Friday, April 17, 2009

If I Only Had a Train.....La, La, La, La

This morning the front page of many newspapers in the Midwest contained something like this headline from the Chicago Tribune
High Speed Trains Could Ease Midwest Travel
Now on the face of it, all of this looks very promising. Speaking as someone who has languished on highways around cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, I for one would love to save time and money, and avoid the hassle of expressways with fast, convenient train service. But is that what the Feds are offering?

Let's begin by closing our eyes, and imagining. On the White House blog the President said:
What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.
Now setting aside any obvious John Lennon jokes, my imagination is more limited than his in the following ways.

First off, last time I checked, relying on Amtrak to do anything efficiently and cost-effectively is, well, delusional. As this piece points out, Amtrak has been operating with so much red-ink that it already gets billions in taxpayer subsidies and simply cannot compete either in economic or efficiency (read here, the trains don't run on time) terms with anybody. I mean it's one thing to imagine Swiss trains which arrive within minutes of their schedules. It's another thing to wait 8 hours for a train.

Secondly, 100 mph? That's it? Look, Mr. President, you're from Chicago, and I would have thought that maybe you've driven between Chicago and say Indy along I-65 where the posted speed limit is 75 mph. I have because my family is still in Chicago, and I like going to the Indy 500 and getting up at 10 am on Memorial Day Sunday and getting drunk with 350,000 of my closest friends. Mr. President, 85-90 is the "rate of travel" along those roads most days. Getting up to 100 so I can enjoy Amtrak's food and efficient service and late arrivals? No thanks.

Finally, note the second sentence in the President's speech "Imagine boarding a train in the center of the city." Hands up from anyone who lives in the center of a large city today? All assumptions about trains are based on the idea that we are all going to live in central city areas and take public transit. I don't predict the future, but I'm sorry that simply doesn't map anyone's empirical reality outside of say 2.5 cities (NYC, SF, and part of Chicago). No one, NOBODY in St. Louis, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. lives in central cities, and with the housing collapse, no one is moving into those areas either.

So I'm going to drive 30 minutes to downtown, park (which I suspect won't be free), wait 8 hours for the train to arrive, hop on, arrive 14 hours late, and miss my appointment, or my birthday party, or the game? And it's going to cost us billions more than the billions we already throw at Amtrak?

In the East Coast corridor - sure, ok. And in fact you'd think that Amtrak would be able to make money with it's Acela trains. And in the past they have managed to squeak out a profit. But this year, with the airlines losing money, now even that route is starting to lose money as they are engaged in fare wars.

It's green, you say, and I say, ok. But why not take the 8 billion and develop the infrastructure for hydrogen transportation when we make that switch to emissions free driving? Or build that new electricity grid you want? Or, hell, I don't know, buy some pandas for a zoo. I just don't see this working, not here, not in suburban, Amtrak cursed America. And certainly not in the Midwest where we don't need intercity trains because it will just mean more people try to run rail crossings and get turned into car pancakes (Yes, that link is as cool as you suspect it might be).

1 comment:

  1. Higher taxes equals trains. Trains equals less congestion. Less congestion equals more time. More time equals more work. More work equals paying more taxes.

    Great government logic, Batman!