High Speed Rail

There is no science behind the arguments for or against High Speed Rail. There is only history and the hopes that if we build High Speed Rail, history will repeat itself. Or there is the fear that if we build High Speed Rail, history will repeat itself.

It seems like a brilliant plan. We all stop using our personal gas guzzlers and use high speed, highly efficient transportation to commute to and from work. The end result is a lower demand for gasoline, which equates to a lower demand for oil which equates to less reliance on foreign imports and fewer American Dollars leaving the country.

So where is the flaw in that plan? History has shown us that pretty much everywhere else in the world, high speed trains are extremely successful. There are dozens of highly successful examples of High Speed Rail from the past fifty or so years.

Why then, is there pushback against funding for these projects? They’d create jobs, right? They’d save oil, right? That means they’d save money, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

The additional jobs are only present during the infrastructure development phases of the projects. Once the tracks are in place and the trains built, it employs far fewer people to keep things running. It might even reduce our demand for gas stations, auto mechanics, and cars in general. The end result could be fewer jobs. In other words it’s a big boost in the number of jobs in the beginning, but could lead to fewer jobs in the long run. Ideally the rest of the economy would boom in the meantime and there would be no net job loss, but that’s not very predictable.

High Speed Rail would save gas and oil. Period. No arguments. Well, just one, but we’ll get to that.

Save Money? That’s highly probable with the same caveat as the oil.

The caveat? It’s a big one.

The American people would have to change their habits and forgo their independent control over their transportation and elect to use High Speed Rail. History has shown that as a culture, we’re not really there yet. High Speed Rail succeeded in other countries because there was a strong demand for it. There is not enough demand for it in this country.

The key word in that last paragraph is “Demand.” There are a few places where the demand has driven High Speed Rail to succeed in our country. Basically we have one successful High Speed Rail line in our country: The Acela Express which runs from Boston to Washington D.C..

High Speed Rail is not a substitute for the average twenty mile commuter. High Speed Rail is usually used for travel between cities, not for travel within a city. The popular misconception among proponents of high speed rail is that it’s going to reduce traffic on the highways. Not so much. If successful, it will mostly reduce the number of airplanes in the sky and possibly remove a few cars from the roads. If the Acela Express is a model, a train from San Francisco to L.A. would need upwards of 5000 people needing to make that commute every day (not necessarily the same 5000 people every day).

The big question is, is there a demand for it or will we be building these lines just to generate the construction jobs for the short sighted future? If there is an honest-to-god demand for a given line, build it. If we’re thinking “If we build it, the riders will come.”, let’s not gamble. While in the business world, we can sometimes generate a need for something by making the product available, that’s capitalism, and some risk is inherent. When it comes to government subsidizing, we should not be taking that risk with tax-payer money. If the risks are too big for independent investors and entrepreneurs, they are way too big for our tax-money. Investors will do the work to identify where there is demand. When they do so, the government can help in the process to get the land to build the infrastructure and maybe even arrange low-interest loans. But it should be private companies driven by demand that initiate the process. It should not be the Government looking for places to spend money.

A more useful way to spend government money is not on High Speed Rail but on local rail in places where we can’t add any more lanes to the highways. Help build the infrastructure where there is a demand for local rail, but insufficient funds to build the initial infrastructure. That is the kind of short-range jobs generation the government should get involved with when we need the government to help stimulate the jobs economy. Building High Speed Rails that will either become dependent on a constant tax-money bailout to continue operating or fall into disuse due to lack of demand is not the answer.

The Acela Express is an example of success. It is one and only one. It’s not the only High Speed Rail we’ve built to-date in this country, it’s just the only one that’s succeeded.

There are some places where demand initiated development of High Speed Rail lines, like a Texas line connecting the large metropolitan areas there, A Chicago to Philadelphia Line and the long-awaited San Francisco to L.A. Line. These were initiated by private industries long before the stimulus spending spree and are valid objectives to pursue, and I’d even support tax-payer dollars providing low-interest loans to get these started. Some of the other lines promoted by the Obama Administration are less ideal and of questionable need.

High Speed Rail only uses less Gas and Money if people use it.

I like the idea of high speed trains, but anyone who’s actually studied the history of transportation knows why passenger trains are more successful everywhere else. When passenger rail was just becoming successful world-wide, we invented two things: Cars and Planes. We had the wealth to buy cars and were such a large country that trains couldn’t compete with planes. When Need was forcing the rest of the world to develop passenger rail infrastructure. Need was forcing the United States to develop air travel infrastructure. Affordable automobiles created the demand for us to build highways. Automobiles were not affordable to the middle class in most other countries until much later, if ever. America had a more appealing alternative to trains when it was a necessity to establish travel infrastructure. It’s hard to see the necessity today. I’m not saying there is no necessity for High Speed Rail in some places in the United States, but I am saying that it’s hard to see.


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