Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Loco Motive for High Speed Rail

"All aboard! All aboard!"

Tickets, please!

Last call for the Tuesday Express to Sanity Station. After this train, they're all going to be local boondoggles to Never-Never Land.

At least, that's the railway timetable President Barak Obama is proposing.

With a straight face, he and Vice President Joe Biden have begun their campaign to champion nationwide high-speed rail. Even though Obama has just released one of the most disappointing and downright irresponsible budgets in American history. A budget that includes so much debt that this year, what we owe will equal our Gross Domestic Product for the first time since World War II.

Despite so many people from both sides of the political aisle demanding spending reductions, Obama refuses to enact "change we can believe in." Instead, he plays old-time free-spending politics, proposing to amass even more debt for coast-to-coast high-speed rail. To the tune of $53 billion over six years. To start.

Riding the Rails

Not that high speed rail itself doesn't have merit. Indeed, it has proven to be relatively successful in Europe and Japan. China has embarked on its own high speed rail network, so Americans weary of freeway congestion and cattle-car airport drudgery have been clamoring for one of our own. After all, our Frontier was built on rail, and our Northeastern population centers from Boston to Washington, DC couldn't function without rail. All we need to do is upgrade some tracks, rebuild a few stations we tore down during the sixties and seventies, and buy us some of them cool-lookin' bullet-shaped trains.

Except if it were all that logical, private industry would be all over it, right? And they're not, are they? Free-market capitalists would look at the scenario Obama and his rail buddies have dreamed up and say, "Well, if the private sector doesn't think it will work, it's probably a bad idea."

Meanwhile, government bureaucrats and pro-union politicians look at the scenario and say, "Well, if the private sector doesn't think it will work, that must mean it's a sure-fire money pit for Uncle Sam! Let the cost-overruns begin!"

Which is exactly the line of non-logic Obama has bought into. Literally. But with our money.

Ticket to Nowhere

Columnist Jan Cheaney of World Magazine has written a good op-ed piece summarizing some of the main reasons why high-speed rail simply won't work in the United States. They include Amtrak's abysmal on-time record, frightfully costly infrastructure upgrades required for bridges and tracks to accommodate increased train speeds, and dueling interests between passenger and freight traffic on shared rights-of-way.

But there's more:

- High Speed Rail Can't Negate Urban Congestion

First, if high-speed train travel will be used to take cross-country drivers off of the road, the wide open spaces between cities - where high-speed trains could themselves speed up - aren't the problem. When you're driving from Baltimore to Seattle, where do you get bogged down? In large urban centers, correct? Because that's where most people are having the worst time trying to get across town.

The need for relieving traffic congestion remains concentrated in our high-density population centers. High speed rail will do nothing for fixing city traffic, because it won't be designed for getting commuters from their homes to work and back. Even light rail projects rarely attract significant ridership because with the exception of a few older cities, population densities don't exist in concentrations large enough to justify mass transit.

To top it off, trains themselves will have to slow down drastically to maneuver through built-up streetscapes, just like cross-country travelers need to do.

- Train Travel Has Already Proven Itself No Match for the Automobile

Second, speaking of population density, can passenger rail overcome the sprawling urbanization our car culture has perpetrated on America? Although passenger rail continues to be popular in the Northeast, its success has come by virtue of the fact that so many people live in such a confined area. And that driving from Danbury to Midtown Manhattan every morning would drive many commuters bonkers.

However, can we take the population dynamics of the Boston - Washington corridor, factor in their relevance to train travel in that region, and extrapolate the result across the rest of our country, where the population is far less concentrated? Europe and Japan are tiny in comparison to the United States, so that helps explain why high-speed rail works so well there. For places like Little Rock and Buffalo, not so much.

If you're not going to fly, it's still simply more convenient and efficient to drive cross-country.

- Can High Speed Rail Dispel the Bane of Airport Congestion?

Third, what is the biggest bane of air travelers these days? Security, right? How is shooting an aluminum snake across the country not going to entice terrorists? We can't seem to convince the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security that treating all travelers as criminals is the wrong way to combat terrorism in our transportation system. So we'll probably end up with similarly-stringent security on trains, especially if passengers will have access to more of their luggage than they do on planes.

So where's the time savings and increased convenience factor that rail travel might have provided? And what about the lost glamor of air travel now that airlines cram passengers into their planes? Who's to say operators of our high-speed trains won't do the same thing, trying to increase revenue to justify the enormous public investment?

- Obama's High Speed Trains Would Be Much Slower than Europe's

Fourth, the top speeds planned for any of Obama's high speed rail lines is 150 mph, which may sound pretty fast until you consider that in Europe, high-speed trains need to meet a threshold of 200 mph before they're classified as high-speed. Some go even faster than that.

So we're not even talking about pure-bred, world-class, legitimate high speed rail in Obama's plan. In fact, on the highway, anybody with a new Mustang or Camaro, a lead foot, and a disregard for the law could probably beat most of the president's trains.

- Long-Term Development Costs Could Exceed $500 Billion

Fifth, people in Obama's own administration, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have hazarded conservative guesstimates that over the next 25 years, the government may end up spending a whopping $500 billion on this high-speed rail project. That's half a trillion dollars. What'll that do to our debt? No less an Obama cheerleader than the Washington Post has come out against this flagrant mis-spending for high speed rail.

Derail the Loco Motive

Simply put, high speed rail does not suit our transportation needs here in the United States. It is no faster than flying, and holds no economic advantage, particularly when our government needs to be more accountable with taxpayer dollars than ever before.

Although commuter rail and light rail systems do make economic sense in select American cities, they do not provide the corollary that justifies extending high-speed passenger rail access to 80% of the country. Republicans would already like to axe all funding to Amtrak, and since arguments for saving conventional long-haul passenger rail are thin at best, where's the logic in pumping more money into even faster trains?

Instead of continuing to play politics and do government the old-fashioned way, Obama should have presented a budget which acknowledges the gravity of our financial situation and chops programs left and right. Literally, figuratively, and politically. For him to propose more imprudent spending in these bleak fiscal days almost seems insulting to us taxpayers. Remember, this $56 billion represents only six years' worth of a 25-year $500 billion program. For something plenty of evidence proves we don't need.

Yes, folks, the last train is leaving the station before the end of the day.

And darkness shrouds Washington as above the Treasury Building, an expanding mountain of debt obscures the setting sun.

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