Monday, December 19, 2011

Repeating all the old HSR chestnuts over and over doesn't make them right

Bloomberg News has a strong editorial bias in favor of the high-speed rail project.  From that I'm inferring that Bloomberg News, supposedly the voice of the free market economy, nonetheless loves government waste, er, spending.  Whatever.

This article is long and wrong and I'll add some comments into the text.

However, this is a reminder of what is intended to be built and the article needs to be read within that context.  High-Speed Trains, world-wide, are the most expensive train rides anyone can buy.  (Outside of the Orient Express or similar) That means, it's a train only for the well-to-do, the affluent.  Why would such a train possibly make all those differences as constantly promised?

The Republicans accuse HSR of being another part of the socialist welfare state. They could not be more wrong.  My amazement is why the Democrats support this elitist ride for the high-end of the income scale.

The Federal Government has never conducted cost/benefit analyses.  Is it not possible that, even if was a worthy train, the costs could rule it out?  Even the Defense Department has to call the line somewhere with its plethora of ultra weapons systems the cost overruns of which are without end. 

Riding High-Speed Rail to a U.S. Recovery: John Rosenthal

Illustration by Daniel Blackman
By John Rosenthal Dec 18, 2011 4:01 PM PT Mon Dec 19 00:01:53 GMT 2011 19 Comments

Bipartisan enthusiasm greeted President Barack Obama’s announcement in 2009 that the U.S., long the world’s caboose in train travel, would finally invest in high-speed intercity passenger rail.

Much as Dwight D. Eisenhower made the Interstate Highway System a hallmark of his administration, Obama pledged to make a national network of bullet trains the legacy of his. Governors from both parties applied for the initial round of $8 billion in funds from the $787 billion stimulus bill.

Because of its ingenious scope, neither the airlines nor the auto industry contested the plan. It targeted corridors among major cities that are too far apart to drive, but too close to make flying worth the time and hassle of trudging through airport security: Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee, for example, or Atlanta, Charlotte, Birmingham and New Orleans. Although trains wouldn’t compete with planes between New York and Los Angeles or, for that matter, Chicago, the plan would put high-speed rail within the reach of 80 percent of Americans. [You could also argue that these corridors pass through a large number of select political districts. And, I very much doubt that the lack of auto or airline industries' objections stems from its "ingenious scope."  There's nothing ingenious about any of this HSR nonsense. Then, there's that foolish promise of putting HSR within the reach of 80% of the population.  The often analogized Interstate Highway is within reach of 100% of the US population!]

At the time, there was little opposition. [There was also no public information to oppose.] The first awards were announced in January 2010, and while there was predictable griping about which corridors got the most money, support remained high for the program overall.

Tea Party Surge
Then came the Tea Party uprising of 2010, ushering in a crowd of anti-spending legislators.

 They immediately set out to derail the program, which they conflated with the supposedly socialist agenda the president was pushing with his health-care overhaul. Newly elected Tea Party governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio returned a total of $3.6 billion in stimulus awards; Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin introduced an amendment to rescind $2.3 billion in rail funding that hadn’t yet been spent. [The Tea Party aspects of this are trivial. The objections came on simple financial grounds.  The three governors who rejected the funding didn't want their states to go into deep hock that would have been triggered by the acceptance of the federal ARRA stimulus seed money.]

The protests were mostly grandstanding, and didn’t end up denting the deficit by a dime. Ryan’s bill stalled in the Senate, while the grants to Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio were redistributed to other states. Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, even applied for an award from a later round of federal funding to upgrade rail between Chicago and Milwaukee. [What the writer objects to, he calls "grandstanding."  What he approves, makes just good sense. Thanks very much.]

This opposition may have been good politics, but it’s terrible policy for America. [This program is a terrible policy for America.  It's un-American because these will be trains for rich people only.  Simple as that!] The arguments in favor of high- speed rail are just as compelling as they were in the early 1990s, when President George H.W. Bush’s administration first outlined the rail corridors.

Investment in rail is a step toward energy independence. [That's ridiculous.  Energy independence can't be achieved by building a high-speed train.  Such trains, especially the faster they go, are hugely energy dependent. And, despite the empty promises, it won't take any cars off the roads.] Transportation accounts for almost three-quarters of U.S. oil consumption. Shifting millions of passenger trips from cars and airplanes to electric-powered trains each year wouldn’t just relieve airport and highway congestion; it would also reduce the amount of oil we need to import from the Middle East. And because trains use a third less energy per passenger mile than cars do, they’re far less damaging to the environment. [Here is one of the most frequently offered fallacious comparisons, the energy superiority of high-speed rail to other forms of locomotion. Speed raises the ante. Meanwhile both aircraft and automobiles are rapidly evolving into far more superior energy consumers. The energy delta is quickly diminishing.  However, HSR construction becomes more costly in energy terms, daily.]

The weak economy only increases the urgency. Interest rates are at historic lows, real estate values remain depressed, private sector spending is stagnant, and unemployment is stuck around 9 percent. There could hardly be a better time to borrow billions of dollars to buy up land for train rights-of-way and to create high-paying jobs in engineering, manufacturing and construction. [By all means let's borrow more. The US debt exceeds fifteen trillion dollars.  What's a trillion or so more?]

When Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, returned $2.4 billion in federal rail funds last year, he also expunged about 17,000 construction jobs in one of the most depressed areas of his state. The Florida corridor, which could have linked Orlando to Tampa as early as 2014, was projected to return an operating profit of $10 million in its first year alone. [Rule #1. Ignore all jobs numbers when politics is the topic of conversation. Jobs numbers forecasts are always rounded up to the nearest million or hundred thousand. If you see what I mean.]

Out of Depression
From the Appian Way to the Erie Canal, economic development has always followed transportation. Businesses small and large cluster around train depots, propelling real estate values and generating millions in new property taxes. The U.S. built its way out of the Depression by investing in massive projects such as the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam and the Blue Ridge Parkway. High-speed rail is a time-proven way out of today’s economic morass. [This is nonsense.  Prior major projects had funding behind them to begin with. Furthermore, they were the consequence of planning rather than politics. HSR does not acknowledge the decline of rail use in the US.  There have been no independent cost/benefit studies.  Unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway, HSR is not the basis for a WPA works project, all the rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.]

It is undoubtedly expensive. [ Yes, irrationally so.  Over twice as much as for the same per-mile costs as any other HSR project anywhere else in the world.]  And rejecting the massive investments required as wasteful spending would be easy if America’s transportation needs were stagnant. But they aren’t. The Census Bureau estimates that the population will grow by 100 million over the next 40 years. And most of those people will reside in urban areas where airports and highways are already bursting at the seams.  [We need to put the either/or argument to rest.  HSR or any other rail will not offset growth of or demand for other transit  modalities. These diverse travel modes are not fungible or interchangeable.  Increasing one will not decrease use of demand for the other. However, having said that, it's also true that highways and airways contributed to the decline of passenger rail in the US during the mid-20th century.  Will rail come back? It would be retrograde in the US to do so.  Making rail faster doesn't make it better; it makes it more exclusive due to higher costs.  And, cost structures have to be rational.  When the per mile costs for HSR reach the $100 million mark or more, they no longer make any sense.]

Compared with the cost of building new airports, widening interstates, relocating highway sound barriers, and erecting millions of parking lots, high-speed rail is a bargain.  [There's that pernicious analogy again.  HSR is not a bargain by any stretch of the imagination.  Even HSR requires "millions of parking lots" as part of the CHSRA agenda. The persistence of this implausible argument is remarkable.  HSR requires brand new "highways" insofar as rail corridors constitute the consumption of real estate through all sorts of environments, urban, rural, mountainous, bridged, etc.]

California recently revised the projections for its high- speed rail plan to $98 billion, more than twice the previous estimate. But even at those prices, it’s cheaper than the alternative. According to Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, in San Jose, to meet the transportation needs of California’s growing population without rail, the state would have to spend more than $100 billion to build new airports and add six lanes to every highway. [We've pointed out before that when the train cost projections were in the $40 billions, those replacement costs were in the $70 billion range. Now that the train is going to cost over $100 billion, those alternative upgrades costs have risen to $170 billion.  In short this is political marketing hype: Be afraid, be very afraid of not building our fancy train!]

And by 2050, those highways and airports would be just as congested as they are today. [The obsessive repeating of huge populations growth has less and less evidence every day.] But if California spends the money on high-speed rail, it can simply increase the frequency of service or add more cars per train whenever population catches up to capacity.

The existing framework for high-speed rail isn’t perfect. America has spent a century neglecting what was once one of the finest rail networks in the world. It’s going to take more than two years to get it back on track. [It would take at least one generation, by which time it would be terminally obsolete.]

There are also flaws with the way funds have been allocated thus far. Too little has been directed to the Northeast Corridor, where population density is greatest, where demand is already high, and where Amtrak’s Acela service strains to reach its top speed of 150 mph because of antiquated infrastructure.  [That's a whole other discussion.]

Upgrading Service
And it’s valid to complain that too much of the high-speed money has gone toward upgrading conventional rail service in the Midwest. Yet, in fairness, simply getting existing trains up to 90 mph is already going a long way toward the network’s goal of competing favorably with driving and flying.

Abandoning this cost-effective, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, revenue-generating grand vision would be a mistake we would regret for generations. The construction of a successful high-speed rail network is vital to America’s future. But it won’t happen unless the leaders of the 21st century stop playing politics and start thinking beyond the next election.  [The "vision" description is exactly what it is, a hope, a vision, a deeply felt desire.  That does not mean that this train -- it is, after all, merely a train, not a game changer for American culture or the economy -- can provide all these conditions; let's just say it is, in reality, far, far less than what the promoters promise and want us to believe.]

(John Rosenthal is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: John Rosenthal at
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at

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