Friday, August 21, 2009

high-speed rail

I have to ask, what is with all the hype about high-speed rails lately? As far as I can tell, it's originated and propagated solely by Europhile liberals with wistful idealistic daydreams of zipping silently through the Swiss countryside. That may be a practical solution where major hubs of business and government are clustered within a couple hundred kilometers of each other across an entire continent and where a long tradition of rail travel has ingrained in the population the idea that rail travel is the default and easiest mode of transportation and that the noise associated with railways is just something society has to put up with, but these are two massive cultural differences that the U.S. cannot overcome to make such a system worthwhile here, even in the few isolated areas where major cities are close enough to warrant rail construction (and where a rail system does not already exist. This eliminates ... everywhere.)

Amtrak is an unmitigated disaster. A trip I can make in 15 hours by car from Los Angeles to Seattle for about $120 in gas money costs more to do by train and takes about 40 hours (despite schedules that persistently insist trains will arrive 16 hours before they do.) I can make the same trip for about the same price as it costs to drive by plane, and that only takes about 5 hours, including airport waits. I've never travelled this exact route by Greyhound, but I'd bet anything that is also cheaper and faster than the train, and has the added advantage that every few hours you can actually get off and buy some food that isn't sold at a 1200% markup. The only people who ever travel via Amtrak are rich vacationing retirees. And more of those Europhile idealistic liberals.

Not to mention Amtrak is a bankrupt company that only survives on government aid (guess which government figures push for that aid...) This is absolutely insane. An inefficient and outdated private company with a disproportionately wealthy clientele propped up by the US government? Please.

Rail travel is so much better for the environment than car or plane, and are a net benefit when you take into consideration those hidden costs, you say? Well then, please take a look at this (and the linked-to reports for details.) I will quote (emphasis mine):
Edward Glaeser (over at the Economix blog) and I have been writing about high-speed rail (HSR) over the past couple of weeks; he just finished his cost-benefit analysis of a hypothetical Dallas-Houston line with a look at land-use impacts. His overall conclusion, even making some very generous assumptions in favor of rail, is that the line would be a net cost to society of at least $375 million per year. This includes HSR’s potential environmental benefits as well as the direct gains to riders.
Just because one thing is better environmentally doesn't mean that it will automatically be economically worthwhile when you include those hidden costs to society. I am very sympathetic to these arguments when they are valid, having been an ardent environmentalist making exactly this argument for renewable energy and conservation since I was about 10, but it has become the knee-jerk explanation sans followup recently and we should impose some discipline on the makers of these claims.

Why is there not a push for innovation and reforms to make air travel cleaner and faster? The only reason people would consider even a high-speed rail journey, 2 or 3 hours, from LA to San Francisco, over a half hour flight, is the 2 hours of bureaucracy and security we have to endure to get on the plan. I suspect that if rail travel became more dominant, not only would security waits for trains drastically increase as security concerns mounted, thus eliminating much of that advantage, but that there is quite a bit of room for improvement in airport efficiency, especially for tiny regional hops that would be the substitute for rail travel.

Also, I suspect that similarly to the environmental gains of replacing a 9 mpg hummer with a 16 mph SUV dwarfing the gains of replacing a Toyota Camry with a Toyota Prius, there are enormous potential gains in environmental effects in airline travel.

Why are these things not being explored thoroughly and aggressively before to committing the government to billions and billions of both fixed and ongoing costs for infrastructure for an outdated mode of transportation in an ill-suited environment and skeptical potential consumers?

If the government hadn't been looking for every possible avenue to force money into the economy earlier this year, there is no way such a ridiculous plan would now be taken so seriously.