Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why Do Conservatives Hate Trains?

Slate's David Weigel asks Why do conservatives hate trains? While he makes an effort to quote both sides of the argument, he also laces his column with quotes like this one:

"You need to distinguish between Republicans and conservatives and libertarians when you look at this," says William Lind, the director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. "It's the libertarians who push this crap."
The column makes little effort to follow up on exactly what the "crap" is.

A good chunk of the dispute is found in the fifth paragraph.

Libertarians, of course, have no problem with trains (see, e.g., Atlas Shrugged). They do have a problem with federal spending on transportation, as do many Republicans.

This is exactly right although it is incomplete. The full answer is that Libertarians are against trains because they are expensive luxuries that only exist through government subsidies and duplicate existing transportation. If trains were really superior then private companies would be building them and fares would pay for the service. Instead, the cost of building trains is passed on to the general population and non-riders have to subsidize the cost of tickets or else no one would ever take the train.

The liberal viewpoint is that riding a train is more pleasurable than driving and they are more prestigious than taking a plane or (god forbid) a bus so subsidies are justified. That sort of thinking is why the federal government could only pay for $1 out of every $1.40 spent last year.

The article makes some points about ridership but they are incomplete. Currently, ridership estimates for the various Obama administration high-speed train projects is over-estimated. If gas prices were to rise to $8/gallon then demand for trains would increase dramatically. Would trains break even? Probably not. None of the current rail projects can carry enough people to make a real difference in highway congestion. An huge increase in demand would probably require an expansion in rail capacity and we would eventually be back were we started with deficits and subsidies.

One factor that was never even eluded to in the column is the issue of peak capacity. Highway planners have to plan for peak capacity, otherwise known as rush hour. This means building extra lanes and bypasses. Allowing for peak capacity with trains is more complicated since there is are limits on how many people a train can carry at once. If you require some people to stand for an hour's train ride then they are going to reconsider driving. At some point you have to add more tracks which is very expensive on a per-rider basis. Adding highway lanes is also expensive but they are only needed where congestion is highest.

The biggest reason that peak capacity costs more for trains than for cars is obvious but nearly invisible. With trains, the government provides the entire package. With automotive transportation, the government only provides the roads. The drivers provide the cars and private business provides the refueling infrastructure. This is never figured in when comparing the cost of trains and cars but it explains the real divide between pro and and anti-train advocates.

People living in high-density cities are less likely to have a car and are used to having government-provided transportation take them from one place to another. To them it is only natural that the same service should be offered between cities. People who live in rural or suburban areas use their cars constantly. For any destination close enough for a train, it is easier to drive. They see trains as a drain of their tax money for someone else's use.

Right now the fight is similar to the fight over Obamacare. The goal is to commit so much money to trains that the states have no choice but to continue. Remember that there is a significant string attached to the current spending - a state that stops a rail project or shuts it down once it has been built will have to refund the federal money spent on it. Witht he feds picking up most of the building costs, the annual subsidies to run these lines will never be high enough to cover the funds that would have to be repaid if the line was closed. A few states have recognized this trap and rejected rail spending. California, on the other hand, is committing itself forever.

Update: According to National Review, "The more money California sponges from states that have rejected federal high-speed-rail dollars, the more local support, which is critical for additional funding, seems to be melting away."

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