When Rail Becomes Ridiculous

I often find it hard to convince environmentalists that I really am a rail buff who likes dense, walkable development, and the planet.  If that's so, they ask, why do I spend so much time harping on the problems with high speed rail?

My answer is that I wouldn't harp on the problems if the advocates of high speed rail advocates wouldn't make such glaring mistakes.  Like, say, the Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail project.  No matter how much you love trains, and the planet, I think you ought to be skeptical about projects like this.  A New York Times article makes it clear just how dimwitted the concept was:

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

. . . Tampa and Orlando are only 84 miles apart, generally considered too close for high-speed rail to make sense. The train trip, with many stops along the way, would have shaved only around a half-hour off the drive. Since there are no commercial flights between the two cities, the new line would not have lured away fliers or freed up landing slots at the busy airports. And neither Tampa nor Orlando has many public transportation options. So the question arose: Could riders be persuaded to leave their cars behind and buy tickets to places where they would still probably need cars?

. . . The Department of Transportation did not have that many options. Only two states, Florida and California, were deemed far enough along in their planning to receive money for building actual bullet trains -- trains that can travel more than 150 miles an hour, on tracks of their own that are not shared with other trains.

So basically, the feds wanted to spend $2.6 billion, plus any cost overruns or operating costs, to put in a train for which there was no evident demand.  Why?  Because they didn't have any better options, and they wanted to build a train.  The California High Speed Rail project, following similarly sound reasoning, is going to start out in California's not-very-populous Central Valley, because . . . it's easier to get the right of way.  Never mind that there aren't any, like, passengers.

Building trains is an immensely costly enterprise--not just financially costly, but environmentally and personally costly, as people and habitats are uprooted, and metal is tortured into rails and switches and cars.  If you are going to install one, you should be reasonably certain that there will be people around with an interest in riding your train.  After all, a train running mostly empty emits a lot of carbon.

I am a fan of train projects when those projects start with a problem that might be solved by a train, and then work forward to the train.  The problem is that in America, those routes are difficult to build, because they're places where there's already a lot of stuff.  Rights of way are expensive and time-consuming to obtain, and the project is bound to be blocked by well-organized NIMBYs.

And so the idea seems to have become to build trains where it's possible to build trains, and hope that development follows.  But trains succeed where they are better than some alternative form of transportation.  In the case of Tampa to Orlando, they're worse than a car, and there isn't even any air travel to replace; in the case of Fresno-to-Bakersfield, it may be better than a car for a few passengers, but there are too few passengers to make the trains better than cars for the environment.

Meanwhile, projects that do make economic sense, like an actual high-speed Acela, or Southeastern High-Speed Rail Corridor, are going nowhere.  They might have a better chance of success if rail advocates hadn't abandoned them in favor of building whizzy demonstration projects with dubious economic appeal.

But is it really a good demonstration project if the train doesn't have any passengers?  Or if the people to whom you've demonstrated it finish their trip in Bakersfield, sans car?  It seems to me that this is a very good way to demonstrate cost overruns, disappointing passenger figures, and a single-minded committment on the part of rail advocates that defies common sense.

There is a case for rail in the United States.  It works in the Northeast Corridor, and it might well be possible to grow it organically to other areas--south from Washington, west from New York.  Perhaps it will even work in California.  But to make it work, we need to get away from demonstration projects, and start with the projects that make good economic sense.  If we do a couple of those, we may inspire more imitators across the country.  But if we insist on building trains to nowhere because they're so darn easy to build, we're not going to inspire anything but contempt.