Friday, April 29, 2011

A useful answer to high-speed rail evangelists

I'm sure readers are familiar with the current brouhaha over high-speed rail passenger transportation. Some recent developments include:

Personally, I'm far from convinced about the financial viability of this technology, particularly given the abysmally poor record (fiscally speaking) that overseas projects have compiled in recent decades. This week, my views were reinforced by Warren Meyer at Forbes, who's written a very penetrating analysis of high-speed rail in the wider context of the state of rail transportation in general. Here's an excerpt.

Writers like Thomas Friedman and Joel Epstein in the Huffington Post have eulogized China and its monumental spending projects.

. . .

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff than we do. We are "asleep". Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occurred when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry - all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world. Europe and Japan are not even close. Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan. As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States. For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible. You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains. This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail - not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes. Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars. Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.

. . .

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight. As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves. Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail. One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

. . .

Oh, and by the way, that Chinese rail system so admired by American intellectuals? It is $271 billion in debt, and has been forced into radical austerity moves to try to avoid financial disaster.

The Japanese MITI-managed boom of the 80’s, the American housing boom of the last decade, the Spanish green energy program, and now the Chinese rail boom all share this in common: When governments take steps to divert capital from its most productive uses to sexy, high-profile, politically populist uses, busts always follow.

There's more at the link.

I've never before seen an analysis of high-speed rail that took into account the alternative use for rail transport - freight. I find Mr. Meyer's argument sufficiently convincing (and my experiences traveling on European rail networks lend credence to his perspective) that, on purely economic grounds, I no longer support high-speed rail passenger transport at all.

I also suspect there's more than a grain of truth in George Will's perspective on high-speed rail:

So why is America’s "win the future" administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons - to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they - unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted - are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was "Workers of the world unite!" or "Power to the people!" Now it is less resonant: "All aboard!"

Again, more at the link.

I highly recommend reading both Warren Meyer's and George Will's articles in full. They offer a great deal of food for thought.



Anonymous said...

So high speed passenger rail will get you from station A to station B at enormous total cost, but you still need transportation on each end. Seems to me like it is akin to flying, but without the real speed advantage.

As the climate is now, if this system did get built the TSA would doubtless get their filthy useless hooks in it and make it as miserable an experience as is airport security.

Will got it right, I think.


Old NFO said...

Another issue in the US is the lack of quality railbed...

Anonymous said...

We don't really need *high* speed rail, we just could use a reliable passenger rail service. Cost effective? I can't comment on that.

But as fuel costs rise, I can't imagine that it won't exist in some form. Just to make a conjecture, as fuel prices rise and interstate highway travel by private auto decreases, I think therein is the available railbed for a future passenger-only rail.

And I think it's important not to imagine it's form as we currently have trains. Maybe something hybrid that uses a semi-tractor 'engine' that pulls passenger cars on a single main rail, with rubber wheel-sets for stability. All the technology for that exists, it just needs to be re-assembled into a different configuration.

But I'm rambling...