Flights of Railroad Fantasy

President Obama has renewed calls for a high-speed rail network to relieve traffic congestion and save energy. “This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It’s happening now. The problem is, it’s happening elsewhere” said the president noting advanced rail systems in countries like China, Japan, and France.


But when a president says “this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision”, you better watch it. Because it means that it is a fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision.


Obama also has called for an upgrade of existing Amtrak corridors, and, as Democrats have been advocating for decades, much increased funding for Amtrak to nearly $2 billion annually.


It is important to take these issues one at a time.


First, we already have the most comprehensive and efficient intercity mass-transit system in the world called the airlines, which move 750 million passengers a year, compared to Amtrak’s 25 million in 2008. Most people fly because America is a sprawling nation that makes train travel impractical and time-consuming.


Second, the United States and France have fairly similar rates of intercity travel by car – the US 81% of all trips, France 75%.


Third, America has far and away the best railroad system in the world. In our four private-sector Class I freight railroads (Union Pacific and BNSF in the West, and CSX and Norfolk Southern in the East) along with many Class 2 lines and hundreds of branch and feeder lines, this super-efficient, behemoth network with the latest technology is completely private, moves 1.8 trillion ton-miles of freight annually (one ton of freight moving one mile is one ton-mile), uses more than 30,000 locomotives, employs more than 200,000 people, garners revenues of $40 billion per year, receives zero subsidy from the government and actually pays billions in taxes to the government.


This is the most efficient system on the planet with hundreds of thousands of intermodal container trains, piggyback trailer trains, unit grain trains, unit coal trains, mixed freights and others crossing the nation annually with many shippers guaranteed on-the-minute departure/arrival times, often over thousands of miles.


Most American know nothing about our for-profit freight system because the media want us to think only about the European passenger trains that we do not have. If you would like to read more about our freight railroad industry, pick up a few copies of monthly Trains magazine, which covers it well.


Now consider Amtrak, a poorly-run government bureaucracy with aging equipment, dirty trains, an awful on-time record, rude, overpaid unionized employees and running thousands of unnecessary trips per year over long distances that do not even support such service.  If Amtrak were run like a business, it would abandon its long cross-country routes which consume huge subsidies and serve a small number of passengers. These long-haul Amtrak trains slow down our efficient freight railroads because Amtrak uses the Class I tracks and is supposed to get priority. And as Amtrak creates inefficiencies in the freight system, it will put more trucks on the road. That is why we should pare Amtrak back and let the freight railroads run their own operations unhindered.


Fox News recently reported:


The only rail service that qualifies under America‘s …high-speed standard is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.


The trains are built to reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only average about 80 mph because of curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route. On the densely traveled line from New York City to Washington, the Acela arrives about 20 minutes earlier than standard service, at more than twice the cost during peak travel times.


So twice the price to save 20 minutes? That doesn’t sound like a very good deal, like all of Amtrak which requires a government subsidy of more than $40 per ticket sold.


Amtrak should be maintained – and privatized – in the congested corridors of BostonNew YorkWashington and between close cities like Los Angeles/San Diego. And we should focus on improving existing high-speed bus connections that work well between places like Chicago and Minneapolis and other cities, and which use existing highways.


Only problem is, the Democrat elites disdain practical profit-making, private-sector solutions like buses in favor of pie-in-the-sky Euro type trains… Very expensive trains. These high-speed rail networks are going to require huge investments and large amounts of land on which to lay the specialized tracks. Which means that they probably will never get built. Because the environmentalists will obstruct them.


And if Obama’s plan for high-speed trains is government-run – which is the way it is headed – it will produce a huge bureaucracy and a highly politicized, unionized workforce and will consume massive amounts of taxpayer money. Japan even had to privatize its Bullet train system after only 25 years in operation because it had racked up such crushing public debts. And Japan is only the size of California.


The LA Times reported that the  recent stimulus bill  ‘does provide $8 billion for unspecified high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects, more than three times as much as allocated in earlier versions of the legislation…. In a town that loves to connect the dots, the funding increase raised suspicions that (US) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat of Nevada), who played a key role in writing the bill, pushed for it in order to promote home-state interests, namely the (Los Angeles)-to-Las Vegas project.’


Las Vegas is Reid’s political power base. So here’s a question: When was the last time we saw massive congestion on the road between LA and Vegas? Answer: Never. And this is precisely the kind of boondoggle that high-speed rail would turn into. It will be 100% political, just as Amtrak is a political football that meanders its way across the fruited plain on routes that have no business existing except that congresspeople and US senators demand them to serve their districts. That the first big project proposed in Obama’s high-speed era would serve a political master in senator Reid shows precisely why we should not jump into this.


America is not China, or France or Japan. Our nation has operated on free enterprise and we have developed a muscular freight rail system that we should encourage, one that makes France’s look like Thomas the Tank Engine. And by the way, since European rail systems are geared to passengers, there is much truck traffic congestion in Europe, which the Europhile train lovers conveniently forget to tell you. So why don’t  the lefties go to Europe and demand that they built freight railroads?


Democrats always seem to think that every problem like clogged highways should be worried about by Democrats and solved by Democrats, always with big government handouts. If people are unhappy with traffic congestion, however, it is not my problem as a taxpayer. They can move or get jobs closer to home. Or they can just get a grip on reality – that traffic is a byproduct of economic growth.


If there is a real demand for these high-speed trains, it will be manifested in private-sector action. So in the meantime, let’s all think twice before jumping into this publicly-funded abyss. Government-run high-speed rail is exactly what Obama let slip in his press conference – a “fanciful pie-in-the-sky vision.” After all, he said it himself.


Please visit my website at www.nikitas3.com for more. You can print out for free my book, Right Is Right, which explains why only conservatism can maintain our freedom and prosperity.