In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama waxed poetic about the need for speed — high-speed rail, that is. He sounded just like my liberal friends who passionately yearn for the wonderful railroads of Europe. It matters not that such systems are losing money, or that the U.S. is much larger and more spread out than any Western European country.
I don’t want to just restate the economic arguments against high-speed rail; I also want to raise philosophical and personal objections to it. Don’t get me wrong, I love trains. My father worked for a railroad his entire life. I traveled on sleeper cars and ate in dining cars as a child. “From Russia with Love” remains my favorite Bond movie because of the extended train sequence near the end of the film (including a great on-board fight). As an adult, I’ve spent over 20 years taking either subways or commuter trains to work.
However, I cannot escape the observation that passenger trains are a technology of the past. The railroad industry realized that long-distance passenger rail was a losing proposition, and moved on many years ago. That’s why we have government-subsidized Amtrak, which runs deficits and is both inefficient and extremely expensive. Taking Amtrak from D.C. to Chicago costs five times as much as taking a plane and takes five times as long. Amtrak remains the refuge of retirees, train aficionados, flying phobics, and students upgrading from Greyhound. While monorails freely roam Disney World and Disneyland, no one seriously plans on taking a monorail from Orlando to LA. Unlike planes, trains require millions of acres of land for tracks. Further, trains don’t run on clean fuel. Most of them run on diesel. But the kicker is that even with billions of dollars in new tracks and new technology, trains will still be slower than planes for most trips.
Before spending billions of federal government dollars (that we don’t have) to create a network of high-speed trains, shouldn’t we consider the evidence that passenger rail is likely to be profitable only over shorter distances such as hub-to-hub in cities located within two to three hours of each other? Think Milwaukee to Chicago, or D.C. to New York. Amtrak only makes money on a limited number of routes of this type.
Think about this from a traveler’s perspective. Trains, like planes, require fixed schedules. Americans, being independent-minded, like the freedom and flexibility of being able to come and go as they please. While we might sometimes take a train over a short distance to avoid traffic gridlock, why would we take a train over a longer distance when we have the flexibility of a car, which can probably get us to our destination faster? Even if trains saved us time, would we want to schlep all our baggage down to the station in a hurry, instead of simply leaving when we wanted to? And if we all purchase more fuel-efficient cars — or electric cars, as the social planners desire — the cost of driving will decrease further. The clincher is that, unlike trains, cars don’t have to take a pit stop in every podunk town along the route. And over longer distances where driving no longer makes sense, flying does. No train will ever be able to match the speed of a jet.
We shouldn’t underestimate the costs of creating a high-speed rail network. For example, currently Amtrak shares lines with freight trains. That leads to many slowdowns and delays. To lay an entirely new set of tracks for high-speed trains would be extremely expensive. And that’s just the start.
We should be for the best and latest technology if it matches up with consumer demands, but I’m just not convinced that there’s ever going to be enough demand for high-speed rail to justify the cost. Let’s get real, move on, and realize that train-mania is one of the many things not worth borrowing from Europe.
C. Scott Litch is the chief operating officer and general counsel for a non-profit association. Scott is a licensed attorney, Certified Association Executive, and also holds a masters degree in public policy. He is the author of The Principled Conservative in 21st Century America, released in the fall of 2010 just prior to the GOP midterm election tsunami.