Thursday, January 27, 2011

Playing with Trains

In his State of the Union Speech, President Obama called for a system of bullet trains built. His goal is for 80 percent of Americans to have access to bullet trains within 25 years. High speed and bullet trains have been a goal of his administration all along. The Stimulus included billions in train subsidies.

He promised that, for some trips, they would be faster than flying and without the pat-down.

The President is not the only one enamored with rail transportation. Democrats at all levels love the idea of trains from street cars through light rail, to bullet trains. This was a major subject of debate in Ohio over the last year with the outgoing governor and Secretary of Transportation Hood determined to make Ohio so committed to the project that there was no turning back. Since they were dealing with government, the Ohio project never got beyond the drawing board. The new governor, John Kasich, asked to be able to use the train money for other projects or to simply turn it back to the general fund. Neither was acceptable to Hood so the money went to California along with an even larger fund from Wisconsin.

So, what is the attraction? Why do 21st century politicians love a form of transportation that was dominant in the 19th century?

Trains do not have a lot to recommend them. There is nothing that a street car can do that a bus cannot. The Ohio 3C Railroad (Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland) would have been slower and more expensive than driving. Further, it had very limited hours making it unsuitable for business trips or attending pro sports. Even if it met ridership goals it would never break even. Its total capacity was too small to reduce congestion on the highways. Letters to the paper indicated that its supporters either had unrealistic expectations for it's affect on highway traffic or had visions of taking day-trips to other cities in subsidized-comfort at ticket prices that ordinary folks could never afford.

Obama's promises for the bullet train are similarly unrealistic. Bullet trains are most economical for trips under 500 miles which means that they should not be considered beyond the coasts. Current Japanese bullet trains run at 120-160 mph although there is one Chinese train that runs at 220 mph. This is faster than a car but slower than an airplane. A 737 cruises around 260 mph and a 747 exceeds 500 mph.

Possibly the President hoped that trains could shorten a trip by going directly from one location to another. Many plane flights include a trip to a hub and a flight from there. Some trips require two plane changes. Unfortunately, economics says that trains would have to work the same way. Tracks are the most expensive part of a train so few cities would have more than one set of tracks going through it. You would have to switch trains just as you do airplanes.

Trains are also inflexible. It takes years and a lot of money of dollars to build track. In contrast, adding a flight to a city takes a plane or two and space at an airport. Even airport expansions are easier.

California is a good example of this. The first segment of its high-speed train has been started. It will not be used when it is completed. It was chosen because it goes through lightly-populated farm land. Other portions of the line are held up in lawsuits and environmental studies. It is unknown if the current section will actually connect with the rest of the line or not but the stimulus specified that work had to start this year.

The cost of these trains can be considerable. Even Japan's trains which are the model the world looks to were ruinously expensive.

None of this answers the question about why politicians are attracted to projects like this. I can only offer some guesses.

A bit of it might be that it recalls the glory days of the Progressive movement in the early 20th century. Another aspect is emulating Europe which has been behind the US in automobile ownership and is more densely populated. Light rail has long been successful in major population centers, especially New York City. Some train-lovers hope that adding trains will make them more like these larger metropolises.

A bigger motivation for state government is the economy. It is tempting to take a federal outlay now and let future politicians worry about how to pay to finish the lines and subsidize operations. Most of the immediate jobs are in construction so the construction unions are lobbying in favor.

Possibly the biggest attraction is the level of control that trains give the government. They get to decide where and when the trains will run. They get to pick winners and losers. Cars let people decide for themselves where they want to go. Airlines follow demand. But trains make the decision for you. They make some destinations easy and other difficult. The placement of stations can be used to reward areas and hurt others.

Too many progressives expect everyone to share their lifestyle and tastes. Trains are a way of forcing these choices on people.

Assuming you can get people to ride them. If you can't then they are a big waste of money.

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