Trains for America

Transportation secretary Ray LaHood has been having himself a nice little trip around Europe over the past few days to see what he can learn from folks who know how to do rail right. The Spanish leg of the journey, which included a nice tour of the country's new high-speed rail network, prompted coverage from the New York Times, which noted:

As has happened elsewhere, the high-speed train is stealing passengers from the airlines: The 2.5-hour route between Madrid and Seville claims about 89 percent of railway and air traffic between the cities, according to Renfe, the state railway operator. In its first year, the Madrid-Barcelona route lured nearly half the five million passengers who would normally fly between the cities, Renfe said.

To which I say: bring it on.


Many of the nation's important metropolitan corridors manage to have unbearably congested highways and airports. In the few places where intercity rail has the capacity and speed to be competitive with alternatives, Amtrak has no problem filling its trains. Rail construction obviously has high upfront capital costs, but they're likely to prove worth it in the long run, particularly given that trains can run on electric power, which will grow steadily greener and become increasingly attractive in a world of rising oil prices (check).

And of course, airline service has not only become miserable and unreliable as the system has become overburdened and unprofitable, but it's also pretty dirty, in terms of carbon emissions. The standard approximation has planes emitting as much per mile as cars, but of course planes travel much longer distances and at higher altitudes, where emissions have a more significant effect.

Word is, the president really wants to leave office with a high-speed rail network as part of his legacy. Sounds good to me.

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Ryan Avent is The Economist's economics correspondent and the primary contributor to Free Exchange, an economics blog

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