Debt

Bullet Train Brings America Up to Date, Like Spain

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I don't support tax-funded high-speed rail (HSR) initiatives, but if I did I'd be pretty steamed by the poor arguments supporters have put together in favor of HSR – a field so abysmal that even the anti-classic "Believe in the Bullet Train" holds up better than most. 

From the last time Spain mattered as a country.

In fact, I'm steamed even now, because I worry that one day I'll hear a more credible-sounding case for the bullet train, but my cross-examination skills will have atrophied from practicing on weak targets. The high-speed rail initiative in my neck of the western desert has not managed to put together routes, ridership or fiscal projections in its nearly 15 years of existence. One non-partisan survey after another has revealed inattention and poor planning shocking enough to bring on heart, nerve and bowel complications. 

So I was hopeful that Michael Scott Moore might make a strong case for high-speed rail with this article comparing Spain and Texas. Texas nixed its HSR project during the Ann Richards administration. In Moore's telling, Southwest Airlines stands accused of pointing out flaws in the plan put together by Texas TGV Consortium, which failed to meet its fundraising goals and went out of business in 1994. 

The Kingdom of Spain, meanwhile, went ahead with a plan to upgrade its slow-moving train network with the Alto Velocidád Española (AVE), which apparently is the finest HSR network in Europe. 

Moore leaves it to the reader to figure out how this puts King Juan Carlos ahead of Gov. Rick Perry. In an economic head-to-head, Texas wallops Spain almost as handily as did the entire United States during the McKinley Administration. Spain's population, at 45.9 million, is nearly twice as large as the 24.7 million population of Texas. (Further research is needed to determine which polity has more fluent speakers of Spanish.) But the Lone Star State's $44,534 per capita GDP is more than a third higher than Spain's $31,808. [In an earlier version of this post I said Texas' total GDP is higher than Spain's. Spain's total GDP, according to World Bank figures, is $1.46 trillion. Texas', according to Bureau of Economic Analysis, is $1.1 trillion. I erred by using a GDP figure for California rather than Texas. Thanks to commenter Pietro for the correction.] 

While Texas has lately joined the ranks of states facing budget shortfalls, the state's 1 percent-of-GDP deficit is dwarfed by Spain's, which this year is targeted at 6 percent of GDP, though it's more likely to come in at 6.3 percent. Texas is also leading the other 49 U.S. states in job creation, and its 8 percent unemployment rate is far more attractive than Spain's 20.3 percent jobless rate. 

This is not to say the bullet train is causing Spain's economic collapse – though this Cristina Vázquez story notes that building train infrastructure has been a drain on the flailing national economy. Moore also acknowledges the AVE's burden on Spanish (and European) taxpayers: 

The dark side of the story is that Spain over-invested in high-speed rail. To pay for the system, the government took out loans based on ballooning property values, which deflated in 2008-09. "That a country like Spain has more kilometers of AVE than any other nation aside from China makes no sense," Ramón Lopez de Lucio, a professor from the Architecture School of Madrid, told the AFP news wire in January.

But that's another way of saying that high-speed rail is expensive, so building it requires wisdom and restraint.

Moore notes that the real value of the train is in "relief to the atmosphere." This gets us into the very young science of measuring "carbon footprint" – a global burden to which, as I understand it, you and I contribute every time either of us exhales. It's true that Texas generates nearly twice as much carbon dioxide (630 million metric tons) as Spain (359 million metric tons). But since their respective Goofus/Gallant decisions on the bullet train, Texas has reduced its carbon footprint, having cut emissions by 40 million metric tons since 2003. Spain's carbon footprint, on the other hand, has increased 30 percent in the last ten years. 

I don't mean to pick on Moore, who is a good journalist and no more guilty of worrying America's mass-transit inferiority complex than many other people. But soon the curious argument that the U.S.A. is somehow falling behind in a global HSR race will no longer hold any water at all. 

This dismal Caixin Weekly report [pdf] on China's HSR initiative –the envy of bullet-train buffs the world over – shows why. Liu Zhijun, the putative "Father of High-Speed Rail" was removed from office and arrested earlier this year, and early investigation of the Ministry of Rail reveals many of the vices I've been uncovering in California: extremely murky budgeting (with some parts of the initiative costing two or three times as much as projected), low ridership (after only two months of operation, the Beijing-Fuzhou line shut down for lack of passengers last year), and a consistent bias for wealthier fancypants customers over people who actually use mass transit. In China, too, it appears that rich people like swanky trains in the hypothetical, but don't bother to ride them in reality. HSR-related debt rose from 77.1 billion yuan in 2007 to 1.68 trillion last year. 

Caixin argues that these problems were the result of undue haste: 

Why did Liu and the rest of the ministry apparently put high-speed rail projects ahead of costs, passengers and safety concerns?

"Rail currently has a favorable, opportune moment for low-cost development," Liu once wrote. "With rapid economic and social development, resource shortages will become increasingly prominent, and land acquisition and relocation costs, material prices and labor costs will grow higher.

"This is an irreversible trend. So the earlier we carry out large-scale railway construction and the faster we push it forward, the lower our costs will be," he said. "Seize the opportunity, build more railways, and build them fast."

Internationally, HSR is looking less like a futuristic ride Americans are missing out on than an unsustainable bubble Americans would do well to avoid: