Monday, October 24, 2011

Some thoughts from a Libertarian about HSR in the Mid-West

Normal, Illinois does not, normally, come to mind in discussions about high-speed rail.  However, their radio station carried a forum discussion and several following points were made.  This is one of those paradoxical instances where someone on the Libertarian Right and I agree about some central premises.

In this case, the author, Lex Green, refers to Amtrak upgrades and cites data we have seen elsewhere as well, that  Amtrak carries one tenth of one percent of all the transit users of every modality in the US.  And, we're all obliged to subsidize Amtrak to the tune of over $40 billion over the past 30 years.

Now, he indicates that Diesel locomotive-using Amtrak trains are not superior in cost-effective terms to automobiles.  Whether that is so or not is irrelevant considering electric high-speed trains are even less cost-effective than the current, slower Diesels.  This is so because, simply put, speed costs.

The common misconception is that we already have lots of  passenger trains and just speeding them up by making them electric will cost no more and be more productive (or make us more productive).  None of that is true.  High-speed rail rolling stock is more like aircraft construction than traditional heavy-rail.  The trains are lighter in order to go faster. But that comes at an enormous price.  And, given their high ticket costs, their claims of "productivity" have been widely challenged.

Those who follow stock car racing understand this distinction.  The cars one sees running at 200 mph+ are not "stock" even though they appear as if they had taken a car off the showroom floor and painted logos and a number on it.   You can't buy one at your car dealership. They are highly specialized from the ground up, and they are highly expensive, maintenance-intensive vehicles designed for one purpose only, to win races.  They are not meant to go shopping or for commuters on the freeway. Likewise, in our case, HSR is not intended for daily commutes in California.  Indeed, the rail authority has stated that repeatedly.

And, even if electric use is more cost-effective at the same speed of Diesels, that benefit drops sharply as speeds increase.  Twice the speed demands far more than twice the energy costs.  In addition, very high speeds (220  mph) require dedicated tracks and, in most cases, dedicated rail corridors.  

Mixing slow freights on one track, with HSR whizzing by on the next track over, is a recipe for disaster. The freight carriers understand this and have been extremely reluctant to admit HSR to their tracks and corridors. Union Pacific has expressly forbidden it.

So, Lex Green's point is well taken. As he puts it, "we will find that we are paying more and gaining less." By this we can understand that we not only compare ever more fuel-efficient cars to trains, but the building of real high-speed rail compared to existing passenger rail. HSR is the outcome of the law of diminishing returns.
WJBC Forum: Railroaded by high-speed rail
LexGreen By: Lex Green  |  17 minutes ago
Uptown Transportation Center

Uptown Station is slated to open in May or June of 2012. (Stephanie Pawlowski/WJBC)

When railroads first started opening up the country to fast travel in the 1800s, it didn’t take long before money started to flow.

Where did it flow? Into the hands of those who owned land along the path of the trains. Right away speculators began to buy up land where the railroad planned to go, and those who planned wrong ended up with ghost towns and empty purses.

Whenever government spends money, it should be for the benefit of all, or not at all. Otherwise there will be winners and losers. The town of Normal wants to be one of those winners. In fact, they have reaped a benefit from the new high speed rail initiative already with their new city hall – slash – train station.

But the money didn’t fall out of thin air. It came from the pockets of taxpayers all over the country.  In fact, US taxpayers have spent over $40 Billion on the slow old Amtrak in the past 30 years because government run passenger trains can’t make a profit.

Throughout the country, about 1/10th of 1 percent of taxpayers ride the train. But 100% of us help pay for the ride. That hardly seems fair, especially during these austere times.  And by High Speed trains we are not talking about clean, green and sleek new engines but conventional Amtrak diesel powered trains. Making them run faster means less fuel efficiency.

Amtrak trains are about as efficient as cars. With rising fuel efficiency in new automobiles, we will find that we are paying more and gaining less.  How ironic that the Town of Normal gets a new city hall from the federal transportation budget.

That makes them one of the winners in the national tax revenue give-away lottery. It doesn’t help losers, like Peoria, Quincy, Danville or the Quad Cities. But the citizens in those places get to help pay fares for those few in winning cities who choose to take the train.

Personally, I think we are all being taken for a ride.

You can listen to the Forum below:

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