Self-Driving Cars Are Coming Fast, So Why Should We Spend a Dime Rebuilding Amtrak?

Trains were cutting-edge technology. In 1825.


"It's like they're designing the pony express in the world of the telegraph," Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes (R-Dist. 22) told Fortune, explaining his opposition to a plan to build a light rail system in Pinellas County. "I absolutely believe that technology is going to transform mass transit in a way that very few people can see…It'll definitely be within 15 or 20 years, which is right when the light rail system…would be coming online."

Brandes' logic applies to all sorts of rail infrastructure schemes; the $68-billion high-speed rail line planned between San Francisco and Los Angeles comes to mind. But the advent of driverless cars is also a reason to oppose the recent push to rebuild Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Congressional Democrats want to give Amtrak $2 billion this year, and the beleaguered rail company says it needs a whopping $151 billion to bring high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor by 2040.

I doubt there will be many train riders in 2040. American travelers generally prefer cars because they offer point-to-point mobility, but trains have two advantages over passenger vehicles today: They don't get stuck in traffic, and riders can do other things during the trip.

Autonomous vehicles will eliminate those advantages. In "The Moral Case for Self-Driving Cars" from Reason's August/September 2014 issue, Science Correspondent Ron Bailey explained how autonomous vehicles can solve the traffic problem:

Roadway engineers estimate that typical highways now accommodate a maximum throughput of 2,200 human-driven vehicles per lane per hour, utilizing only about 5 percent of roadway capacity. Because self-driving cars would be safer and could thus drive closer and faster, switching to mostly self-driving cars would dramatically increase roadway throughput. One estimate by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research in November 2013 predicts that a 50 percent autonomous road fleet would boost highway capacity by 22 percent; an 80 percent robot fleet will goose capacity 50 percent, and a fully automated highway would see its throughput zoom by 80 percent.

But don't we need to keep building out rail infrastructure in the short term, before driverless cars are ubiquitous? No, thanks to a 20th century technology known as a bus. Motorcoach travel is the fast growing form of intercity transit because it's cheap, convenient, and like the train, allows travelers to sleep, work, or play during the ride. And the bus industry receives no taxpayer subsidies.

Watch the 2013 Reason TV documentary I made with Naomi Brockwell, which looks at the glorious rebirth of the bus industry and why the government may ruin it again: