Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Should the middle classes build a fancy luxury high-speed train for the rich?

Here's a point of view I never see in any of the media articles or in discussions with our colleagues who also oppose high-speed rail for various reasons. High-speed rail is not for everyone. It's only for the affluent.

The general assumption seems to be that high-speed rail is like all other passenger rail, only faster.  Therefore, we should not only expand passenger rail, because it's a good thing, but we should make it much faster, the way other countries have.  If it's technologically feasible, that's a good enough reason to do it. Right? Actually, no.  Just because something is technologically feasible doesn't mean that it is either necessary or desirable.

And, because most of the Nation's rail riders are commuters going back and forth from home and work, making these trips faster is inherently a good thing. (Because time is money?)

But, that is not what high-speed rail is. Not at all. It is not commuter rail.  It is inter-city rail, and no one rides it daily, the way urban and regional public mass transit are used daily.  The Japanese Shinkansen is a possible exception and and there people do ride it daily.  But these are far shorter, commuter trips. Furthermore, greater Tokyo alone is a city with a population approaching that of the entire state of California.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has stressed repeatedly that this would not be a commuter train.

High-Speed Rail is very different than regular passenger rail.  It uses very different rail-set, rolling-stock, technology.  The trains are built more like commercial aircraft than the traditional, heavy passenger rail coaches.

HSR speeds are now twice as fast as they have ever been. Even the Department of Transportation considers 110 mph high-speed, and we are talking about trains able reach 250 mph. Speed introduces all sorts of demands and problems, not the least of which is highly increased wear and tear.

Also, things happen much faster and therefore, if there are any problems, they surface faster and tragic events happen faster.  If you've ever seen automobiles running on the Bonneville Salt Flats at over 200 mph, you will be amazed at how stunningly fast that is. It's roughly the air speed of most private airplanes.

All of that makes HSR construction and operation far more expensive than typical Amtrak passenger rail. Speed costs. Faster becomes exponentially more expensive than slower.  In most of the world's high-speed rail operations, those high-speed trains are the top-priced icing on the cake of regular passenger rail, with its first and second class carriages, its local and express versions of the same trips, and adjusted costs, express being more expensive.

High-speed rail becomes the top layer on that cake. Because it's the most expensive to construct and operate, the ticket costs are far higher than regular train tickets. Check ticket costs in various countries on Google. Most trips of 400 miles' length cost well over $200. one way.

As I've said before, there are hotels and there are hotels.  High-Speed Rail is the railroad five-star version of all hotels, with appropriate costs.

High-speed rail is like the premium, first-class portion of a commercial aircraft whereas regular rail is like coach, or what we frequent flyers call the cattle car. Inter-city high-speed rail is not an everyday train ride.

Let me say again, this issue is rarely, if ever discussed. There's a reason. Those who are advocating HSR don't want us to think about these trains this way.  They want us to believe that these are like all passenger rail, only better, faster and cheaper ways of travelling than flying or driving.  And they are wrong.

The point is that high-speed rail is not for all Americans, although all American taxpayers are expected to pay for it.  Where else do you find such an exclusive, selective, publicly funded public service or utility?  And, therefore, why should all Americans be asked to pay to build and operate a train that most Americans will never be able to afford?

Most Americans are not affluent; not in the "upper brackets," and not able to buy the best champagne, the fanciest cars, the most expensive jewelry. And that's the issue here.  High-speed rail service falls into that category. The US government and the states have no right to build a transit system that is only for the wealthiest who are eligible since only they can afford to use it.

The workers who will construct this train will not be able to afford to ride it. As a point of comparison, other infrastructure such as bridges, highways, dams, etc. are for all of us. We all benefit directly and personally from the existence of most of the US infrastructure, including urban and regional public mass transit. High-speed rail does not fit into those categories, despite the efforts of the Department of Transportation to lump them together.

The fact is that in this land of consumer excess, High-Speed Rail is nothing more than a collective self-indulgence; that is, a luxury. It is not only not a necessity, it is a major, flagrant display of gratuitous opulence. (Saudi Arabia is building a high-speed train from Mecca to Medina for their wealthiest Sheiks on their pilgrimages.)

"We got it; so we gonna' flaunt it." Because that's who we are. That's why the nation's wealth has gradually risen toward the small number at the top. And, that's why we are now in such severe financial straits.

The US President, his Secretary of Transportation, the Governor of California and the senior Senators and other legislators that represent California choose to ignore this fundamental HSR reality.  They wish to spin a gossamer web of fantasy about a better tomorrow for all of us; jobs for everyone. That, with this train, we are carving out our futures and a better life for all.

That's all nonsense. It's a rich train only for rich people, and we have no business building it.

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