Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The little engine that couldn't.

Apparently "high speed rail" is the new shibboleth.

The whole issue makes otherwise smart people say dumb things, like Jonah Goldberg, who tweeted last night:
"I hear the Roman Empire kicked ass because of high speed rail."
which wasn't maybe the best analogy, since "Via Appia" is how you say "Shinkansen" in Latin, and it sure wasn't private enterprise that laid that roadbed...

Anyhow, fast choo-choo trains are currently high on the SWPL list because foreigners have them, especially cool foreigners like the Japanese and the French, and who doesn't want to be more like a foreigner? They have exotic-sounding accents and know more about sushi and wine than we do!

Meanwhile, to prove that you are a libertarian or conservative, you have to hatehatehate fast choo-choo trains right down to the very marrow of your bones, since the only obvious use for high speed rail is to lose money while towing cattle cars to the concentration camps at face-distorting accelerations.

Me? I have no strong opinions one way or another on choo-choo trains, whatever their speed. If someone wants to build a railroad and drive their trains really fast on it, more power to them. If they have reasonable rates and are going somewhere I want to go and they promise to treat me like a paying customer or even just a dignified human being and not like livestock or an airline passenger, I might even purchase their services.

But I don't see where it's any of the Federal government's business how fast choo-choo trains go, or even whether or not we have them at all.


Robb Allen said...

I don't see Libertarians hating choochoos because they hate choochoos, I see them hating the fact that they're supposedly SO efficient and SO worth it that it'd be a shame to let a private company make money off them and instead the whole affair requires tax dollars.

Granted, that's a lot of projection on my part being that's how *I* feel about the whole thing.

And you see a lot of the calls for such from people in dense, urban areas. Sure the rail system makes sense in countries that make Rhode Island look spacious, but not so much in a country the size of ours.

I think there should be a law that requires people in NYC, LA, and any other heavily populated city to live in Flyover country for at least one year. Maybe we wouldn't hear such crap then.

Anonymous said...

High speed rail accomplishes two important goals: the mitigation of White Guilt and getting other people off the roads that liberals take while commuting.

Anonymous said...

See #6 from the Communist Manifesto.

They could seriously hamper one's travel in a wookie suit once that is accomplished.


Fred said...

The whole issue makes otherwise smart people say dumb things

Yup... just look at a large chunk of the last gubernatorial election here in Wisconsin.

Your comments towards the end really make me think about the tubes on Luna in the Heinein universe though. "Look chum, you want another train, go ahead and build it." Maybe that's exactly what the passenger rail industry needs, a return to high quality private rail. (I may be a little bias though, I like trains.)

og said...

I was involved in developing an automated solution for welding maglev train guideway for the pennsylyania project. very cool technology, but even the people working on it felt that it wasn't a good use of funds. And then the ONR swooped in and absorbed the whole project, lock, stock and barrel. Seems a system that can accurately weld quarter mile long guideway sections without distortion is of great interest to the folks who build ships.

Paul said...

I like trains too, but high speed rail is a idiots idea. It would work if you have millions transiting a short corridor to get to work, down town la, denver, chicago, ny, maybe minneapolis, but other wise it is a non starter.

To make it at all efficeint you need at least two lines parrallel with each other and two trains so they can be at opposite ends or both at the same end to handle load.

But when has the government ever done the smart thing.

Borepatch said...

High Speed Rail financed by the Fed.Gov makes sense when all of these apply:

- People like traveling long distance more slowly than by airplane.

- People like traveling long distance much more expensively than by automobile

- The Fed.Gov has $500 Billion sitting around with nothing to do.

Strike three.

Exodus said...

But who among us can forget the belly chuckles when the POTUS raised the HILARIOUS issue of being able to travel without pat-downs?

... for now?

wv: shiest... I'm in no way kidding.

Ed Rasimus said...

I grew up in Chicago in the late '40s and '50s. I still remember the half dozen major train stations in the downtown area and the grand thrill of going somewhere on the train. You could get anywhere and it ran on time, comfortably for a reasonable fare. They were all privately owned businesses and they were profitable.

Today we have AMTRAK and it goes nowhere, doesn't run on time, and makes no profit at all.

What happened? Where did we go wrong? Why do Europe and Asia do it some much better (even though they are largely government enterprises.)

The Messiah poses like Mussolini, why can't he make the trains run on time?

Borepatch said...

The Antiplanner remains the go-to guy for everying about HSR:

Josh Kruschke said...


Josh Kruschke said...

What happened to Amtrak is the government runs it.

Anonymous said...

I'll disagree with Borepatch on his first point. It was much faster for me to travel by train to NYC or DC from Philly than by plane or car. In fact it was faster to Boston if the weather was bad.

It's was faster and cheaper for me to fly Nashville to BWI and take the train to NYC then to fly to LaGuardia until Southwest moved into that market.

He is exactly right on costs. Construction costs are always off by an order of magnitude and revenues are a small fraction of projections.


Old Grouch said...

Having Amtrak-ed my way to Chicago and back on blogmeet weekend (there's a post pending), I'd note that the dirty little secret of high speed rail is that it suffers the same "last mile" problem that high-speed internet does: As long as it takes an hour to travel the 30 miles between Dyer (Indiana) and downtown Chicago, raising the speed on the 100-some miles between Indianapolis and Rensselaer won't shorten the time all that much.

Politicians love to talk about 100 mph trains, but the key to really short travel times will be the unglamorous work of untangling the urban portions of the route: That means building grade separations, resignalling, and rerouting tracks. All doable, but expensive.

NotClauswitz said...

Along Alma street in Palo Alto down which the ginormous ELEVATED monstrosity would run and populated by houses that cost on average over $1.5 million (even in this economy - two blocks away lives Steve Jobs) are signs in the front yard saying, "Here Comes Rail, There Goes the Neighborhood" - or something like that, and the signs extend up through Atherton (where the average housing prices go up to $3M: Larry Ellison, Joe Montana & Jerry Rice, Roberts of Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts) and Burlingame (more of the same) and Hillsborough... All very-very expensive places to own and live.
All where Barak goes to fundraise.
There are a huge number of Hope&Change bumper-stickers in the driveways all around, and all along the route, and lots of Democrat-voting Lawyers live in close proximity.
There is no real purpose behind the effort to run High Speed Rail up the peninsula in this location except among influential and connected developers and choo-choo hobbyists.
If they decide to do a Kelo and seize the land, Barak really needs to first crush the economy further and reduce the value of these suburban properties, because the compensation would be freaking enormous and he would be really hurting his loyal base. Unless it's a payoff. But people keep moving here.
Or maybe the idea is that such an incredibly vast and unsustainable compensation/takings would be the final trigger for real financial and social collapse, and there's a method to the madness.
I imagine the Atherton/Hillsborough Militia would be very well armed and with their own drones from Lockheed-NASA across the highway...

Alan J. said...

I agree with everything already said here. Bottom line for me is if it could be done for a profit, then someone (UP...cough...cough) would already be doing it. If this goes forward from the .gov then it's guaranteed to be a sop to Big Unions and a black hole for tax dollars. The only idea that I've even thought might be a good one would be relatively low speed and affordable people movers like the ones in Disney World, over short densely populated areas. Oh wait, that's called the Subway...never mind.

New Jovian Thunderbolt said...

We don't need high speed rail. We need a MONORAIL. Like they have in Shelbyville, North Haverbrook, and Ogdenville.

Weetabix said...

High speed rail (just the track itself) requires enormous maintenance or enormous capital outlay because it has to be smoooooth or the people in the happy fast train cars... die.

So you need high ridership to support the cost. Where will we get that?

Also: what Old Grouch said.

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Kristophr said...

Trains could have been competitive. Unfortunately, the federal government stepped in to "save" them.

Imagine what today's cruise ship industry would be like if the federal government had stepped in to save them from airliner competition by creating "AmBoat".

Anonymous said...

Forgive the wordless link. I couldn't think of anything to add to it... ;)

Weer'd Beard said...

They built a "High Speed Rail" between Portland Maine and Boston. They used existing rail beds, and still went over budget, over time, and the tracks only allow the "High Speed" train travel a bit above 60.

You can take a Bus from the same stations for less money, in a shorter time, and the Greyhound doesn't need bailout money last I checked.

Oh and I'm sure those trains are super efficient rumbling down the tracks half-full.

Justin said...

Jonah Goldberg is now considered smart?

Maybe in Sarah Palin's America.

Sigivald said...

Looking at Jonah's twitter feed, he appears to have been mocking the very idea you seem to be accusing him of falling for.

(If you were being sarcastic, well... sometimes it's hard to tell on these Innerwebs.)

I don't hate the trains, as Robb Allen says. I disapprove of the idea that the State should somehow mandate them and have them do magical shit.

Every actual HSR proposal I've seen in the US has been a giant and obvious boondoggle waiting to happen.

(Plus they have a tendency to want to replace existing freight railways with HS passenger traffic.

Problem there, of course, is that the freight is much more useful than passenger rail and the same hippies that want HSR "to stop all those mean Gaia-killing cars" will wail and wail when they figure out how many road tractors and diesel fuel it'll take to replace those very, very efficient freight trains.

But, hey, we'll be like France, except without nuclear power, so it'll plainly all be worth it.)

New Jovian Thunderbolt said...

Ha! Jonah Goldberg has now used the monorail shtick on the Corner.

Kristophr said...

Justin: That will sure help you win elections.

Just keep calling us folks in flyover country cousin humping hillbilly retards. That'l get us to vote for Democrats and such fer sure!

Joe in PNG said...

As for where choo-choo go, Mungo don't know...
Mungo only pawn... in game of life.

perlhaqr said...

Yeah, I like trains, but the anarcho-capitalist in me hates being forced to pay for them at gunpoint.

Look, if the train was a good idea, someone would be beating down the doors trying to build one on their own dime and reap the profits.

Ric Locke said...

The nasty little secret of private-enterprise railroading is that it has never happened. The big money in a rail line is the right-of-way, and from the very beginning railroad rights-of-way were through "unseated" land, or were arranged via government subsidy.

The cost of building a rail line goes up roughly with the cube of the speed. It costs eight times as much to build track suitable for a sustained 60 MPH than one for 30 MPH.

Taken together, these two facts mean that high speed rail, or in fact any passenger rail, makes as much sense as buggy whips in a Mercedes in a world containing private automobiles running on Interstate highways and passenger air travel. The relatively fast trains from Boston to Washington don't pay for themselves as a stand-alone, but they're a net benefit because they reduce the cost of air traffic control and lessen the need for new road right-of-way to accommodate car traffic. The cities are close enough together that diversion of freight is a nonissue -- the cost in time and money of transferring cargo from truck to train at one end, and vice versa at the other, rules the issue.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, trains are good for bulky, heavy, non-time-sensitive freight, and not much else, and that's how the owners market them. Amtrak should be thought of as the transportation equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.


Fudgie Ghost said...

High speed rail! Are you serious? Ok, this week, my slow-speed-rail commuter train had one rush hour train canceled (because of the weather--it's been cold and snowy. Well it IS the Northeast.), and another where one of the doors opened enroute that was captured by a passenger and sent to the news people.

All this because one of the states involved in this commuter line (I'm not going to say, but it rhymes with Etiquette), doesn't have the funds to pay it's share of the cost of new cars. So the line I take into Manhattan, which services some of the wealthiest towns IN THE NATION, is running cars that were put in service when I was in high school. You know, when guys wore bell bottoms. A long time ago.

So the govt (albeit state govt) can't even maintain heavily ridden (and not cheap!)commuter lines into NYC and they want to build "high speed rail" lines? Seriously?

Where the HELL are the barbarians already, I'm tired of this crap.

NotClauswitz said...

And the CA train is supposed to be electric on stilts. An elevated mag-lev super-duper no-wheels High-Speed glider - and what the hell kind of fancy FDA-approved Unicorn Farts are they gonna use to power it with? Remember ENRON? We got not spare electricity, and no Nuke plant will be built to power the infernal device.
It's all a huge fake-out.

Anonymous said...

How about normal speed nuke powered trains for moving goods across long distance. Soon,with the cost of fuel,interstate trucking won't be feasible. Seems to me that trucks and cheap oil is what made the railroads decline way back when. Now might be a good time to bring them back.


Steve Skubinna said...

Considering the military purpose of the Roman roads, I think the Interstate Highway System is a far better analogy than high speed rail. And like the Interstates, they provided tremendous economic benefits because they truly were dual use.

The cool European countries have nice rail systems because a) the government subsidizes them and b) their area is much smaller and population density much higher than the US. Even then they don't generally break even.

And finally, high speed rail won't work in the US unless you lay new track. Post WWII, the rail companies saw that profit was in moving cargo and not people, so track was all optimized for relatively slow transport of high density freight. Fast trains can't run on that track.

Borepatch said...

@Steve Skubinna, it won't work even with hideously expensive track on hideously expensive new right of way. With very few exceptions (and none I can think of outside the NE Corridor), trains will be *much* slower between departure and terminus than flying.

They will also be much more expensive than driving (ongoing operations is always VASTLY underestimated, and not paid for by the Feds, so your state governments will have to dig deep - and they're all broke).

I agree with Ric: passenger rail is, with very few exceptions, the transport equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

Ed Foster said...

One small fact. Passenger service has never, not once, ever shown a profit, or even come close to breaking even. From Stephenson to AMTRACK, freight profits have subsidised passenger operations, which, mostly, the government mandated the freight lines to maintain.

Most passenger trains run mostly empty, most of the time, but the tracks and rolling stock need the same maintenence they would require if they ran at 100% capacity.

When AMTRACK broke the financial bond between freight operations and passenger carrying, it became totally unfeasable financially.

I drive most of the way to New York City, and take the train from Greenwich to avoid the traffic andparking costs. I was chatting with the conductor two weeks ago, and discovered that conductors hired more than 10 years ago get multiple pensions adding up to something in the $140,000 to $160,000 per year range.

Even adding in Base Exchange privileges,that's three Lieutenant Commanders or Majors, and they actually did something useful.

Only something as totally illogical as government subsidised rail could pay a ticket taker twice the pension a disabled cop gets.

Ancient Woodsman said...

Hi-speed rail, huh?

Is that going to be the new replacement for that ding-blasted sharp-edged Picatinny thingy that seems to be everyone nowadays?

Anonymous said...
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Gewehr98 said...

Passenger rail began to wither in the vine when President Ike put pen to paper and authorized the National Interstate and Defense Highway act in 1956.

One happy side-effect of Eisenhower's American military Autobahn was that Mr. and Mrs. America could hop into their '57 Chevy Nomad and travel to Anytown, USA with a minimum of fuss, using cheap gasoline without being beholden to railroad schedules and end-point connections.

So good luck with that, Obama. Unless you want to drive a stake in the heart of America's infatuation with the automobile, I'd say your new railroad is destined to mirror Amtrak - and that's not something I'd write home about.

To hear the liberals here in Madison discussing the new governor's fulfillment of his campaign promise with respect to Barry O's expensive Madison-Milwaukee rail fiasco, you'd think he was the AntiChrist himself. Bummer, but it was a good call, even if I happen to like trains myself.

Brad K. said...


I think you are overlooking two important factors that the President would appreciate.

First, some very big unions and contractors (that happen to donate to the POTUS' election campaigns) would be very grateful for the pork.

Second,there is the issue of new rights-of-way. Big swathes of land stretching across states and cities. Lots of land being commandeered by the government and changing hands. That means lots of slush cash flowing around and into various pockets. This is 'opportunity' spelled with lots of '$$$'.

Now, I don't want to suggest that President B. Hussein Obama might be corrupt (who *did* he buy his first Senate seat from?), but Chicago *is* known for it's intrusion of Democratic party politics into 'business as usual', and for that exciting folk hero, Al Capone. And in the midst of armed thugs and scofflaws, Chicago elites still insist on keeping the city a massive Disarmed Victim Zone.

I would rather see something sustainable. Maybe mule-powered passenger trolleys in downtown districts.

Anonymous said...

There was a Grand Plan to built a high-speed rail here in No. Carolina (the idea still pops up from time to time). I recall being somewhat enthused about the idea as I was making a 70 mile commute at the time, and the choo-choo COULD have taken me from the city where I lived to the city where I was working.

Then I started wondering...

How will I get to the train station? Unless the State is good enough to put the train stations right next to my house and my job, how will I get from house to station, station to job, and back again? What happens if I want to leave my job to go to lunch? What happens if I have to work fifteen minutes late and miss the train home?

It was pointless to wonder, anyway, as all those hippies at Duke University REFUSED to give up any of the university's land for the railbed. Seems that they loved rail... until it came through THEIR property.

DanH said...

I just took a trip out to CA for Christmas, and my wife and I traveled by train. While it would have been nice to have had a shorter trip, my wife refuses to fly. personally, I think the trip from KC to LA could have been much shorter, because I find it hard to believe that the train is not capable of averaging more than 50mph or so. Part of the problem might be all of the really small stop it made along the way. However, I think part of the reason you always hear this crap out of Washington is that they actually have high speed rail on the east coast. It just never occurs to them that the population density there can actually support the service. after all, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Wash. DC are all closer together than KC and St. Louis.
As much as I would like a faster train ride from KC to LA, I know that the passenger traffic just will not support it.

Keith said...

I think Unions and patronage are the clue here.

Perhaps a bit in the way of kickbacks to mob owned muck shifting companies too.

Europe's high speed stuff runs at well over 150 mph and some at 200, and the track bed is seriously expensive. best quality fill, geotextile reinforcement and lime stabilization, and thick layers of the best stone ballast (hard shiny metamorphic and igneous stuff - all to transport hundreds of miles in places that don't have it available).

It is all state subsidised to the hilt - your money taken at gunpoint so ticket prices can be kept low for the few that buy them. Even then stuff like, half the motorway closed off as a bus and Tony Blair only lane, car charging for going into cities and taxing of car parking spaces at work are needed to persuade folks to take the subsidised train.

Nuke powered trains: Got them, they're called electric, and the overhead wires and pylons are bloody expensive to put in - bridges to raise, tunnel floors to lower.

Keith said...

I almost forgot to say,

Unless you can walk to the station...

You need a taxi, or someone to drop you there or, they'll charge you the cost of a shag (meal, movie and wine) for parking that evil individualist gas guzzler in their insecure lot.

Unknown said...

Looking ahead ten years or so, the odds are that availability and cost of transportation fuel will make slow-speed rail look like a Very Good Thing. A forced return to the slower pace of yesteryear.

Since any railroad is a very-long-term deal, odds are that we'd be better off to begin now to plan for the most-likely future, not Pi in the sky.

Ehhh...Forget that.

NotClauswitz said...

Fuel is not going away, just the ability to extract it. The Railroad-Projekt is a 200-year union-jobs-net from the 19th Century, and designed for any politician to go to the Capitol slop-trough and suck like a pig, and later wipe his lips and say, "I did it for you."

Look at a damn map of Europe (Thanks Borepatch!) where all the Cool Kidsz and Hot Chickz live - and some friends of mine; the two-day, three-country rainy drive from Amsterdam to Salzburg is our one-day sunshine drive from Sacrament to San Diego...

Sigivald said...

Anonymous: Makes more sense to have pure-electric trains and run wires for power.

Lots of tiny nuke plants is inefficient (though it'd be fun to hear the Greens' heads explode from the thought, I confess).

The total change would be pretty small, overall, apart from running the lines, since every train in the US apart from a few old steam-powered show pieces is already using electric motors to move.

Those giant diesel engines in them are only used as generators to run the electric motors that actually do the work...

Robin said...

Sigivald, but the change would not be small, as an enormous amount of wire would have to be erected across an enormous amount of track mileage.

Do you realize how many miles of rail track there are in the US? Almost a quarter of a million miles.

That's an enormous amount of transmission line, distribution line, switching yards, transformers etc.

NotClauswitz said...

Do we make wire anymore or do we buy it from the Chinese?
Maybe we should get the Chinese over here to build us a railway, you east-coast guys can hire the destitute EU-Irishmen.