Monday, February 13, 2012

Prof. RIchard White of Stanford University doesn't want us "Railroaded" by High-Speed Rail

This article comes from the Christian Science Monitor.

Prof. Richard White has been written about and been quoted on this blog site previously.  He wrote a book about the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, Railroaded, built from St. Louis to California in the late 19th century.

He doesn't like this high-speed rail project in California. He has his reasons. 

First point he makes: "it will become a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop."  I certainly agree, although he doesn't mean that literally.  It's not easy for the rail authority to begin; they have had a devil of a time getting money and agreement about beginning in the Central Valley. And, stopping will take place when they run out of the $6 billion they now have to play with. That's not difficult. But, we get the idea.

Once they start digging holes, the rail authority will never go away.  They won't have more funding for construction, but the Governor's office, regardless of its occupant, will continue to keep the rail authority in business since it's a vehicle for generating federal funds for California.  We, the taxpayers, are even paying for CHSRA-employed lobbyists to do just that. Remember, it's not about the train; it's about the money.

Like me, Prof. White is on the Left side of the political fence, yet, despite the avid Democratic support for this project, he sees it for what it is, a fraudulent money-making scheme for politicians, consultants and contracting corporations. 

While he doesn't say so in this interview (because he wasn't asked, apparently) he probably doesn't object to rail transportation, especially freight, as an appropriate modality or tool that serves our purposes well.  Of course, with passenger rail, now no longer part of private enterprise rail industry, he does object, and for good reason. It's not cost/effective. We've talked about this in prior blog entries. 

Here's a quick summary of the problem with this California HSR project:

1. It's development costs are so great, and the promoters are so aggressive, that no true total cost has yet been estimated. Nobody would want to hear it.  There must be a number that is so large that no one could agree to any benefits at that price. The price forecast is now above $100 billion. That will double or more. Then what? Like water, is this train a lifeline without which we can't exist? Ridiculous.

2. The passenger-mile operating costs are far higher than any reasonable ticket price could hope to cover.  There can be no adequate ridership for inter-city travel whereby the ticket costs meet or exceed operating expenses.  Farebox receipts will invariably always be lower than all post-construction costs combined. And, though never explained, they include far more than daily operations and maintenance. They also include replacement, insurance, marketing and debt service.

3. The project, when regarded by those not directly involved in its promotion, is relegated well below other, far more important, compelling and pressing priorities that must be addressed first. High-Speed Rail is way down on the societal/cultural food-chain.

4. We exist in a deficit, not surplus economy. Borrowing to build a train system this expensive is completely irrational on the grounds that the project, with its highest ticket costs, will benefit only a small affluent portion of the population.  The train will be the "private country club" of the travelling elite.  Our Democratic Government has no business building such a project.


Railroad historian says California is on wrong track
Stanford professor Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' voices his staunch opposition to California's high-speed train

By Randy Dotinga / February 13, 2012
'We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion,' Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' said. 'They’re a disaster politically and environmentally.'

After all, it's a dusty 6.5-hour trek by car and a hassle of security lines and cramped seats by plane.

But Richard White, the author of last year's well-received "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," is no fan of the state's mammoth high-speed rail project, which is scheduled to break ground this year. He warned in the New York Times last month that "it will become a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop."

White's opposition to the bullet train is unusual since he comes from the political left rather than the right. (Many of the project's political opponents are Republicans.) I called him and asked why he sees the nation's railroad history as a cautionary tale instead of an inspiration. We also talked about the railroad baron he considers to be an airhead – the one whose name graces Stanford University, where White works.

Q: You write that the transcontinental railroads weren't needed but got built anyway on the public dime. What happened?

A: The basic thing is that no one would invest in them to begin with. You’re building a railroad into the middle of nowhere – railroads starting nowhere and ending nowhere. There's no traffic on these things, so that's why they have to be subsidized. You need all this public money and then borrowed money to get these things up and running.

They went bankrupt once, twice, three times, but the men running them got tremendously rich. Railroads become these containers for speculation, collecting subsidies and selling bonds, and financial manipulation.

They’re much like the companies we're familiar with now that have gone into bankruptcy but have made people rich.
Q: What was the legacy of the railroad boom?

A: We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion. They’re a disaster politically and environmentally. They begin modern American corruption, when corporations infiltrate the political system and make politics an instrument of corporate policy.

My argument in the book is that this is not a happy story.

Q: What do you say to skeptics who will say you're just another left-leaning academic bashing capitalism?

A: This is a book that proceeds mostly by quoting the people who did it. They make a far better case for what happened then I did. It's full of quotes, oftentimes very funny, about how they invent this kind of corporate capitalism.

If you don't believe me, the book is full of footnotes. For me footnotes are what give me protection. It's like smell to a skunk.

What’s interesting is that I'm attacked sometimes as being a leftist, which I am, and I am often attacked as being too conservative by people who want subsidies for these large infrastructure projects.

Q: You're not flattering about the brainpower of Leland Stanford, the railroad baron whose name graces your own university. What did you find out about him?

A: Stanford was not the sharpest tool in the shed. A lot of this stuff had to be explained to him.

His wife Jane realized exactly what was in his papers and she destroyed them all, but the story is in the papers of other people.

Q: What have your overlords at Stanford thought of all this?

A: I don’t think they really suspected that he was much more than how he's portrayed in the book.
Stanford University has been very nice to me, but I will never speak at Founders Day.

Q: How have your findings affected your perspective on the California bullet train project, which is estimated to cost almost $100 billion?

The writing of the book led me to question it in the ways I wouldn’t have before. This looks like pretty much like transcontinental railroads: people demanding a huge public subsidy for a railroad that will be extraordinarily expensive.

The public seems to be taking all the risk, and the gain will go to the contractors and people who build it. What they’re trying to do is make hard questions go away through all this gauzy public relations about how this is the future.

Q: How should the public look at projects like this?

A: You should be very leery of giving public money to large corporations on the promise that everything will be fine. The legislation has to be carefully written, and you should never have it that all the risk is public and all the gain is private.

Often the private sector pretty much protects itself and is confident that the public will come in and bail them out if things goes wrong. These public-private kinds of endeavors very often will lead to an exploitation of the public.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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