The way high-speed rail projects have been collapsing around the world, you’d think they were corrupt, outrageously expensive, fiscally ruinous, poorly planned government efforts to build a 19th century means of transportation for which there’s no demand.
The Obama Administration’s bullet-train dream is dead. Florida Gov. Rick Scott last year rejected $2 billion in federal funds rather than commit the Sunshine State to such an expensive project. California’s high-speed rail effort is in turmoil, recently suffered a purge of top management, and is unlikely to meet its September deadline to break ground on a federally mandated leg universally termed the “train to nowhere.”
New York State’s effort to build a Buffalo-New York City line is also stalling out. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) trekked out to the village of Bergen in Genesee County the other day only to face hostile questioning from reporters and the local mayor. Schumer’s photo opp by the side of an existing CSX track highlighted a trait the Empire State’s project shares with California’s: It proposes to destroy a proven business – freight rail – to make room for a bullet train that would not be self-supporting even according to the rosiest estimates.
Bullet trains are having even less luck outside the United States – where, the cognoscenti never tire of reminding us, international sophisticates are way ahead of us Yankee bumpkins. Spain’s high-speed rail system, until recently a model for new bullet train construction (and, to be fair, a line that replaced one of the slowest railways in Europe), is sinking under low ridership and dragging that kingdom even deeper into a swamp of bad public debt.
The unkindest cuts of all are occurring in China, whose bullet train once drew hosannas from California governors and bully-worshipping toadies like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Rail minister Liu Zhijun, the putative “Father of High-Speed Rail,” was removed from office and arrested last year; Liu’s deputy, “Grand Designer” (and owner of a five-bedroom home on 30,000 square feet in Los Angeles County) Zhang Shuguang, is also facing corruption charges. An early investigation by the Ministry of Rail revealed that the Chinese bullet train’s budgeting is extremely murky (with some parts of the initiative costing two or three times as much as projected); its ridership is low (after only two months of operation, the Beijing-Fuzhou line was quietly shut in 2010); and ticket prices are beyond the means of lower-income people who actually use mass transit. HSR-related debt increased by a factor of 22 over only three years, from 77.1 billion yuan in 2007 to 1.68 trillion in 2010. In July a bullet-train crash in Zhejiang killed 32 people and injured more than 200.
Railroads have always been favorites of dictators. (Note that nobody was ever brought to a concentration camp on a bus.) But they somehow retain their fascination for popularly elected politicians as well. Here’s California Gov. Jerry Brown in yesterday’s State of the State address:
Just as bold is our plan to build a high-speed rail system, connecting the Northern and Southern parts of our state. This is not a new idea. As governor the last time, I signed legislation to study the concept. Now thirty years later, we are within weeks of a revised business plan that will enable us to begin initial construction before the year is out.
President Obama strongly supports the project and has provided the majority of funds for this first phase. It is now your decision to evaluate the plan and decide what action to take. Without any hesitation, I urge your approval.
If you believe that California will continue to grow, as I do, and that millions more people will be living in our state, this is a wise investment. Building new runways and expanding our airports and highways is the only alternative. That is not cheaper and will face even more political opposition.
Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking. I understand that feeling but I don’t share it, because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here. California is still the Gold Mountain that Chinese immigrants in 1848 came across the Pacific to find. The wealth is different, derived as it is, not from mining the Sierras but from the creative imagination of those who invent and build and generate the ideas that drive our economy forward.
Critics of the high-speed rail project abound as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. During the 1930s, the Central Valley Water Project was called a “fantastic dream” that “will not work.” The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as “New Deal jitterbug economics.” In 1966, then Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called BART a “billion-dollar potential fiasco.” Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: “totally impossible to be carried out.” The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now.
These arguments would be pathetic coming from any governor of a great state. From Jerry Brown, they are too stupid by half. His claim that, in January 2012, only declinists oppose the California High-Speed Rail project invites the obvious joke that that train has left the station. A substantial majority of Californians oppose the bullet-train in its current form.
That’s a remarkable turnaround in a state where 53 percent of voters approved $9.95 billion in high-speed rail bonds during the high-turnout 2008 election. It seems like just a month ago that the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) was an object of wonder for its reality-distorting public relations influence and political strength. Now even the left-leaning media treat with scorn the CHSRA and its plan to make a non-operational Bakersfield-Fresno run the great project’s first phase.
Meanwhile, the CHSRA’s CEO and board chairman have both fled the collapsing project, in a move that neither the Brown nor the Obama Administration appears to have seen coming. The authority is in a dispute with its former PR firm, which was unable to distract public attention from the glaring truth that since 2008 the estimated cost of the project has more than doubled, from around $40 billion to $98.5 billion. (The suspiciously steep increase in projected costs has prompted calls for a new referendum on railway debt, on the grounds that the voters were hoodwinked the first time around.) The authority’s own peer review group and the Legislative Analyst’s Office have strongly recommended delaying and rethinking the project. A larger percentage of voters would now vote No on HSR bonds than voted for them in 2008.
These are all steps in the right direction, but there’s another intellectual hurdle for the populace to clear. These failing, costly high-speed rail catastrophes are not cases of a good idea poorly carried out. Failure is built into the concept. There is neither need nor demand nor real popular will to bring trains back in a spiffier form. In this respect, one part of Jerry Brown’s speech was accurate: High-speed rail is not a new idea. Passenger railroads had their day. To pretend otherwise is truly to believe our civilization is in decline.
Tim Cavanaugh is the managing editor of Reason.com.