Science

Robert Samuelson on High-Speed Trains: "People prefer fashionable make-believe"

|

Hold on to that feeee-lay-hee-yayy-hay-ying

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson lays out the not-hard-to-find economic case against 21st century high-speed rail projects, then comments:

President Obama calls high-speed rail essential "infrastructure" when it's actually old-fashioned "pork barrel." The interesting question is why it retains its intellectual respectability. The answer, it seems, is willful ignorance. People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities. They imagine public benefits that don't exist and ignore costs that do.

Always keep stuff like this in mind whenever you hear a Democrat like John Kerry whine that "We've lost our minds. We're in a period of know-nothingism in the country, where truth and science and facts don't weigh in." Like the scientific cases for trade protectionism and stadium welfare, the truth/fact-based economic argument for high speed rail has long ago been routed, yet even at a time when we are out of money a huge cohort of politicians and their enablers are keen to set even their I.O.U. notes on fire. It's beyond disreputable.

Tim Cavanaugh on California's "Mystery Train" project here. Reason.tv's three reasons why Obama's high-speed rail plan is a train-track to nowhere below.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

41 responses to “Robert Samuelson on High-Speed Trains: "People prefer fashionable make-believe"

  1. But I want a shiny new Choo-Choo!

    1. and I want to vote for you to make it happen!

  2. I, for one, am looking forward to waiting around a terminal for a late train instead of waiting around a terminal for a late plane. Because I really hated that.

    1. We’ll pay 90% of the actual price of your fare if you really mean it!

  3. Reason, why do you hate our trains?!

  4. But trains last forever, and have absolutely no operating costs. It’s free; just the like the money we’ll spend to build them.

    1. You sound like a California political ad.
      Nearly verbatim.

  5. I had to chuckle this morning. One of my employees just got back from taking Amtrak to Florida. She complained about the seats, the icky people who shared the cramped coach, the swaying, etc. “I’ll never ride the train again; I’ll fly.” Of course, she’s a Democrat and a big proponent of Amtrak subsidies, presumably for the “icky people” so they won’t sully the airplanes in which she will be riding.

    1. She must have never flown in her life. Wait’ll she finds out the seats are more cramped and the people are just as icky.

  6. Agree with the article and comments. But don’t forget, despite many user fees, the air transport system in this country is still massively subsidized. Someone smarter than me can figure this out – but I wonder if you took away all subsidies from air AND rail (and road infrastructure) and let the market work, whether a private company could make high speed rail pencil out.

    1. don’t forget, despite many user fees, the air transport system in this country is still massively subsidized.

      That might be true, but at least you can that people actually use air travel. If we’re going to subsidize something, shouldn’t it be things that people actually use, like roads and planes?

      1. The proper way to calculate such subsidies would be on a per passenger mile basis. That is, it is quite possible realitively few people take Amtrak but it is subsidized less than airlines are.

      2. Any subsidy is a means of coercing people to make a certain choice. Better to get rid of them as much as possible and let people pay the true cost themselves.

  7. I really enjoyed the Amtrak ride I took with my family from Indianapolis to St. Paul. The East Coast Corridor from Boston to Baltimore is pretty nice as well and is also one of the few routes that actually makes money.

    Despite my libertarian ideology I’ve already made the campaign promise to increase funding for Amtrak. Of course this was to my 3 year old son who loves train, but if elected to Congress I still plan to keep it. Of course I’m pretty much gutting every other government program (except the true science side of NASA and protection against asteroids) so I’m pretty sure I can still balance the budget.

    1. I understand. I would probably have to make the same promise to my 3-year-old son.

  8. People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities.

    You can’t discount envy and our growing inferiority complex either, when we see shiny and sleek Chinese bullet trains doing 300 MPH in slick propaganda ads.

    1. I think it’s mainly this. “People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities.”

      It’s fundamentally the same reason a half wit like Biden can say all significant achievements in three centuries are due to government. They have no idea what it takes to run a business, but think some magic train, or windmill, or electric car can fix everything in one fell swoop. Can’t be bothered with the detail of exactly how that’s gonna happen, because they are completely removed from the real work in a free enterprise system.

      1. Biden’s an interesting case on this particular topic, considering he commuted on a weekly basis on Amtrak from his state to DC for decades.

    2. I know!

  9. Airplanes (and buses) will always have an advantage over rail because of routing flexibility. By all means take away the subsidies the airlines currently get.

    For starters, let them do their own security and air traffic control. And auction all slots.

    1. Re: P Brooks,

      Rail is still more economically efficient than airplanes in short to medium distances and more comfortable than buses. The problem in the US is that rail is, one, heavily regulated and, two, heavily regulated and, three . . .

      . . . heavily regulated. And, unfortunately, there’s not many places rail can go to escape that, whereas airplanes at least can fly away, and buses are too cheap to be too bothered by the rent-seekers.

      Rail could and should be able to outcompete buses and airplanes in short to medium stretches, but since they are heavily regulated (again, I have to stress that point) and also (surprise!) heavily unionized, there’s no way any rail system could achieve its potential economic efficiency.

      (Why do I say rail is more economically efficient than airplanes? Consider the time it takes you to drive to the airport, the boarding time, the flight time, the unboarding time and the fight for your luggage, and then figure out how much wasted time can be translated into driving time from your house to your destination, and you would find out that, in many instances and especially in short flight distances, you could have driven to your destination in the same amount of time it took you to fly. Rail can get you there cheaper than flying and more comfortable than driving, if not faster.)

      1. “there aren’t many places rail can go to escape”

        Sorry. Plural-Plural.

      2. I know, right? I mean I love the train because everyone without a driver (that’s you, peon) to pick them up at the station would rather just have their car with them wherever they are going in short to mid-range distances. Let’s face it. You are all morons because I tax you to pay for my hobby.

      3. (Why do I say rail is more economically efficient than airplanes? Consider the time it takes you to drive to the airport, the boarding time, the flight time, the unboarding time and the fight for your luggage, … Rail can get you there cheaper than flying and more comfortable than driving, if not faster.)

        Right up to the day TSA takes over rail station security. Then the drive-to, boarding, unboarding, and luggage time will equal out.

        Plus if there’s a problem anywhere along the rail your train depends on the whole system grinds to a halt. And a train on the ground is a much easier target for terrorists than an airliner at 30,000 feet.

  10. Actually, the comments left at the WaPo website for the article are quite funny in their level of delusion.

    The only advantage I get from using AMTRAK in the DC – NY corridor is the fact that last minute bookings don’t penalize me much. Of course this might be due to the fact that the train is never full and if they lose money the US government makes up the difference.

    1. In theory a train shouldn’t really suffer from last minute additions, since adding capacity is as simple as hooking up an extra car (until the point where they need to add an engine). Contrast with a plane where they have a limited number of seats – any addition past that number requires a whole extra plane, crew, etc., essentially doubling cost. Also contrast the cost of having extra rail car capacity sitting idle with the cost of having extra airliner capacity sitting idle.

  11. Always keep stuff like this in mind whenever you hear a Democrat like John Kerry whine that “We’ve lost our minds[…]!”

    Truer words could not have been uttered, Mr. Kerry – YOU (Keynesian charlatans) lost your minds, indeed.

    Like the scientific cases for trade protectionism and stadium welfare, the truth/fact-based economic argument for high speed rail has long ago been routed[.]

    But like crystals, pet rocks and magnetic wrist bands, it keeps on “living”, like a zombie.

  12. Man, I can’t wait to shut off my curlycue lightbulb in my house, hop in my Chevy Volt, and zip down to the train station to make the trip into work each day! THAT’S the future I envisioned as a youth!

    Man, science and government are SO kick ass!

    1. Your youth, perhaps. Back in my youth they promised us flying cars.

    2. Man, I can’t wait to shut off my curlycue lightbulb in my house, hop in my Chevy Volt, and zip down walk to the train station to make the trip into work each day!

      FTFY

  13. Blind squirrel finds nut, inspects it, discards it:

    gauss3d wrote:
    If we use the logic of this article, we would never have built the interstate highway system: too much pork and too much of a subsidy of the truck and auto industry!
    11/1/2010 12:13:25 PM
    Recommend (1)
    Report Abuse Discussion Policy

  14. How funny that followers of a philosophy explicated in a book about an upstanding train tycoon are so opposed to real-life trains.

    Sort of like the pervs who find fake women in pornos attractive but reject real women as disgusting.

    1. I smiled. “It’s over for today, Otis. But we cannot be sure that the transmissions have ceased. There could be more.”

      Otis was silent. I opened the door to find him back behind the counter.

      “Finding everything okay?” he asked.

      “Sure, I just needed to take a shit,” I told him.

      The tall man was gone. I looked down at my thumb. It had stopped bleeding.

    2. That was a sad attempt at a troll. Like run-over-kitten-being-pecked-at-by-crows level sad. Just pathetic. Like a suicide note disintegrating in an unflushed toilet.

      You should seriously and soberly review all the mistakes in your life that led you to make such a hideously weak troll attempt. Just mentally rifle through them until you can remember a point in which you had some sort of dignity and then talk your younger self and explain to him how you got to such a low state. Maybe sit down and write him a letter. Apologize to him about the utter wasteland you have made of what little potential he possessed to be a useful part of human society. Be honest. See if he can forgive you, or if having a crystal ball to see you as you are know, if he wouldn’t have stepped into traffic to spare himself decades of the intense shame of being you.

      1. Yeah, but how often are Dan T.’s troll attempts not sad, dude? This was more sad than usual, but not that much more sad.

        Running his hand through his graying black hair, Smith exhaled forcefully and contemplated the proper course of action. He decided to ask his crew to meet with him on the bridge; there he would advise them that while he would continue to explore all options to get them out of this mess, the situation was looking grim. If boarded, he would tell them, he planned to flip the so-called “suicide switch” which would within seconds fill the cabin with Xulyrt gas. This would kill the crew instantly and with any luck take a couple of the Mildren bastards with them.

    3. That’s true.

      The only thing that drew me to libertarianism was my blind and irrational hatred for trains and train-related products and services.

      How did you became so insightful and witty?

      1. became = become. ugh.

  15. Solar powered airships make more sense than high speed trains. You can change their routes more easily.

  16. Samuelson just scratched the surface of what’s wrong with high-speed rail. Among the other problems:

    1. They won’t ease congestion, because congestion itself is the limiting factor in road use. Roads are free, so in areas where there is high demand traffic fills them until the pain of congestion clears the market. Offload 2.5% of the cars, and 2.5% of other auto traffic will fill the gap.

    2. Trains aren’t all that energy efficient for human passengers, because they are very heavy and run on fixed schedules. The only time the efficiency numbers look good is when the train is loaded to capacity. You have to average the efficiency over the times when the load isn’t full to get system efficiency per passenger mile, and when you do that it turns out that it’s not much better than a typical car with one person in it, and worse than a car with several passengers or a Prius with one.

    3. Trains in America aren’t going to be going 250 mph. They have to use existing track, because there are too many land rights issues otherwise. Use of existing track will limit them to 100-120 mph.

    4. In Europe, where there is a lot of passenger rail, rail freight has been pushed off the rails as a result and into trucks. So you’re trading a slight gain in passenger travel efficiency for a big loss in cargo efficiency.

    5. Train routes are fixed. That’s a terrible thing for a dynamic economy. Think of how a high-speed rail line to Detroit would be faring these days. If you look at the flight schedules of any airport, you’ll see how often routes change. Trains can’t change their route. So not only do you need exactly the right sized corridor for efficiency, but you also need one where the traffic is highly stable over years or decades. The only one like that I know of is New York-Washington. That’s the only high speed rail line in the country that has even the remotest chance of breaking even and increasing energy efficiency in the transportation system. And even that is a longshot.

    What happens to the time savings of high speed rail after the first terrorist bomb derails a train at 120 mph? TSA, here we come.

    1. “Roads are free”

      That’s the problem. Roads aren’t “free”, any more than my daily commute costs exactly $2.50 a trip. The price people pay to get around – by whatever means – is based more on politics than actual cost.

      Your other points are more or less valid, at least in most parts of the US. I love choo-choo’s myself, but I live in area where they make sense. Even I can’t get on board with this inevitably politicized plan to put faster choo-choo’s where it doesn’t make any sense. But that’s politics – it’s the same at every scale. Here in NYC we’re spending billions on short tunnels to shave a couple minutes off the commute of Long Islanders and to ferry prospective tenants over to a waterfront condo complex that the mayor’s developer buddies haven’t started building yet. Meanwhile the NYC subway is literally falling apart.

  17. Hyper Shuttle Fractal- Perfect Distribution

    YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aD4iRIHDtM

    An original idea by Eonitao State. http://thestateof.net

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.