Monday, February 20, 2012

A retired plumber gets it right about California's high-speed rail

This is such a lovely summation of the high-speed rail problem I could not resist providing it to you here. 

I do, however, disagree with Mr. Lauder's alternative suggestions, such as Maglev, or a transcontinental high-speed train. Maglev continues to be prototyped and used on a very limited basis in very limited places.  They Chinese have a commercially functional Maglev installed from the airport into Shanghai. The Germans have been operating a demonstration project.  In short, Maglev is not yet ready for prime-time and there remain numberous questions about cost/effectiveness.

A transcontinental train would have to compete with a five hour flight. The general wisdom about the Goldilocks zone for HSR is between 150 and 500 miles.  If the 500 miles of California's HSR will cost over $100 billion, what, do you suppose, a 2,500 mile HSR would cost?  Meanwhile, a fraction of those costs could pay to increase the cost/benefits of transcontinental flying by several orders of magnitude. 

But, Mr. Lauder does get the bigger picture; that is, the changing nature of communication and its impact on travel. And he understands fully the fraudulent nature of the promotion of the high-speed rail project.

Printed from THE DAILY JOURNAL, dtd. 02/20/2012

OP-ED: The desperate rail
February 20, 2012, 05:00 AM 
By Kent Lauder

All the independent organizations that have studied the high-speed rail proposal have determined it is a disaster waiting to happen, yet its proponents, including Gov. Jerry Brown, continue to defend the project. Having lost the argument on substance, they have consequently been forced to rely on the last desperate tactics of persuasion. 

First is the appeal for job creation. Governmental outlays for stimulating the economy is a legitimate matter. But for high-speed rail, the most important aspect is the cost/benefit factor. Similar to the proverbial bridge to nowhere, the discrepancy between the project’s huge cost and minimal benefit is extreme. Of course, all financial outlays go toward job creation, whether it be spent on hiring more teachers or investing in much needed repair and upgrades to our steadily deteriorating infrastructure. But in the list of priorities, high-speed rail comes in dead last. 

This leads to their second persuasive recourse, which is to indulge in the indefinites of sentiment. Following the rail authority’s glowing press releases, showing images of futuristic trains quietly zooming through idyllic landscapes, their verbal strategy has been to use trite, purposely vague slogans such as “progress” and “it’s the future” in lieu of substance. Such authoritative sounding but insupportable certitudes are meant to quiet skeptical inquiry — the implication being that anyone in opposition must be whining naysayers to progress and all that is good, noble and patriotic. 

Comparing this project to America’s great achievements (Panama Canal, etc.), as argument, is specious. It is an attempt to provoke us with a dare against the “they” who say it cannot be done. Of course it can be done. High-speed rail is not a “great” project, nor a courageous challenge, it is just unimaginably costly and irresponsible. 

We live in one of the most dynamic and innovative regions in the world, yet this 50-year old system is not cutting-edge innovation. For one thing, it is slow compared to potentially much faster Maglev transportation system currently being developed in Germany. Proponents argue we will be “left behind” if we do not proceed; actually, we will be left behind if we do. For once completed, our descendants will be left with an antiquated, slow, underfunded and underutilized 20th century mode of transport with little payback to the community, yet much to pay going forward. 

“Naysayers to progress?” How about a coast-to-coast, transcontinental (very) high-speed rail system. That’s where the ridership numbers and the profits would lie. Or we could take a truly bold stance and make a real commitment to developing alternative energy resources. It would not only create jobs, but increase our collective wealth by lessening our dependence on foreign energy. 

Proponents of high-speed rail lack vision. They mistakenly believe that the extrapolation of past experience is a guide to future need. But true innovation is seldom predictable. No one knows what the future will look like, any more than anyone could have predicted, some 30 years ago, the full and continuing impact of the Internet. That innovation was one which “grew” out of a culture poised and ready to accept it. It is an example of progress that arose organically from within, not one artificially imposed from without. 

What proponents consider “progress” could well be regression. The U.S. Postal Service is witnessing unprecedented losses due to the Internet revolution. It is an earth-shaking change few could have predicted. So too with high-speed rail, which is likely find itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. We appear now to be entering a world where the mass movement of information, not people, seems the more likely predictor of things to come. So let us be careful not to fall for their simplistic “it’s the future” propaganda, for if we do, we could be trading our real needs for an illusion — and selling our future for a phrase.

Kent Lauder is a retired plumbing contractor and very longtime resident of Burlingame.

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