouts President
July 31, 2011
By Amy Alkon
The Handouts President

Holman Jenkins writes in the WSJ about Obama's high speed train fantasy:

Mr. Obama's mumbo jumbo about high-speed rail is always especially delicious. Passenger rail has spent almost a century proving its unviability in most of the U.S. as competition to cars and planes. Mr. Obama resorts to pure fantasy: "Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city," he said in one of his gaudier speeches on the subject, "no racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."
Huh? Trains have been a favorite terrorist target around the world, including London and Madrid, so expect security delays. As for the ineffably swift and sure service Mr. Obama seems to guarantee, we'll refrain from mentioning the Post Office.
But the real purpose is spending without purpose, to colonize a sector of the economy and turn it into an adjunct of Democratic fund raising. That's why $8 billion in Obama stimulus funds were spread over "high-speed rail" projects that mostly had nothing to do with high-speed rail, but did happen to cover a lot of congressional districts.
...It's not that Mr. Obama doesn't recognize the desperate nature of our budget crisis. He does--and is fighting by every means possible to protect and enlarge the government's share at the expense of the private sector's.
Politics has long been defined as the process of determining who gets what. Politicians are professionally motivated to enlarge the resources under their control. Mr. Obama certainly is not a breaker of molds. His political core consists entirely of spending interests. His intellectual inspiration, Saul Alinsky, the godfather of community organizing, was all about mobilizing to gain power over resources. He wasn't particularly deep about the larger purposes of society or how resources come to exist in the first place.

Here in California, if you buy your plane ticket in advance, it's $59 from LA to San Francisco on Southwest. From a paper on the cost of high-speed rail by the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail (references for the piece below at the link), here's the price of a train compared to driving:

The CHSRA expects more than half their passengers will come from autos. In 2008 The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) said the cost of a one-way ticket between Anaheim/Los Angeles and San Francisco would be $55.1 By the end of 2009, that one-way fare had risen to $105.2 That's a 90% increase in one year. According to the CHSRA, for a family of four to ride the train between those destinations it will cost $840 round trip; and then they'll need to rent a car.
If that same family were to drive that 407 miles between the state's major metropolises, and use the standard deduction the Federal government allows for business trips by car, the total cost would be $206.3 That puts an automobile round-trip at $412, including all the costs of owning the auto; that is, fuel, taxes, insurance, amortization, etc. Only counting gasoline costs at $4.50/gallon, the round trip would cost about $200. Four rail tickets are twice as much as the total cost of driving and four times the gasoline costs.
Using empirical evidence from analyzing fares on high-speed train routes in Europe and Japan, it appears the CHSRA's high-speed rail per mile rate should be about $0.44/mile to recover operating and construction costs; 80% higher than their presently-used $0.24/mile.4 Setting aside for a moment the fact that all but two of the world's high-speed rail routes are subsidized, and assuming they at least break even, the analyzed per mile rate would make a one-way SF to LA ticket cost about $190.5 Therefore, if the CHSRA's assumed private operator must charge enough to break even, four tickets for a LA/SF round trip would cost at least $1,520.
Conclusions: California's 2009 median household income was $42,548.6. For a middle class household to ride the train LA-SF once would cost them about 4% of their annual pre-tax income. CHSRA's 2009 ticket prices probably exclude middle- income households. But a more realistic ticket price definitely excludes them.

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