Making Fiscal Sense

Kudos to Kevin Drum for his obvious skepticism about California high speed rail.  Too often the left accepts high speed rail projects credulously, despite their backbreaking costs and little proven impacts on energy use or greenhouse gas production.

I have had back and fort over rail projects with supporters for years, and I am always particularly amazed at how supporters treat me like some kind of neanderthal  (e.g. "the debate is over!" and "rail is settled policy.")  I finally figured out the other day how to characterize rail supporters arguments.

They are like kids who might say, "why wouldn't you want Santa Clause to bring you an Xbox for Christmas?"  They treat rail like it is a birthday present, and that I am some sort of schlub for turning down such a shiny new present.  But of course it is not a present, and costs matter.  The problem with rail is not that I don't like riding on trains, the problem is that I don't like draining resources by force from millions of people so that a few thousand middle class commuters can ride on trains to work.


  1. Scott Finegan:

    Just figure it is an entitlement for the middle class, one of the few they will ever get, and use.

  2. Allen:

    Unfortunately these people are, well, a lost cause. They just seem to think that the government is some sort of near infinite pool of cash and, if it's not, we can just raise taxes. Roads get subsidies so the way to address is to throw 8 times at much at a system that'll serve a 1/10th of the people. I say this because when I make the comment about the Northstar Line in Minnapolis that we've just committed to spending 1/2 billion dollars over the next 20 years so a couple thousand people can ride the train instead of the bus, they think it makes sense. Apparently suburban sprawl, having people living 30, 40 miles from downtown Minneapolis and working there is good as long as they take a train to work.

  3. ArtD0dger:

    Well I'm not afraid to say it: I don't like trains. Trains go only from point A to point B at time T. They severely handicap the needs of all those whose travel combinations include points C through Z and times T+1 onward. And it is this innate privileging of specific routes and schedules that makes them so adored by would-be central planners who salivate at the prospect of holding such fulcrums of control.

    I suppose trains still hold a certain retro mystique, but they are basically a backwards 19th century technology. Automobiles are not without their problems, but at least they incorporate 20th century advances. I do not know what form 21st century travel technology will take, but if it is to represent progress, it will be corpuscular, asynchronous, and distributed.

  4. me:

    I love trains for personal transport. They are hugely convenient. That said, there is really no convincing economic case to be made for light rail along the west coast, and the prospect of putting down costly infrastructure that is highly susceptible to quake damage in one of the less tectonically stable areas of the world is... mindboggling. I really don't get it.

  5. epobirs:

    The recent article in Wired was highly illustrative of the true believer's mindset.

  6. Not Sure:

    What are the odds you could build a rail line from LA to San Francisco without running through the habitat of some endangered bug or plant?

  7. Fred Z:

    The PC and internet have eliminated the mainframe from all but a few brute force applications.

    The auto/truck and roadnet will eliminate the railroads from all but a few brute force applications.

    Do the rail nuts even understand the concept of distributed processing?

    As for "me": "I love trains for personal transport. They are hugely convenient." Bah. They are hugely INconvenient. First you schlep your stuff to the train station. Then you sit on your butt in a scummy hobo infested rat-hole. Then you ride in phlegmy contact with every disease ridden proletarian in the city, drinking undrinkable coffee purchased from some dump or some over-priced Starbucks or wannabe. Then you schlep to your destination.

    All this as opposed to heaving the stuff in the car and driving in your own comfortable environment, with the seat moulded to your own bum with your own phlegmatic diseases to comfort you.

  8. Bob Smith:

    The Anti-Planner puts road subsidies at less than a penny per passenger mile. That must be a high estimate, because he omits sales tax, surely in the many billions of dollars annually nationwide, on auto-related goods and services when figuring that number.

    I am always amused when rail advocates put out the "roads are subsidized too" bit, as if comparing system A's subsidy of $0.01/mile to system B's subsidy which is 40x that somehow shows the value of transportation system B.

  9. MJ:

    It should be fun to watch the California HSR saga unfold. The state has already imposed so many unrealistic constraints on the LA-SF line that they have almost ensured that it will implode on itself. They have stipulated that not only must the (line-haul) trip time be less than 2.5 hours, but also that the state provide bond money only for construction, not operation (i.e., that the train not operate at a deficit). As the low-ball cost forecasts and overinflated demand forecasts get exposed, this project will reveal itself as the chimera it really is. The more interesting question is how close these forecasts will come to those predicted in the Reason Foundation's counterpoint report.

    That said, I'm a little surprised that Kevin Drum saw this one coming in advance. He's usually so in tune with the "progressive" mindset.

  10. marco73:

    I'm just waiting for the fiasco that will be Florida HSR. Connecting Tampa to Orlando with a high speed train is silly. Everyone who comes to Central Florida for business or leisure needs a car to get anywhere.
    Sure, they'll fly into Tampa, get a rental car, and drive to the beaches and Tampa area attractions. But instead of driving a little over an hour to Orlando to visit Disney and Universal, they'll dump the car and take a slightly under 1 hour train ride.
    And if they fly into Orlando, they'll get a rental car to get around to the Orlando attractions. But if they want to hit the Tampa Bay area beaches, they'll park the rental car, hop the HSR to Tampa, and then get some other transporation to actually get to the beach. Yeah, that will appeal to tourists.
    Orlando is actually closer to Daytona and Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic then the Gulf of Mexico beaches. Maybe we can get a subsidy to put in a light rail system from Orlando to the Atlantic beaches. Worked in Miami...

  11. roger the shrubber:

    23 words, baby: the "can't miss, surefire hit" las vegas monorail never once got into the black, and filed for bankruptcy in the blink of an eye.

  12. CTD:


    I read that, too. Vomit worthy. Not an ounce of skepticism or consideration of cost in the whole thing.

  13. ArtD0dger:

    Speaking of the Anti-Planner, here he is making a nice presentation about the costs of rail and better alternatives:

    I thought of autonomous automobiles when I wrote "corpuscular, asynchronous, and distributed" above, but it seemed a bit much to pack into a blog comment. He is certainly right that the barriers are political, not technical.

  14. Ted Rado:

    The sad part of all these schemes is that the public doesn't stop and think. We citizens pay for everything, either as a consumer or as a taxpayer. The government doesn't "give" us anything. They take our money, waste much of it, and use the rest on stupid projects to buy votes.

    Similarly, there is no such thing as a business tax. It is simply a passthrough tax on the consumer. We are collectively idiots. A politician promises us goodies at another taxpayer's expense, and we vote for him. Then he promises that taxpayer goodies at our expense, and he votes for the same guy. What a joke. What a racket.

    Even worse, many government programs do much harm. As an example, federal aid to dependent children has encouraged poor girls to have babies out of wedlock, thus perpetuating poverty. There are endless similar crazy programs.

    The bottom line: If a scheme is worth doing, it will be done by private enterprise. If the government subsidizes it when private capital won't do the job, it is almost guaranteed to have a bad outcome.

  15. me:

    @Fred Z

    I have to admit that I was thinking of trains in Europe. Get to the modern train station, just take whatever the next train in your direction is, sit down in the seat you reserved, read a book, work on the laptop, get into an interesting discussion with a well educated stranger. Compare to the scenario where I have to do all the driving work myself, there are no outlets to support energy to my laptop and I have to sit in an uncomfortable seat for hours, partially in terrible traffic to get to my destination.

    Then again, just because they make sense somewhere else is no reason to attempt a solution that doesn't work in the context of the american west coast.

  16. Brandybuck:

    I can't ever imagine real bullet trains working in California. Any train from LA to SF is going to have to make a stop in every assemblyman's district along the way, with a stop every five miles or so in urban areas. They're never going to get up to speed!

  17. Che is dead:

    One thing that is almost always left out of the publically subsidized mass transit discussion is union capture. Using your X-Box analogy, it's as if you and a few friends purchased an X-Box only to have another group of guys take control of it and charge you for the privilege of playing. We do not build these systems for the public, we build them for the labor unions.

  18. markm:


    "I can’t ever imagine real bullet trains working in California. Any train from LA to SF is going to have to make a stop in every assemblyman’s district along the way, with a stop every five miles or so in urban areas. They’re never going to get up to speed!"

    That summarizes the problem with all mass transit. Either it doesn't get you where you're going, or it stops so often that it's average speed is very low. Or both!

    As urban transit, trains can only move you in a reasonable time when the city is very dense and the trains have a right of way separate from and superior to all other traffic. E.g., NYC subways. But even there, while they get you to (within half a mile of) your destination faster than most surface transport, I suspect that they wouldn't survive financially without a heavy subsidy taken forcibly from non-riders.

    Passenger trains can work for city to city transportation, when the stops are limited. But that also means that you'll need another means of transportation from the railroad station (just like airports - except rail stations tend to be located in the middle of downtown and thus hard to drive to.) And if the passenger train is on freight rails - which is the only thing that makes sense in the USA - it won't be fast, although it might be faster than automobiles. E.g., Amtrak from Grand Rapids, MI to Portland, OR takes a little over 48 hours. By car, if you were capable of driving straight through you might just beat the train. By air, it's less than 4 hours in the air, but around 8 hours with check in, security, and flight changes. And according to my wife, who has made the trip by air and by train several times, the train is a lot more comfortable of a ride. I wouldn't know - how can I spend 4-5 days of a one week vacation just getting there?

  19. Doug:

    Year and a half ago, I took Amtrak from Milwaukee to Ann Arbor, MI via Chicago. With the stops and wait time, it would have been several hours quicker to drive. But since I was traveling sans family, the $118 ticket (round trip) was only about $20 more than gas for the car. However, it becomes prohibitively expensive with the other four members of the family.

    Here in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee paper has stopped calling the choo choo between Milwaukee and Madison as "high speed" and is calling it a "fast train".

    I hope the next gov will be a Republican and kill this stupid train.