American Elephants

High-Speed Rail — High-Speed Boondoggle. by The Elephant's Child

Across the country, branch rail lines are being torn out.  The  Union Pacific branch line that I grew up with is long gone and converted to the “Rails to Trails” program.  The line that once carried the longest cattle train in the country is gone and the ranch that supplied the cattle sold and divided.  The loggers are gone from the forest and the log trains are no more, and the lumber mills have closed.  Time marches on.

Rail built much of the West.  Cities grew up around rail terminuses.  Small towns vanished when they were bypassed. The story of rail crossing the continent is part of history and legend.  I’ve often thought that perhaps Obama has some old movies in mind when he boosts rail as an answer to unemployment.  All those men laying rails, pounding spikes was a vision of vast numbers of jobs.  But time marches on.

Rail was once incredibly glamorous.  The subject of movies, novels and song. Think Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, Casey Jones, City of New Orleans, Engine Engine Number 9, Five Hundred Miles, I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow, there are literally hundreds.  Movies from 310 to Yuma to Union Pacific, The Orient Express and The Great Train Robbery.  There’s a test for you:  how many can you think of?  Time Marches On.

Today, to say “railroad” inspires no glamour — thus the appellation “high speed” has been added.  Very 21st Century.  Actually a very notable example of government’s inability to learn from past mistakes.  The government has ponied up $900 million to build the first 65 miles of  high speed rail in California from the little towns in the Central Valley running from  Corcoran to Borden.  The $900 million includes track, but no trains, no stations, no equipment.  And there’s a big ugly secret that nobody mentions.  Bullet trains cannot run on ordinary track.

The bullet trains that everyone extols run where population density is much higher than in the United States.  In the U.S. population density is 86 people per square mile.  Americans live in suburbs. In Japan, density in 880 people per square mile.  Japan’s population is congregated along the coast. Rail is heavily subsidized.

Obama insists that high speed rail would relieve traffic congestion. Traffic is congested in this country in cities.  Trains run between cities and do not relieve city congestion. In Europe and Japan, rail is heavily subsidized, but geography and energy policies differ.  The United States is a big country and plentiful land has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Distances between cities are greater, trips are longer.  Beyond 300 to 500 miles, trains cannot compete with planes.  In Europe and Japan, gas prices are higher — in August 2008 gasoline in Japan was $6.50 a gallon.  Americans believe $4 gas an outrage, and they resent gasoline taxes.

High-speed rail is a economic boondoggle, a fantasy. Obama is going to call for spending (another) $53 billion over the next six years on high-speed rail between major cities, with $8 billion in the 2010 budget.  Bullet trains need dedicated, carefully engineered lines than may run more than $50 million a mile to construct.  Our experience with rail indicates that the ridership promised simply will not happen.


1 Comment so far
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We can call it Amtrak 2.0
Actually people either fly or drive a car.
Trains are for freight.


Comment by Ron spins

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