Some Things Just Don’t Scale

I’m writing this posting while riding the infamous Maryland MTA train. It’s a light rail, the kind of public transportation that we keep being told that we need. My friend and I just left the annual Shore Leave science fiction convention, and are traveling the roughly 22 miles (as the crow would fly) back to his home, where I am a guest of him and his family. And on Friday, he and I traveled to DC on another train and back.

This trip cost us $3.20 total, and he says it will last a bit over an hour. In his car, if he’d not left it for his wife, it would have cost us about $6.50 in gas, but saved us over half an hour of time. Not to mention the seats would have had more than a slight trace of padding over the hard metal/plastic/stone that’s currently numbing my butt.

This, in a nutshell, is why “high speed rail” simply won’t work in America. At least, not on a scale large enough to make it economically self-sustaining.

We are Americans. We are used to our independence, our freedom of movement. There simply aren’t enough Americans (outside of highly urban areas) who have to go to and from the same places at the same times, and are willing to put up with the inconveniences that go with the economic benefits.

Inconveniences as the aforementioned time factor. Or the (pardon me while I cover my ears yet again) the squealing of the steel wheels on the rails. Or the constant stopping and starting and having to keep track of which stop is yours. Or the occasional crowding and being cooped up with a bunch of people you quite possibly would rather not be around, for various and sundry reasons.

Likewise, public security. Israel’s airport security is touted as the ideal, the role model. But Israel has exactly one major international airport, and it’s considerably smaller than our biggest ones. The efforts that make Ben Gurion such a secure airport would be simply too expensive, too time-consuming, and too manpower-intensive to work on the scale we would need them.

But that doesn’t change how current security measures are an absolute joke. While in DC, I ran into several security screenings. One of them was so I could get some fast food.

No joke. My friend and I saw a sign indicating that the Ronald Reagan Federal Building had a food court, and we went in – and I promptly concluded that there was a covert airport installed in the building. It was the only explanation I could see – the food at the Subway was NOT a national secret.

My faith in the security process was further eroded by my observation that most of the security guards seemed to have the main duty of telling us not to believe the signs we saw. One guy in the Commerce Department informed us that we could not reach the National Aquarium through that building – while standing under a sign that said “NATIONAL AQUARIUM” and had an arrow pointing down a hall to the right. Other guards repeatedly told us that doors marked “EXIT” were not actual exits, but we had to find other ways out of various and sundry buildings.

The only reason I can see to push things as “high speed rail” is to exert control over people. To limit their options and force them to give up their freedom to just jump in their car and go where they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish.

Yes, that’s not a freedom that all can exercise. A lot of people don’t have cars. But that hardly seems a reason to strip the right from all.

Unless, of course, your goal is to get people used to depending on an impersonal government to provide for their needs. To get them to stop doing for themselves, to even stop thinking that they can or should do for themselves.

That is one of our greatest strengths as a nation. And yeah, sometimes it’s not such a great strength, or can actually be a bit of a liability. (Cue the environmentalists to tell us how wasteful private cars are vs. mass transportation.)

But it’s indisputably American.

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  • Anonymous

    I really don’t think trying to equate high speed rail with commuter rail is a good idea.  When living in an urban community I usually preferred light rail and bicycle transportation.  My one weakness was a motorcycle, but medical problems eventually edged me off a donor-cycle, which is probably a good thing.  Parking, theft deterrence and auto maintenance are all significant issues in the big city that have nothing to do with the price of gas and everything to do with decreasing autos in the big city.

    Hundreds of thousands of folks commute in and out of NYC, Washington DC and other East Coast cities where light rail commuting is still active.  If the high pitched rail noise is an issue (my high-frequency hearing went the way of all good things after years of tractor, chain saw, and rock and roll, so my most recent NYC subway rides were no problem) they make wonderful things called ear plugs.  And iPods. 

    I used light and high speed rail in Europe, and I drove a cool clunker hooptie BMW in Europe.  I did not feel controlled on the road or on the rails.  Their system of rail travel added little if anything compared to car travel time, if you ignored the time spent walking to/from the train station (maybe 20 minutes on either side) And the Stau’s on the autobahn.  Cost of travel was about equal though trended towards cheaper by rail, unless you had a whole load of people you could put in your car.

    Lastly, I suspect the risk to any one traveller is much less per rail mile travelled than for highway.street.

  • Anonymous

    The only reason I can see to push things as “high speed rail” is to exert control over people.

    Yes.  That’s why the left wants to push cafe standards that will make cars far too expensive for most people to buy and raising gas prices (increased through taxation and restricting oil exploration and refining) to the point where it is unaffordable to drive anywhere.

    High speed rail is a talisman of socialist Europe.  The left covets the ability to control movement where citizens would have to present papers to establish their permission (they don’t have a right) to be where they are. 

    They know that the second amendment is a guarantee of our freedom and limits their ability to control and intimidate the public.  But the Founders knew that the public’s ability to defend themselves against criminals and any oppression was the key to lasting security.  The left wants to control our security.  By restricting access to self defense the left knows it will force the public to depend upon government for security and in doing so they will be able to dictate who gets protection and who does not.  Look at the Holder DOJ.  It isn’t just about control but it is about who has to obey the laws and who does not.

    To be honest it isn’t just the left.  It is big government types form both sides of the aisle. They want to control us down to what kind of light bulb we can put in our lamps.  Politicians of both sides want to put controls on political speech (Lindsey Graham anyone?).  Anyone that is not in favor of reducing the size and scope of government is ultimately working against all our best interests.

    • Anonymous

      High speed rail is also evident in China and Japan, as well as Germany (which I guess falls in socialist Europe). While India doesn’t have high speed rail, they do have one of the most thorough rail systems in the world – something that they hold as essential to ensuring the “Freedom of Movement” that is guaranteed in their constitution.

      What those countries also have in common is that they’ve been experiencing real growth over the last decade – and they’ve all invested heavily in their infrastructure. We’ve cut investments in our infrastructure, seen a highway literally collapse in Minnesota, and saw growth that was predicated on building houses.

      I think the reason the left pushes high speed rail and high speed internet, as well as construction projects to rebuild our interstates, is because in terms of benefits to the economy in both the short term and long term, or in terms of a “return on investment” in business terms, nothing gives more bang for its buck than infrastructure spending.

  • Jeff Blogworthy

    It might as well be called high-speed welfare. That’s what it is. Pay-offs to favored districts with no market considerations whatsoever. Whoever has the most political clout would get a rail line. Alaska and Hawaii would of course be disproportionally punished. Lincoln did the same thing that Obama is proposing. I’m sure that corrupt historical boondoggle is Obama’s inspiration. He longs to duplicate it.

  • It was the automobile or “freedom chariot” as I like to call it that won the Cold War, not the ICBM.

    Imagine trying to get to third base with some chick on public transportation.  You’re not just copping a feel from her and everyone who’s copped a feel from her before, you’re copping a feel from every person who’s ever sat on that seat.  I guess if you Venn diagrammed my girl it’d look pretty much like one circle anyway, but still.

    First they came for the smokers but you don’t smoke.
    Then they came for the light bulbs but you don’t use light bulbs, apparently.
    When they came for my car everyone was already whipped into riding the local public stooge carrier.

  • I use the Baltimore Light Rail to commute in everyday …  its slower than driving myself in but it costs me less than a third of what it would cost me to park …so I ride the rails in and out …  gives me a chance to read so its not so bad  …

    • Anonymous

      Commuter rail is NOT high speed rail.  I take the MBTA here in Boston and it is a good way to get around the city.  However the same cannot be said for the CTA in Chicago.

      High speed rail has been suggested as a way to connect metro areas.  For years they talked about connecting Chicago and St Louis.  Now they talk about Milwaukee and Chicago or Cedar Rapids and Chicago.  Yeah.  Let’s spend billions of dollars to connect two places that hardly anyone wants to travel between.  Face it.  Europe developed vastly differently from the US.  The needs for transportation in the US do not lend themselves to the same answers. 

      The other thing that people don’t recognize is that high speed rail requires dedicated rail beds.  In the US commuter trains share rails with freight lines.  This is not the case with the TGV or the Japanese bullet trains.  These rail lines also require intensive daily maintenance.  They are a socialists dream since you get some costly boondoggle that will then require thousands of union maintenance jobs that government officials can dole out to constituents.

      High speed rail is just another way of creating spoils that politicians can give away to their supporters.  That is the primary reason the left wants it.

    • Anonymous

      Commuter rail is NOT high speed rail.  I take the MBTA here in Boston and it is a good way to get around the city.  However the same cannot be said for the CTA in Chicago.

      High speed rail has been suggested as a way to connect metro areas.  For years they talked about connecting Chicago and St Louis.  Now they talk about Milwaukee and Chicago or Cedar Rapids and Chicago.  Yeah.  Let’s spend billions of dollars to connect two places that hardly anyone wants to travel between.  Face it.  Europe developed vastly differently from the US.  The needs for transportation in the US do not lend themselves to the same answers. 

      The other thing that people don’t recognize is that high speed rail requires dedicated rail beds.  In the US commuter trains share rails with freight lines.  This is not the case with the TGV or the Japanese bullet trains.  These rail lines also require intensive daily maintenance.  They are a socialists dream since you get some costly boondoggle that will then require thousands of union maintenance jobs that government officials can dole out to constituents.

      High speed rail is just another way of creating spoils that politicians can give away to their supporters.  That is the primary reason the left wants it.

      • “Face it.  Europe developed vastly differently from the US.  The needs
        for transportation in the US do not lend themselves to the same

        One size does not fit all.  When you’ve got a rail system that developed organically (so to speak) with the growth of the cities and  is already integrated politically and economically – then you’re good.

        To establish HSR in the US you’re going to need to spend a LOT of money just on getting leases, easements, and rights of way.  (Which may be one reason why there’s so big a push on this – it’ll be a gold mine for the legal industry.)  And that’s money the private sector isn’t willing to put up because no benefit is seen – while it’d be stupid for the government to do so because it doesn’t have the money.

        (And to make matters worse, planners underestimate costs, overestimate ridership and revenue.  Go figure – it’s like they want to see it built, but don’t care if it ever breaks even once it’s going…)

  • Great idea but you leave the execution to politicians, so you lose what would make it great. Look at Amtrack, stop everywhere get nowhere fast and at high prices, explain to me how high speed rail would be different. In Chicago we can’t even get our airports more functional without politicians mucking it up, with rail they would get to muck it up to a whole new level. This doesn’t even bring up the problems of grade crossing costs and right of way acquisition.   mpw

  • Re Amtrak –

    We went on a short trip (about 250 miles) via Amtrak this weekend.  Just an overnighter, two stops down the line, do some touristy stuff, then back the next day.  We’d taken Amtrak about 10 years back down to New Orleans, and a few months ago we took it from Rantoul, IL to Chicago and back.

    We… weren’t impressed.

    The originating station was grubby – that was about the best you could say for it.  It’s clear that Amtrak isn’t spending a lot of money on facilities maintenance.  The bathrooms needed cleaning, the whole place looked like it could use a top-to-bottom pressure washing.

    The train was two hours late.

    The car we were in … both bathrooms were out of order.  No biggie, just go to the next car.  The conductor even said that part of the problem was lack of money for maintenance.  (Hey, where’d all those billions for Stimulus go?  Not to rolling stock maintenance or station upkeep, apparently.)  The club car was out of most of their snack items.  The dining car… well, the meal was very good. Cheeseburger was excellent, chipotle beef very tasty.  The coffee was even decent, wonder of wonders.  The seats in Coach were decent enough – but again the whole car looked shabby and worn, well past the time it needed a cleaning and overdue for renovation.  

    We didn’t spend much time in the destination terminal, which was just as well.

    Today, however, was a different story.  The terminal we went to reminded me of a bad movie, or a video-game level.  (Complete with the flickering light panel over on one side of the room.  I thought about going over there to see if there were any hidden panels, but thought better of it.)

    The thing was recessed into an embankment, no windows, moldy-smelling air conditioning, not a pleasant place to be.  Getting above-ground onto the platform in 95 degree heat was a relief…. until you looked around.

    The canopy was molded concrete-rebar, but the edges were cracked and broken and the rebar was poking out in a lot of places.  The steel beam supports were rusty where they weren’t painted, and tagged by some asshole where the aging paint had managed to stay attached despite corrosion.  The platform itself needs a pressure-washing, the steel needs sandblasting, priming and painting.  Guess how likely I think it’ll be it’s going to happen.

    The train was the one we’d had the day before – it’d reached the end of its run and was heading back north, but some elementary maintenance hadn’t been done.  The car which had busted toilets was pretty much empty and the toilets were still not working.  They’d restocked the club car, and the attitude of the attendant was sour as anything.  The dining car didn’t open until 6 (or 5, depending on time zone) but we were looking forward to trying the dinner menu.

    Except… we couldn’t.  Seems there was a private group that had priority, and the first open seating would be 8 PM.  They wouldn’t even let us get the food to go, for whatever reason.  This didn’t sit well at all, since we’d be off before then.  So much for dining on the fly as the miles roll by…

    The car we were in (different than the one going down) was pretty comfortable – but again, worn and grubby.  The air conditioning worked – which made things a lot better – but visiting the bathroom showed a problem.  The holding tanks were almost full.  Apparently, the turnaround crew missed something on the checklist…  You’d think draining the holding tanks before you start on a new trip would be a no-brainer, right?

    Well, I’d think that, at least.

    Amtrak’s near dead.  Station maintenance can slide, a bit, for a while.  Rolling stock maintenance cannot.  Cleaning protocols cannot – you can’t start a passenger train on a long run with half-full holding tanks.  Taking care of the passenger and providing the promised services should be primary – not telling people they can’t eat because other people have priority over them.

    All things considered?  I don’t care if I ever ride Amtrak again.  I’ll drive, or fly.  The travel itself wasn’t bad – it was the attendant issues that really detracted from the experience.  And if this is how the government treats the only wide-scale passenger service left in the country – I can only imagine how they’re going to do high speed rail.

  • Look, “high speed rail” is just one of those leftist pipe dreams that they insist will solve so many problems and be cost efficient “if only we help with the start-up costs.”  But even regular passenger rail is so highly subsidized in this country that the market would never demand it if full costs were to be paid.

    Look at the prospects in California, where the state hasn’t waited for federal money but begun their own high-speed rail project.  It’s been on for 15 years or so, I think – still no track laid, no infrastructure, and no real hope of either any time soon.  Billions spent on . . . well, I’m not their accountant, ask them.

    The first proposed link is between Fresno and some other smaller city nobody really wants a train to go to.  They can’t even afford to build the first 100 miles because the eminent domain costs would be out of this world, and they aren’t even close to the high-dollar real estate the system is designed to serve.

    This is just another boondoggle of those who think they know better than the market and want to prove it with other people’s money.

    • Anonymous

      Regarding subsidies – you are aware that the federal government is the reason the interstate highways exist, correct?

      From (the admittedly weak source that is) Wikipedia (

      “Through the late 1990s and very early 21st century, Amtrak could not add sufficient express freight revenue or cut sufficient other services to break even. By 2002, it was clear that Amtrak could not achieve self-sufficiency, but Congress continued to authorize funding and released Amtrak from the requirement.[37]

      “Amtrak’s leader at the time, David L. Gunn, was polite but direct in response to congressional criticism. In a departure from his predecessors’ promises to make Amtrak self-sufficient in the short term, Gunn argued that no form of passenger transportation in the United States is self-sufficient as the economy is currently structured.

      “Before a congressional hearing, Gunn answered a demand by leading Amtrak critic Arizona Senator John McCain to eliminate all operating subsidies by asking the Senator if he would also demand the same of the commuter airlines, upon which the citizens of Arizona are dependent. McCain, usually not at a loss for words when debating Amtrak funding, did not reply.”

      • Anonymous

        Regarding the interstate highway system, you do know WHY that was built, correct?

        • Rufus T. Firefly, Esq: Judge, I object! That’s irrelevant!  It doesn’t matter WHY it was made, what matters is that it was subsidized!

          Judge:  Denied – motive’s pretty important in a case like this.

          • Anonymous

            As a military engineer, I can assure you that I’m very aware of the many reasons why it was constructed. I’m also very aware of how it was constructed, and how it is funded and used.

            While the interstate concept dates back to the Pershing map, and while military readiness was one of the major selling points to Congress and the public during the earliest days of the Cold War, there is no denying that the $435 billion price tag was funded completely by non-defense-appropriated dollars. There is also no denying that the most liberal estimates (which include military members moving to different bases in personal vehicles) put military usage of the interstates at ~1%. In fact, by tonnage, more military material is shipped by freight rail than on our highways.

            So yes – motive is pretty important. And money tells that motive. Actual usage is also pretty telling.

            The point I’m trying to make is that the American lifestyle is already heavily subsidized. If you think that the railroads should be completely private, then I wonder if you feel interstates and airports should go that route as well (let’s ignore local roads for the time being). And if you do feel that way, I disagree with you vehemently but I see where you’re coming from idealogically.

            If you feel that railroads are less deserving of public investment when compared to interstates and airports, I’m open to hearing why. Again, with my bias as an engineer, I think all forms of transportation infrastructure (and communications infrastructure for that matter) deserve more public investment than they currently receive. I honestly feel that it’s better for the country than how much we spend on entitlements. A lot of people disagree with me on that. But I am open to hearing your thoughts on why highways and airports are more worthy of that investment than rail.

          • “If you feel that railroads are less deserving of public investment when compared to interstates and airports, I’m open to hearing why.”

            1.  The current state of Amtrak outside the NE corridor is pathetic.  Freight transportation by Amtrak’s an afterthought – the primary purpose is to haul passengers from point A to point B.  It manages that – but not well.  The feeling I got riding is that, at best, the employees are going through the motions and don’t like what they’re doing.

            1a. Freight transport by rail works well economically, and there’s numerous companies doing it.

            1b. With very few exceptions, passenger travel by rail is nonexistant outside of Amtrak.

            1c. The number of passengers on an Amtrak transcontinental train is roughly equivalent to the passengers on one MD-80 – 140, give or take. 

            1d. Transcontinental trains run once a day.

            2.  As a proving ground for the utility of government subsidies, Amtrak is a failure.  The average subsidy per passenger is $32, ranging from $5 in the NE corridor to $462 per on the Sunset Limited line between New Orleans and LA.


            3.  Amtrak’s been subsidized since its inception.  There’s no indication that it’s ever going to break even, or even come close.  It serves a purpose for transportation inside the NE corridor – but outside?  A Greyhound bus ticket would be cheaper – if not so ‘luxurious’, if you can call busted toilets and full holding tanks ‘luxury’ – and get you there faster.

            3a.  The AC worked, however.  That was nice.

            4. Outside the NE corridor, the population density to support a break-even level of ridership isn’t there.  At what point is a service no longer to be considered viable?  100 passengers per day?  10?  1?

            As far as HSR goes…

            1. There is no actual demand for high speed rail by the public.  There’s no transportation function it would serve that wouldn’t already be duplicated by either the current railroad freight system for non-time sensitive freight or by either UPS or FedEx for time sensitive freight, or by other modes of transportation (again, planes, cars, and buses) for passengers.

            1a.  There is a demand by states for money for HSR – primarily to perform studies on the feasibility of a line between, say, Tampa and Orlando or Bakersfield to Fresno.

            1b.  Aside from a ‘Look what we have!” factor, there is no economic sensibility to the lines in question.

            2.  The cost per km to build in other countries will not be replicated here.  China achieved a low of $40 mil per km – but when the State can take the land for a pittance, and labor costs a lot less, and you don’t have to worry about unions, you can get a significant cost reduction.  By the time you add in setbacks, right of way costs,  and acqusition and construction costs for the land for new stations (because you’ll need them) – plus an infrastructure that’ll get folks by rail from the boonies to the main cities to take the HSR, plus the cost of the track, the cost of union involvement in the project (with guaranteed wage levels) plus delays, environmental battles, the actual costs of materials – I’ll forecast $200 mil/mile, and think it lucky to get in under $300 mil.

            2a – What would be the ticket cost per passenger, assuming (and this is a real stretch) you’re getting 10 million riders a year nationwide?  (I think that’s over by a factor of 3, once the ‘cool’ factor wears off – that should take about 6 months.) 

            2b. Currently Amtrak supports 21000 miles of passenger track.  That would be a bare minimum for a functional HSR network – with a maximum that looks a lot more like the current Interstate at 46000.  (We’ll round down to 40,000 for simplicity.)   The absolute bare-bones minimum would be three transcontinental lines (going through Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans, respectively) with three to five N-S lines – two on the Coasts, one to three scattered through the country.)   It might be possible to make a functional system with as little as 15,000 – but you’re going to have to miss some cities.

            3. 3000 miles at $200 million a mile is… $600 billion.  3 lines E-W at 3k each – you’re looking at $1.8 tril.   Add in another 10k for N/S transfers/feeders – $2 tril more.  And that doesn’t approach the track miles that Amtrak has now, which is insufficient for a viable service.

            4. Almost $4 tril for a HSR rail which offers no unique benefits, no advantage over current infrastructure, with no prospects for an increased ridership or lower costs of current providers.

            I think that’ll do it.

            Look, as I’ve said elsewhere, I LIKE the idea of HSR.  I like the idea of train travel.  Reality, however, takes absolutely no notice of what I like or don’t like.  Reality is that we’re out of money and can’t afford what we’ve got with Amtrak – and it shows clearly.  Reality is that HSR isn’t an economically viable proposition, and with the current level of debt it would be very unlikely to be completed if started.

            Those are my objections.

          • Anonymous

            I think you’re making a few assumptions that lead to data which is pretty different from what high speed rail advocates are putting forth. That said, you make some good points. I’m going to try to go point by point and say what I agree with or disagree with on each point.

            On all your points about subsidies – I pretty much agree. One thing I’d like to point out though is that before Acela service in the NE corridor, Amtrak was just as much of a joke there as anywhere else. Acela all of a sudden made the NE Corridor Amtrak’s “one bright spot.” That doesn’t mean it can be duplicated everywhere, but let’s remember where Amtrak is today relative to fifteen years ago.

            On your Amtrak points, let me start off by agreeing that Amtrak is an embarrasment. However, I think that has more to do with it being a poorly run government organization than the service it provides. I think if Amtrak reorganized similar to how Japan Railways did in the 1980s – splitting into semi-autonomous regional companies – it would provide a much more cost effective service. In my opinion, any high speed rail should include an overhaul in Amtrak’s corporate structure

            Amtrak is actually not involved in freight rail at all – they’re specifically formed to provide passenger services. You’re correct about freight rail in this country generally –  The Economist recently said we’ve got the best freight rail system in the world. Ironically, this is because of how weak Amtrak is. Even though our freight lends its track to Amtrak, since there is such limited service there are far fewer choke points at the various termini. To me, the biggest concern regarding high speed rail is – how adversely will it effect our freight trains? That cost benefit analysis is the most important one to me.

            However, Amtrak is trying to remedy this by buying up track between various cities it wants unadulterated high speed travel on. It owns most of the Northeast Corridor  but as of last year, it also now owns much of the Detroit-Chicago track, all the way from Porter, IN to Dearborn, MI. This still leaves the congestion problem at either terminus, however.

            I disagree that passenger rail travel is nonexistent. ( If you look at that list, of the 13 metropolitan areas in this country with populations >4 million people (counting CA’s Inland Empire as a part of Greater LA), 6 have daily ridership of >250k on their rails. A seventh, Atlanta’s MARTA, is not far behind, and is infamously held back by political infighting. Of the remaining six, the two smallest, Detroit and Phoenix, are both in the process of introducing and expanding rail systems in their cities. Dallas and Houston both have very limited rapid transit around their metro areas, again due to politics. The only two cities that have relatively comprehensive rail networks that don’t see riders are LA and Miami. 7/9 metro areas isn’t bad.

            I think you should take a look at the strategic plan that is being proposed for high speed rail: It is NOT envisioning trains from New York to LA. It is NOT trying to replace transcontinental flights. It is, in fact, trying to supplement and diversify regional transportation. I agree that there is little demand for transcontinental rail travel. But that’s not what high speed rail is about.

            Amtrak’s been subsidized since it’s inception – however, far less than you’d think. Over it’s lifetime, Amtrak has received less government funds than the interstate’s receive ANNUALLY. Again, there is no form of passenger transportation in America that doesn’t rely on government subsidies.

            I disagree that there isn’t demand for high speed rail outside of the Northeast Corridor. Fifteen years ago, the claim was that there wasn’t demand for high speed rail along the Corridor. There are routes, such as Chicago to Detroit and St. Louis, that experience relatively high ridership for what is currently poor service. Improved service would certainly see increased ridership. Furthermore, in instances across the country, like Charlotte’s LYNX and the South Jersey Light Rail, ridership estimates have been far less than actual ridership once the rail was built. I believe that the same can be true in the right locations for high speed rail.

            As for your high speed rail points…

            The desire for rail is that it can move more material for less operational cost than any other form of transport over land. Now with freight, time is not as sensitive. However for people, high speed rail makes an important difference because travel time matters. While initial costs are higher, operational costs are actually considerably lower than any other form of subsidized travel. That is the void that rail can fill. Admittedly, if there isn’t demand, then it is a waste of money. But I believe there is demand at least in the Midwest and California. It looks like the Detroit-Chicago corridor will get built, and I’m sure the country will be watching.

            While you’re right that the cost is higher here than in China, it won’t be higher than across Germany. And more importantly, you’re assuming that the federal government will fund every dollar AND that every single line of track owned by Amtrak is going high speed rail. Again, look at the strategic plan. The two lines that are not yet built but furthest along in planning to have legitimate cost estimates are California’s network and the Chicago Hub. The most liberal cost estimates put the California network at <$50 billion, and the Chicago Hub at <$70 billion. Let's be even more liberal and assume that the cost will be $10b more per network. That totals $140 billion over ten years of construction – a pretty penny, but certainly in line with the costs of construction for major airports (which are subsidized) and the interstate highways (ditto). Let's assume the other four networks – SE corridor, NW corridor, Gulf Coast and South Central – all combined would cost twice as much as the Chicago and Cali networks. That puts the grand total cost of high speed rail at $450 billion over twenty years – 1/10th of the $4 trillion you're finding, and slightly higher than what the interstates cost. And again, remember that the cost of operating railroads is actually LESS than the cost of maintaining our interstates (a cost we've not been paying recently, which lead indirectly to a bridge collapsing, but that's another argument for another day).

            So, to recap, I agree with what you're saying about Amtrak not being very good, but think it can be reformed similar to how other national rail companies were in the past. And I agree with much of your thinking on government subsidies in general – and while you're misinformed on the state of freight rail in this country, you do touch on a legitimate concern with developing high speed passenger rail. However I feel like your economic analysis of high speed rail was misleading – the network is not as expensive as you claim, is geared towards higher population areas where the demand would be, and there IS evidence that Americans will ride the rails if they're viable. And there is a reason to give people the option of rails – in the long term, if it's done in the right locations, it will save this country a lot of money.

            All in all, I'm willing to invest in the Detroit-Chicago line and California line, and see how they turn out. Michigan's republican governor, as well as Illinois' and California's democratic ones, all seem bullish on supporting high speed rail in those states, so I think it's worth letting them have at it and seeing how viable it is.

  • Anonymous
    • Too bad reality doesn’t give a damn about how upbeat and progressive you are. 

      • Anonymous

        True – but it does give a damn about the problems we face in the present and near future. Ignoring those problems with a glib response to a thoughtful presentation by a titan of the automotive industry isn’t reality – it’s sticking your head in the sand when faced with evidence you don’t want to hear because you’re wrong.

    • Anonymous

      Bill’s ass didn’t just spend an hour on a rock-hard “seat” bouncing and swaying back from Hunt Valley, MD. Bill’s ears didn’t have to hear the squeals of the steel wheels.


      • Anonymous

        I’m sorry you had a bad trip. But personally, I’d prefer that trip than sitting in traffic moving at 10 mph, like what happens in rail-deprived Dallas or Houston. I’ve had plenty of plane trips sitting by the wings or engines where I’ve been unable to hear or see a thing in a cramped, uncomfortable seat.

        I’ve also had the priviledge of driving on beautiful, winding country roads, or stretching out on a roomy regional train that’s traveling quietly at 170 mph, or stretching out on a traditional train that travels at ~40 mph but been thankful I didn’t have to drive for the seven hour trip while the motion of the train rocked me to sleep (since in most developed countires, regional trains seem to have roomy, comfortable seats).

        Commuter trains are uncomfortable. So is driving in oppressive traffic – you grit your teeth and do whichever makes your life easiest to make that dollar. But there is nothing better than driving a beautiful road when your weekend road trip hits that sweet spot between a quick trip and a drive that’s just too long. Once it gets too long – that’s where trains and planes can be an enjoyable, convenient, relaxing form of travel. With high speed rail, there’s an opportunity to not have to suffer through security for an expensive commuter flight where they cram folks in like sardines. Over longer trips, well that’s where the speed of air travel makes it worth the pain in the butt it can be.

  • Subsidies.


    “Well the Interstates were subsidized, that means that forever more any subsidy by the government to any business must continue without any questions or comments!”

    But there’s a difference – a big one – between subsidizing something that will have an immediate positive impact on the economy nationwide, and subsidizing something that won’t.  In Amtrak’s case, they can make money on the NE corridor.  They lose money everywhere else, and there’s no real indication that even given as much money as they might want from the government that they’d be able to expand their ridership enough to make money outside the areas that are already profitable. 

    Train travel has limited appeal, sorry to say.  Would you rather spend $1000 on a round-trip train ticket from Seattle to Orlando and take 4 days just to get there (and another 4 days back…) or $300 on a round-trip ticket by air?  (About $400 by Greyhound, for comparison.)

    And let’s face it – if you’re not even scraping up enough passengers to justify two trains a day between major metro areas outside of the NE, then the business you’ve got going is dead.  You just haven’t stopped moving yet, you’re still going through the motions – but the business is defunct.  Realistically, you’d get there faster (and with more options re travel times and routes) by Greyhound bus.

    When there isn’t anything else – rail’s a winner.  The rail networks in the NE prove that in crowded areas with a large enough passenger base it works pretty well.  But where the distances are large and the population small?  Not so much.  If there IS something else, whether it be planes, cars, or buses, rail’s for freight – not passengers.

    • Anonymous

      A 400 mph train is easily achievable.  That is seven hours, NYC to LA.  Think about it.

      Yes, it would be expensive, but the expense would be cycled back in the American economy and would employ thousands of Americans, instead of the money we’re been pissing away in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      • “A 400 mph train is easily achievable.”

        Sure.  That’s why they’re all over the world, with tickets that cost $5 to go from Sydney AU to Buenos Areas through undersea tunnels.  Don’t tell anyone, though.  Americans are always the last to get the good stuff.

        Seriously, I don’t think you and I inhabit the same reality.

        We do have 400 mph trains, by the way.  They’ve got wings, and are called ‘jumbo jets’.  And they’re so advanced, they don’t even need tracks!

        • Anonymous

          I agree, we don’t inhabit the same reality.  In the reality I live in, high speed rail costs $18 million per mile, which means that a line from NYC to LA would be about 51 billion dollars.  For the sake of argument, you can call it 100 or even 200 billion. 

          Now that’s a small fraction of the money that’s been, and is being, pissed away in Iraq and Afghanistan in one year, which you never seem to complain about.

          • Reality is such a bitch, ain’t it?

            The Shanghai maglev cost 9.93 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) to build. This total includes infrastructure capital costs such as manufacturing and construction facilities, and operational training. At 50 yuan per passenger and the current 7,000 passengers per day, income from the system is incapable of recouping the capital costs (including interest on financing) over the expected lifetime of the system, even ignoring operating costs.China aims to limit the cost of future construction extending the maglev line to approximately 200 million yuan (US$24.6 million) per kilometer. These costs compare competitively with airport construction (for example, Hong Kong Airport cost US$20 billion to build in 1998) and eight-lane Interstate highway systems that cost around US$50 million per mile in the US….The proposed Chūō Shinkansen maglev in Japan is estimated to cost approximately US$82 billion to build.
            The only low-speed maglev (100 km/h) currently operational, the Japanese Linimo HSST, cost approximately US$100 million/km to build[19]. Besides offering improved O&M costs over other transit systems, these low-speed maglevs provide ultra-high levels of operational reliability and introduce little noise and zero air pollution into dense urban settings.
            As maglev systems are deployed around the world, experts expect construction costs to drop as new construction methods are perfected.

            Shanghai maglev – 30km, $1.2 bil, or $40 million a mile. That’s using eminent domain (What the Party wants, the Party gets) so you’ve got a land cost of essentially nothing.  You’re not going to get that in the US. 

            It’s also built by Chinese labor – by the time you drag in the unions (because you know THEY aren’t going to stand back and see this built without their fingers in it) I’m thinking (with legal fees, licensing and easements, bribes and kickbacks, inflation and devaluation) it’s going to be a lot closer to $200 million a mile than $18 million.

            The California HSR project is looking to cost $45 bil for 800 km, or $56 million per km.


            No telling if they’ve stuck legal fees in that or not.  I’m thinking not.

            Look – I LIKE the idea of HSR.  But it isn’t practical here in the US.  The cost is high, the demand is low.  It’s not viable – and that’s the reality we’ve both got to live with.

  • Anonymous

    As usual, Jay Tea fails.  For example, to account for the hidden costs in productivity losses because of travel time between Boston, NYC and DC, as a place which the intelligent commenters above have identified as the prime location for high speed rail.  Or the cost of road maintenace on I-95, or airport congestion, etc.  Or the stupid statement “There simply aren’t enough Americans (outside of highly urban areas) who have to go to and from the same places at the same times” as an argument against high speed rail.   

    Um, “highly urban areas” are what high speed rail runs between.   Nobody’s proposing to run high speed rail to Millenocket, ME. 

    Here’s a good market measure of the benefits of high speed rail – the cost of airfares between Beijing and Shanghai plunged by one-third after the high speed rail line was inaugurated between those cities:

    • Anonymous

      Economist Nouriel Roubini is quoted below.  If in doubt, google high speed rail empty stations.  Result: epic fail.

      “I was recently in Shanghai and I took their high-speed train to Hangzhou,” he said, referring to the new Maglev line that has cut traveling time between the two cities to less than an hour from four hours previously.

      “The brand new high-speed train is half-empty and the brand new station is three-quarters empty. Parallel to that train line, there is a also a new highway that looked three-quarters empty. Next to the train station is also the new local airport of Shanghai and you can fly to Hangzhou, ” he said.

      “There is no rationale for a country at that level of economic development to have not just duplication but triplication of those infrastructure projects. ”
      The Atlantic:  Prog-left echo chamber.  Fifty percent of China’s GDP is based on communist party directed infrastructure investment.  History is clear.  All economic growth strategies based on central state planning mandated overinvestment in infrasture lead to “hard landings.”  Why?  Because they are artificial expenditures which do NOT arise from real capital investment based on realistic projects of ROI under free market conditions.

  • “Um, “highly urban areas” are what high speed rail runs between.   Nobody’s proposing to run high speed rail to Millenocket, ME.”

    So?  You’re going to need feeder lines to the big cities.  You’re going to need to make it simple, comfortable, and quick to get where you’re going so you can take the HSR.  You’re also going to need an HSR network that gets you where you’re going – from St. Louis (for example) to Atlanta direct instead of routing up through Chicago to Washington DC down to Atlanta.  The current Amtrak network wouldn’t suffice at all, even if they laid HSR track in parallel (which in a lot of places they couldn’t.)

    It’s also going to have to cost less than air travel.  And I really don’t see that happening.

    HSR’s a nice concept.  If I ever get to Japan or France I look forward to trying it.  But here in the US?  30+ years at a minimum to get even a half-assed network between LA, San Fran, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington.  Freighted by delays in funding, monumental legal fees for right of way negotiations, and in the end unable to meet expectations in riders or revenue – if it ever gets built it’ll be a money pit until it’s scrapped.

    • Anonymous

      Wrong. parking lots (like at airports, or park-and-ride train/bus stations), or traditional mass transit (buses, light rails, slow heavy rails) can take care of getting folks to the train stations that will have high speed rail.

  • Anonymous

    Has anyone seen or heard an unbiased benefit/cost analysis of high speed rail, in the U.S.?  Even if we limit it to the two coasts?  Let’s use a little common sense.  How is Amtrak doing with its passenger rail business.  The results are in!  Even in the NorthEast regional corridor losses are US$5 per passenger.  As the distances traveled on the Amtrak system increase the losses increase.  Public service at its finest!  Yeah, let’s just pour money down that PROVEN rathole.  Also, why does a corn farmer in Nebraska or a wheat farmer in Texas (or just about anyone else in Flyover Country) have to pay taxes to subsidize the ease and comfort of ruling elite travelers on the coasts?  Can we all spell government BOONDOGGLE?  Or maybe that’s just an anagram of the Big [railroad] Dig?  Obama’s buddy – GE CEO Immelt – must be deeply involved in this crony capitalism giveaway with taxpayer money.  Of course we’ve seen how passengers can be “incentivized” to use the railways.  Just check out the history of central-eastern Europe and the USSR, 1933-1945!

    • Anonymous

      Somehow these cost/benefit analyses never get applied to anything else but infrastructure projects.  For example, the Big Dig.  Yes, it was $20 billion.  It went on for ten years and employed thousands of construction workers.  In the USA.  And it left a nice road and a nicer bridge and tunnel.   Now, what’s $20 billion in Iraq or Afghanistan?  About the cost of one month’s operations at their peak, no new jobs for Americans.

      All transportation is subsidized.  Landing fees do not cover the cost of the FAA air traffic control infrastructure, the TSA and local airport authorities’ fire departments and police.  Gas taxes do not cover the costs of roads for automobiles.  So the argument “Amtrak loses money” is just bullshit. 

  • Anonymous

    Odd, I have never heard of Jay blogging from a passenger seat or driver´s seat, of a car. I suppose that is another advantage or disadvantage of riding in light rail. Here is another very real advantage for traveling by more light rail..It is just not the $6.50 of gas you save.

    Home Page

    Car Crash Stats: There
    were nearly 6,420,000 auto accidents in the United States in 2005. The financial
    cost of these crashes is more than 230 Billion dollars. 2.9 million people were
    injured and 42,636 people killed. About 115 people die every day in vehicle
    crashes in the United States — one death every 13 minutes

    • Herring, anyone?

    • Anonymous

      I once wrote a piece on an airliner, Steve… that count?

      And I was blogging because there was literally nothing else I could do — I didn’t want to interact with my fellow passengers, I couldn’t fuss with the music, I couldn’t eat or drink anything — all I could do was fire up the laptop, plug in my mobile broadband card, and go online. And I was so annoyed, I had to write about it.

      I didn’t blog from the train because I COULD. I blogged from the airplane because I was annoyed that I had nothing else I could do.


  • By the way – check this out…


    Ridership overestimated, costs underestimated.  No compelling need for HSR.

  • Anonymous

    Listen, Jay, I have traveled all modes of transport extensively except perhaps for cycling. Currently, Ï´m  in Spain, where their passenger rail, Renfe, is high speed, smooth and  quiet,.perfect for blogging or reading and only a little expensive… 

    Partly, I´m for subsidies to be given light rail because it keeps the competition  (much more polluting per passenger and mile, whether car, bus or plane which in a sense we are subsidizing because of the carbon emissions), reasonable in terms of price.

  • Anonymous

     Steve, the key point here is you want to take OUR money to set up what YOU think is wonderful, and meanwhile Obama is doing what he can to make YOUR choice the ONLY choice.

    No, thanks.