Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Defense of High-Speed Passenger Rail

On July 23, two bullet trains collided in Wenzhou, China, killing at least 40 people. This tragedy prompted a rare apology from the governing Chinese Communist Party, and drew international criticism of high speed rail as a whole. For some observers, China’s high speed rail system symbolized the overreach of a nation in an unsustainable economic bubble, and the bureaucracy that has made the system both expensive and dangerous.

Others have questioned the economic feasibility of passenger rail in general, noting that in the United States, only the Amtrak line from Boston to Washington is profitable. According to this criticism, the United States – unlike Europe, Japan, and China – is very sparsely populated, which means that there will simply never be enough passengers to make the system profitable. In recent months, the prospect of a high speed rail network in the United States has been pilloried from the right and left alike. In California, the only serious high-speed rail project in the country has been criticized as wasteful spending by a state that is already in dire fiscal straits.

In a scathing review, The Economist claims that high-speed passenger rail could ruin America’s envy-of-the-world freight train system, with which it would most likely share its tracks. Having worked in logistics myself, I am sympathetic to The Economist’s concerns. But this isn’t a good argument against high-speed passenger rail; on the contrary, it is a reason to invest more, in order to build a separate network for passenger trains which can travel at much higher speeds.

What of the argument that the United States is too sparsely populated for passenger trains to ever be a profitable mode of transportation? After all, it’s undeniably true that large cities in the United States are much farther apart than large cities elsewhere, and therefore fewer people will want to use the trains. My response to these arguments is that the critics are using the wrong metric. Why must high-speed passenger rail systems be profitable in the first place? We have a terrific Interstate Highway System which, with the exception of a few toll roads, generates no revenue whatsoever. Yet almost no one suggests that the Interstate Highway System was a bad investment for the United States.

Fine, say the critics, but since we have such a great highway system why do we need trains? America is a nation that loves to drive. But a passenger rail system would not be in competition with highways, if it is designed correctly. Relatively few people choose to use highways for long-distance travel between major cities anyway, opting for air travel. Some critics point to the slow passenger lines that currently exist and how unpopular they are, suggesting that high-speed passenger lines would be an even bigger waste of money. But this criticism loses sight of what makes such a system appealing in the first place: Slow passenger rail systems are disliked by travelers precisely because they are slow; they offer neither the speed of air travel nor the independence of highways.

Finally we come to the standard libertarian criticism of public expenditures: Why should the government invest in a high-speed rail system at all? Airport congestion imposes economic costs on society: wasted time in airport terminals, delayed business meetings, and people choosing to drive instead of fly (which causes more highway congestion and traffic fatalities). Since the public is indirectly footing the bill for these problems anyway, why not redirect the money to high-speed rail, which would actually relieve some of the airport congestion by taking some of the customers?

The United States needs a high-speed passenger rail system. After years of neglect, America’s infrastructure is rated only the 16th best in the world. As air travel becomes evermore unpleasant and congested, high speed rail will become a necessity for traveling between cities. By the middle of this century, the United States can have an incredibly efficient three-tier travel system: For short-distance travel (less than 50 miles), we would have our Interstate Highway System complemented by a network of intelligent self-driving cars. For medium-distance travel (50-500 miles), we would have a network of high-speed rail, which would pick up and drop off passengers near the center of large cities. For long-distance travel (more than 500 miles), we would have our airports, which would be much more efficient due to the fact that there would be fewer passengers clogging the system with short-haul flights that would be better addressed by trains.

High-speed rail is not some trivial boondoggle to be mocked for its unprofitability; it is the central public transit challenge of the 21st century. If the United States begins the undertaking now with the same commitment which President Dwight Eisenhower brought to the Interstate Highway System 55 years ago, it can have a state of the art network of passenger trains by the middle of the century. Neither technology nor economics is an obstacle; only the political will stands in the way.