Posting in Cities
There is plenty of demand for high-speed rail in major population corridors. What is lacking is a willingness to share risks, an unwillingness born of politics.
Contrary to what Robert Samuelson may think trains are not boondoggles.
Their economic models are just different, which lead us to treat them as boondoggles.
(Full disclosure. I have lived next to a rail station on Atlanta's MARTA line for 25 years. The picture is of that station, from Wikipedia.)
Trains are a big capital cost. They require track and rolling stock. Track means right-of-way, so we're not just talking about financial capital but political capital as well.
Trains also have ongoing costs people underestimate in calculating fares. Maintenance, cleaning, policing. Some of these costs are easy to avoid, again for political reasons, but putting them off is a false economy.
What trains mainly offer are enormous savings in energy costs. It costs 20 times more energy to get you around in a car than on a train. But you bear the costs of the car yourself. Train costs must be shared.
This is why America does not have many trains moving people anywhere. Americans don't like long-term plans. We don't like sharing costs. It all smacks of socialism and central planning.
But that's not an economic argument. It's a political one.
There is plenty of market demand to sustain high-speed train service in major population corridors, and light rail within cities that will reduce pollution and total energy demand. What is lacking is a willingness to share risks, an unwillingness born of politics.
That is reflected well in the Obama stimulus, which put $8 billion into high-speed train planning. The money was spread around the country, reflecting the desire of Congresscritters that everyone get a taste.
And that's the boondoggle. A single high-speed inter-city link could cost $12 billion. Maybe more. Economists like Edward Glaeser of Harvard believe this cost can't be made up, and the Obama stimulus money is butter spread over too much bread to make a dent in the capital required to do the job.
Rather than spreading $8 billion or $12 billion around the country, a fraction of that money could have been spent within one year -- the intent of the stimulus -- to come up with a priority list of routes. Which make the most sense, in terms of traffic and possible economic payback. Then create mechanisms to build them, and throw what money remains in that pile.
The problem here isn't economic. It isn't technical. The problem is political. And it starts with the attitude "no, we can't."
Aug 25, 2009
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Phoenix has a brand new light rail line. So far, cost per passenger on a brand new system is higher than the natural gas buses it replaced. This is on a system that is brand new with very low maintenance costs. You have to wonder what will happen as the system ages and need a lot more maintenance. Then there was the claim that it would be less polluting than the natural gas buses. This is true if you look just at the vehicle. However, power to run the system comes from APS (an electrical utility) that gets it power from a variety of sources that includes nuclear, natural gas and coal. When this is considered, the light rail is probably putting out more pollution than the natural gas buses. It does move the pollution from the Phoenix metro area into more rural backyards. Then there's the cost, $1.1 billion for a 20 mile line. Consider that the buses replaced by the light rail could have been replaced with brand new buses annually and run for decades on that $1.1 billion. There may be other benefits such as redevelopment of blighted areas. While it does appear to be having some impact, I have to wonder if it couldn't have been done cheaper in another way. A considerable amount of the $1.1 billion came from the federal government. At a time when the federal government that cannot balance their budget, I don't think this was a wise investment. There is a reason the federal debt is now approximately $240,000 per house hold and climbing. This puts the countries future at great risk. I don't believe light rail should be funded when basics services people depend on such as Social Security and Medicare are in such dire conditions.
Please allow me to make a few points from your points: Trains are a big capital cost. They require track and rolling stock. Track means right-of-way, so we?re not just talking about financial capital but political capital as well. (I agree.) Trains also have ongoing costs people underestimate in calculating fares. Maintenance, cleaning, policing. Some of these costs are easy to avoid, again for political reasons, but putting them off is a false economy. (Good, you?re two for two!) What trains mainly offer are enormous savings in energy costs. It costs 20 times more energy to get you around in a car than on a train. But you bear the costs of the car yourself. Train costs must be shared. (Hmmm, three for three?.what am I doing here?) This is why America does not have many trains moving people anywhere. Americans don?t like long-term plans. We don?t like sharing costs. It all smacks of socialism and central planning. (I couldn?t have said it better myself--although I do detect a small pejorative). But that?s not an economic argument. It?s a political one. (Uh..ohhh? You seem to think that economics and politics are discrete concepts. My own worldview informs me that the political argument is just one aspect of economics.) There is plenty of market demand to sustain high-speed train service in major population corridors, and light rail within cities that will reduce pollution and total energy demand. What is lacking is a willingness to share risks, an unwillingness born of politics. (Not to mention economics?) That is reflected well in the Obama stimulus, which put $8 billion into high-speed train planning. The money was spread around the country, reflecting the desire of Congresscritters that everyone get a taste. (Congresscritters? I like it! ...but not the taste.) And that?s the boondoggle. A single high-speed inter-city link could cost $12 billion. Maybe more. Economists like Edward Glaeser of Harvard believe this cost can?t be made up, and the Obama stimulus money is butter spread over too much bread to make a dent in the capital required to do the job. (Boondoggle! YES!!! And your point is?) Rather than spreading $8 billion or $12 billion around the country, a fraction of that money could have been spent within one year ? the intent of the stimulus ? to come up with a priority list of routes. Which make the most sense, in terms of traffic and possible economic payback. Then create mechanisms to build them, and throw what money remains in that pile. (Where to start. Okay, I really do like the ?fraction? part. I guess my problem starts when the government starts setting the ?priority list of routes?. But if Charleston WV gets a subsidy for light rail, all those Congresspersons from Houston TX will insist on seven times as much! They?re just counting heads, you understand. The simple facts are that (1) Charleston is hemmed in by mountains and there are only two directions for the rail to go, and that (2) Houston is wide open and seven times as many people go every which way. But all that gets lost somewhere in the trillion-dollar budget. And when you say, ?throw what money remains in that pile??you are kidding?aren?t you?) The problem here isn?t economic. It isn?t technical. The problem is political. And it starts with the attitude ?no, we can?t.? (Regardless of your attitude?and even if you do confuse the economic and the political?the correct answer is: ?No, we shouldn?t!?) Cliff Raymond Sugar Land, Texas
I was dismayed in reading these discussions, both here and in government circles, that everyone seems to be forgetting Maglev Inc.. The federal government already had a plan in place for high speed rail that involved magnetic levitation trains. Starting from a large group of competitors, it was eventually whittled down to two, Maglev Inc., based in Pittsburgh, and a Baltimore-based project. Whichever of the two was the final selection was to receive further federal grants to build a test track. Maglev Inc. by far had the best proposal. And they have solved ALL the major hurdles. They have a manufacturing partner and a proven technology for 300MPH+ trains, infrastructure support, and more importantly, have already acquired geographic right-of-way for a significant portion of their intended track roll-out. Maglev addresses all the major issues brought up in this article as well as in the comments, including competing with highway and airline travel. Maglev is just as fast if not faster than flying, and considerable cheaper, which is why one of the major investors in Maglev Inc was the USAir. There was no need to reinvent the wheel here. Instead of doling out money across the country, the federal government should have made a decision between Maglev Inc. and the Baltimore project, and gotten things under way.
First of all, as an American who lives in Europe I can tell you "most" of the continent is NOT mountainous. That comment was made by someone who obviously didnt bother to even look at a map before making it. Also, the areas of Europe that ARE mountainous are the areas where trains have the hardest time getting around and where they cost the most to build and maintain. The reason that Europe has such a well built and extensive rail network is that Europe was already densely populated centuries before the American continent was discovered by explorers. That means, europeans had to have ways to move people and goods all over the place long before anyone had cars, trucks or the highways to drive them on. Trains were the logical choice, for lack of any other options. Now, with a well built and maintained network, and relatively dense population, they can profit from the investments of years past. Something Americans dont believe in. Additionally, Europeans understand that resources are limited and tax them as such. this forces individuals, communities, cities, regions, states and the EU as a whole to band together to provide a public transportation system that includes, buses, trams and streetcars, subways, commuter trains, regional trains, high-speed intercity trains. I take the bus or bike to work everyday. I dont own a car here. I take the train every weekend from north Germany to Holland to visit friends. I take weekend train trips to Paris to go shopping. I will admit starting with nothing will be expensive for the US. But we are not really starting with nothing. we have a network in the east and a limited network across the country. we could just start in urban areas and then work out from there. Where it makes economic sense, we build. Where it doesnt, we wait until we have more of a revenue base before subsidizing. And for those Americans who dont want to give up "freedom", or have to bike or (gasp) walk to the train station, judging from the waistlines I witnessed the last time I was there, most of you could stand a little physical activity.
It is an economic case for 90% of Americans. If you live anywhere but the densest part of a city, or don't work in an extremely dense/expensive area, it just doesn't make sense. Not because we're selfish, because we're cheap. Unless I live adjacent to a station, I will have to walk or ride a bike, do I then have to have a change of clothes? Will I have to shower? Is my neighborhood safe? Or will I have to take a bus to get to the train? There are only about 5 urban areas in the US where you can reasonably live without a car. So I won't be saving insurance, I will certainly not be saving time. Is it more peaceful? Perhaps, but only because right now in most cities no one rides it! Most businesses, except for finance, government, white collar jobs don't want the added expenses of being in urban areas. So jobs will never be concentrated there. This is good, not bad, that means companies are being productive. Long distance trains make even less sense. Right now some train alignments in the US are not even that slow, some over 100mph. They have their place, but, they are heavily subsidized and they still don't make sense for most travelers. Let's think about the mythical LA-Vegas HSR. Who would be interested? Let's say it is $100 round trip (unlikely to be that low, actual cost $150). Who goes to LV alone? Almost no one, so $200 for two people. So 600 miles is less than $150 (20mpg, but most sedans get more than that on the highway), so it's $50 cheaper (that's if you sacrifice mobility and don't rent a car) to drive. Buy or bring the food you want, more comfortable, more flexible etc. The identical analysis is true for the California HSR proposal as well. This stuff is "green" hokum! Eliminate business travelers, because by the time they have to arrange for a dropoff and a pick-up when they come back and a rental car when they're there, why bother? Take a plane and at least save time. So
I like the choo-choos. Unfortunately, most people prefer driving. My wife takes the commuter rail to Boston every day, but only because it stops right across the street from her office; and she will freely admit that she would rather be driving.
Europe is geographically a small group of countries. Each country was able to develop rail in the aftermath of World War II because everything in Europe was destroyed.There really wasn't any choice except to do what they could. Road systems are usually based on old trails develop over generations. Europes roads are insanely narrow and go back to the Roman Empire. Much of Europe is mountianous as well, so to get more people across countries it made more sense to use trains. Here in America we have the luxury of space. Our countries only contains a few major mountain ranges positioned in the outskirts of the continant. This allows highways system to be built larger and stretch across the continant. Our lifestyle is also more dependent on the highway system rather than the rail system as the rail system demends tighter schedules and personal planning. We can come and go as we please with our cars rather than having to practice awareness of when the train leaves and arrange our schedule accordingly. I personally would rather spend my money on a fuel-effienct car rather than re-arrange my life around mass-transit. I cannot trade-off my freedom of movement for a clock-work life. Sorry. I'm just that selfish.
The problem with super trains is the same cultural/political/ideological handicap that gives the US the inability to adequately address air pollution, global warming, foreign energy dependence, etc. That is, the inability to assess the actual social, environmental and national security cost on energy supplies. Countries with advanced high speed train systems levy taxes on energy that more closely reflects these costs. If our energy costs were as high, natural economic self-interest would make investment in these systems (even by government) a matter of public mandate - and the revenue generated would pay for it. Americans, culturally, are self-centered and adverse to paying taxes - regardless of the need. That, coupled with our laissez-faire campaign financing assure "the best government money can buy." And it has been - by Big Energy!
I'm afraid the answers to your questions lie in politics. Some form of public-private partnership is necessary in this case. And before any conservatives get on me about it, my model for success is the Erie Canal.
So how do we answer this problem? What was it about the culture of Europe and around the world that led to the development of such a large train network? My apologies for adding questions, not making a comment.