Triumphalism Indeed

For years I have argued that most high-speed rail makes no sense economically -- that in fact it is an example of the political impulse towards triumphalism.  Government leaders through the ages have wanted to use other people's money and sweat to build vast monuments to themselves that would last through the ages.

I meant that as ridicule, and assumed most readers would recognize it as such, but apparently not the LA Times, which editorialized in favor of California high speed rail in part because its just like the pyramids

Worthwhile things seldom come without cost or sacrifice. That was as true in ancient times as it is now; pharaoh Sneferu, builder of Egypt's first pyramids, had to try three times before he got it right, with the first two either collapsing under their own weight or leaning precipitously. But who remembers that now? Not many people have heard of Sneferu, but his pyramids and those of his successors are wonders of the world.

As a reminder, this is what I wrote at the article linked above in Forbes

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.


  1. DrTorch:

    You were exactly right. The only odd thing is that you seem a bit surprised by that...

  2. Goober:

    Yes, because who wouldn't want to enslave entire generations and races of people to beat them mercilessly so that they could build a monument for one man - the very same man who tortured them and denied them their life and liberty?

    The pyramids are like, totally cool and stuff.

    Unless you were one of the slaves that built them. Then, not so much.

  3. blokeinfrance:

    The pyramids do bring in some tourist income (the largest part of $11 billion).
    How to do an NPV / cost-benefit analysis 4,000 years ago? Interest rate applied, anyone?

  4. me:

    Argh. Just when you think things could not possibly get any worse with the pathetic excuse for journalism we have here...

  5. Mark:

    Exactly right on the slaves! Or, as an alternative, we could import Chines coolies and Irish to work on these project and pay them $1 a day. If a couple of dozen of them fall to their deaths or die in some enormous explosion, who cares we have more we can bring in. Anyone injured from an accident on the job? Who cares. For some of the work, it might be more convenient to use small children to better get into tight places and they might be cheaper yet.

  6. Hector Pascal:

    With this and your earlier criticisms about high speed rail you are not comparing like with like. Japan is long and thin. Seventy percent of Japan is mountains with 120 million people living on the remaining 30%. Densely populated plains on the coast, isolated by mountains. Japan does not produce bulk products (e.g. coal, iron ore) or need to move them overland. Raw materials come in by ship to the place of manufacture, and finished products go out by ship.

    When Japan transformed itself from a feudal to an industrialised society in the late 19th Century, the railways were narrow gauge. They had to be drilled through- or blasted out from mountains, or laid across densely populated farm land, and Japan was a poor nation. It was not a matter of rolling the broad gauge across unpopulated prairies.

    There is no imperative to transform existing Japanese rail infrastucture into a bulk transport system to transport non-existant stuff to places where it can be served by sea.

    There is a need (or a desire) to transport people however. If I want to travel from my town in northern Japan to Tokyo (for example) I can walk 100 metres from my home to the station, catch the shinkansen and be in central Tokyo in 3 1/2 hours, cost 10,000 Yen. It is quiet, comfortable, I can dose, drink a beer and go to the toilet no problem.

    I could drive, about 5 hours, 7,000 Yen in expressway tolls, plus fuel and finding parking when I get there.

    By air, it's 30 minutes drive to the airport, 50 minutes in the air and another 30 minutes into Tokyo. Add in the security and waiting/changes, it is slower and more expensive than train.

    By bus, it is about 7 hours, with interminable drives through the suburbs collecting passengers and compulsory 2-hour driver changes.

  7. marco73:

    The LA Times has nothing on a local Florida newscaster, when it comes to cheerleading for high-speed rail.
    There was a fiery 11 fatality crash on I75 in Central Florida near Gainesville on January 29. Smoke from brush fires during our dry season, mixed with fog, made for blinding conditions. The Highway Patrol and the DOT had closed and reopened the highway several times that night, as smoke and fog blew in and out of the area. There is plenty of blame to go around, and the investigation will take some time.
    A local newcaster, John Wilson for Channel 13, was expressing his opinion in the nightly newscast about how to handle such situations in the future. Better signage, more patrol cars, better communication, mandatory interstate shut down in poor conditions, etc?
    Well No! If high-speed rail had been in place, instead of Governor Scott cancelling the program last year, then instead of driving on deadly, dangerous interstates, all those people could have been saved if they had been on a train. I found this newscaster's opinion, when several of the victims were burned so badly they have not yet been identified, to be particularly ghastly.
    It looks like the media will use high-speed rail similar to global warming: whatever ills there are in society, lets find a way to put the blame on high-speed rail deniers.

  8. Capn Rusty:

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away."
    ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

  9. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    >>> but his pyramids and those of his successors are wonders of the world.

    That's because they're big lumps of rock, with nothing substantially wrong with them, which don't cost a hell of a lot of money to keep them functioning.

    A stupid train that constantly breaks down despite costing an arm and a leg, regularly doing so in a fashion which spectacularly kills its few dozen riders (I'm sure it can manage that many) is hardly the kind of big, impressive Public Work anyone in their right mind wants to be associated with for posterity.

    OK, ok, I'll tell you what:
    I'll support it as long as it becomes known forever as The Obama Train.

    It'd be worth it, methinks, to ensure that no one ever, EVER, EVER, despite decades upon decades of idiotic libtard revisionist efforts, forgets or fails to learn in toto, what a complete, utter, and absolute failure that stupid SOB is.

    C'mon!! Who is with me?
    Cough up some dough,
    for the Great Big Zero!

  10. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    >>> With this and your earlier criticisms about high speed rail you are not comparing like with like.

    Hector, wtf are you talking about, boy? Where does Japan get mentioned? Wth does that have to do with the suburban sprawl in Cali? You don't happen to mention costs, which, as I recall, involve Japan's HSR's ENTIRE TRACK LENGTH getting nightly inspections all up and down it (Yeah, the Cali union crowd is just DROOLING over THAT one!!). In the meanwhile, Japan's ridership (not necessarily on their HSR) is so high that, during rush hour in many places, they have "pushers" on every track -- people whose job it is to push the crowd onto the train faster to get it out of the station.

    Meanwhile, the Cali HSR being discussed cannot possibly have the numbers required to pay for itself and its upkeep -- the existing current traffic is totally inadequate to it, even multiplied by a factor of **10**.

    So... What was that about apples and oranges, me boyo...?

  11. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    ..And furthermore -- there really is literally no reason whatsoever we can't automate driving on the interstates -- using micro radars, and "track" systems down the length of it, we don't need the holy grail of visual interpretation for driving. An automatic car doesn't need to understand what anything is, it just needs to know to avoid hitting it. THAT is something not that hard to program, and most of our traffic/vehicular engineers are majorly missing the boat on that one. You should be able to get onto the interstate, press a button, and then play Nintendo until you get to your destination exit -- and the exits should have a computer-stop off area in the event the driver does not take over.

    After we feel more comfortable with these systems, we could even substantially improve gas efficiency by having the cars draft with one another, turning them into a defacto high-speed train with the cars only as far apart as the reaction systems in the computers -- which could link with one another so that the first car warns the entire chain that it sees a need to slow down.

    As the quality and design of the radars gets better, there should be longer distance ones such that accidents like the aforementioned one in Gainesville on I75 will become impossible... the radars will penetrate any fog/smoke showing the danger conditions ahead in most scenarios -- even bridges could be designed so that there were visible markers that would disappear, warning oncoming cars that there were missing sections so they would not lemming right over it.

  12. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    Here's a picture, btw, which says a 1000 words

  13. Mark2:

    @smock, the technology is starting to go into cars. It is a much more difficult process than you make it out to be. But in a few years it should be feasible.

    Currently, this year, there are cars available that will alert you if you drift out of lane, that is a big improvement in itself.

    There are two difficulties to overcome that I see. The demo software Google is using for its project is not tested to the necessary robustness, you need to go through a rigorous series of tests and verifications to certify the cars. Could you imagine if 2000 Toyotas, suddenly veered left on freeways across the country because we added a leap second to the day (or something similar) This certification is already done through a DO-178B level A standard for aircraft, but it is really expensive.

    Problem 2, lanes and markers have to be maintained, so the sensors can do their work. And with States being so derelict with maintenance, I don't know if the freeways could consistently be marked, and bounded properly for the cars to work.

  14. caseyboy:

    @Smock, will I still be able to get in the left hand lane and speed?

  15. MJ:

    How to do an NPV / cost-benefit analysis 4,000 years ago? Interest rate applied, anyone?

    Just do what the climate change folks do and assume the social discount rate is zero.

  16. marco73:

    I personally love the idea of trying to make cars smarter. Anyone who has backed up an SUV with a remote camera realizes just what a great safety aid that is.

    My point is that high-speed rail backers, not being able to stand on any economic projections, are willing to stand atop accident victims to advocate their position.

  17. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    >>> @Smock, will I still be able to get in the left hand lane and speed?

    At first, i would expect so. In the long run, probably this would be discouraged, but think of it this way:
    a) You will probably be able to go faster than "manually", since the car can speed and react safer than you can, so the "legal speed" for such vehicles will likely become higher than the manual speed.
    b) Think about it -- you don't HAVE to pay attention to what is going on on the road. You can read a book, play a game, make a phone call, practice learning the guitar, watch a tv show, have a face-to-face conversation, watch the scenery -- whatever -- and get there roughly as fast, if not faster, than manually. With all the advantages of a bus/chauffeur but none of the disadvantages: You have your own car at the far end to do as you wish with, you have no smelly people sitting next to you that you didn't invite along, and the ride is as smooth as your car will make it. If you're traveling with your kids, you can pay attention to them and have family time with them rather than tolerating the fact that they are bored to tears and you're annoyed with their impatience (yeah, they are kids, and they will still get bored, but it turns it into a family activity not one where everyone is on edge and the goal is to keep the kids quiet so as not to distract you from the road)

    If it's a business trip, you can do work or relax as you wish for the majority of it.

    THIS is a major improvement in transport, unlike mass transit.

    "Civilization advances by increasing the number of important things you can do without thinking about them".

    Suddenly long-term transport becomes one of the things on that list.

  18. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    >> My point is that high-speed rail backers, not being able to stand on any economic projections, are willing to stand atop accident victims to advocate their position.

    My point is, they are two-bit quacks and self-serving charlatans...

    ...but I suspect that's your point, too :oD

  19. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    And it does seem incredibly obvious that, all along the highway, cars will communicate with one another about conditions upcoming -- so you can likely be advised to re-route around traffic snarls, slow down in the event of any accidents (and yeah, there will be. Humans don't make perfect systems, we just keep improving on the ones we have to make them better and better for the most part, and the chaotic nature of the universe means there WILL be situations that are unavoidable. Someone sets off a bombed car on the highway it likely will take some other cars with it, meaning there will be "accidents" that result and affect travel, even if the system itself reacts as perfectly as possible).

    And the whole traffic network will improve a good bit in efficiency.

    Just having cars agreeing to load balancing would be a big improvement... if your car was aware that there were 5000 cars on one route, and only 3000 on another, it could choose the other route, even if it were marginally slower as a lone vehicle, just because the actual trip time would go down by avoiding the blockage.

  20. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    note that none of this seems to me, as someone very familiar with computers, as undoable with what we have now. Some minor engineering developments are required -- like a "laning" system that can be read easily at 70-100 mph, that can be installed relatively easily and cheaply. The radar modules for cars that can recognize a collision course with an object and independently adjust speed and course... probably some negotiation programs between nearby vehicles to deal with positive feedback loops in a group of cars (i.e., one car dodges a large tree branch blowing across the road, another that might be struck moves sideways, which pushes the car in the third lane off the road -- while if they agreed on how to deal with it no problems would occur or be likely.... one car slows slightly, to drop back, the other two dodge -- the two behind slow down briefly to allow the one dropping back some space. while also being careful of any need to dodge the branch, too.

    You'd also like, in the long run, the ability to tell "soft targets" from hard ones. Take it further, better to hit a tree limb than a parking bollard or a person. But that's for advanced systems that situation should occur much less on the interstate, where access is much more controlled, one reason why that it is likely to work there before it gets to the "local street level".

  21. Not Sure:

    "..And furthermore — there really is literally no reason whatsoever we can’t automate driving on the interstates — using micro radars, and “track” systems down the length of it..."

    Aside from the fact that if this happens, ordinary people will be able to come and go as they please, not according to the schedules that the Really Smart People want to arrange for them.

    This is the problem.

  22. Matt:

    With auto pilot for cars, using mostly radar as the primary sensor system, it wouldn't even need track. I have seen a number of areas that put glass fragments or other course materials in the paint used for lane and center lines to make them visually reflective. All it would take for the cars to track where the lanes are is a radar reflective material in the lane lines to give them a significantly different radar signiture than the surrounding pavement. Simple, possibly inexpensive and easy to retrofit to existing roads.

  23. SR:

    Sounds about right. In California, we have three major north-south routes over mostly flat terrain. If the aforementioned
    technology can be applied to them (why not employ GPS technology?) it wouldn't be long before highway travel along those routes would make any bullet train obsolete. Maybe even before it is built.

  24. me:

    Actually, there is a lot of very practical research going on about self-driving cars.

    The main motivation is that we'd finally be able to get rid of private vehicle ownership. Can you imagine the economic savings if cars spend 70% of their time in operation instead of parked?

  25. I Got Bupkis, Not to be confused with Caspar Milquetoast:

    >> The main motivation is that we’d finally be able to get rid of private vehicle ownership. Can you imagine the economic savings if cars spend 70% of their time in operation instead of parked?

    Yeah, public vehicles. That'll go over well. I'm sure the first woman who ruins a dress sitting down in the previous "I don't give a rat's ass about anyone but myself. Hey, it's not my car!" riders gum will put paid to that idea. Let's just put paid it before it gets tried.

    I'd suspect there could be a partial market for such things, but generally, no, that ain't happening, for just the reason given above. Tragedy of the Commons, and all that. Think public toilets.

  26. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    Matt -- might work. Wasn't presuming it, but it might be doable, dunno. I don't think microradars penetrate the asphalt, so I'm not sure how you'll make laning "visible" under those conditions, but I don't claim to have all the answers -- just the interesting questions.

    >>> Actually, there is a lot of very practical research going on about self-driving cars.

    I have yet to hear of anyone not doing something that involves actual sight recognition of objects, and, as a programmer, I see this as not happening anytime soon. The real central core idea here is that in fact you don't CARE what anything is -- you just don't want to HIT it. About the only justification for choosing between two objects is if a collision is inevitable and unavoidable (which can happen even with the most perfect system). And there may well be ways to do this, too, based on penetrability studies of objects once the standard gets nailed down a good bit. This is also a key reason for using a place like the interstate for the early work, which generally isn't a place where random things come running across the highway all that often.

  27. Ted Rado:

    The bottom line: If it is technically and econonically feasible, private enterprise will do it. If it is not feasible, some idiot politicians will fritter away public money on it. Everyone ought to stand aside and let free enterprise function.

  28. markm:

    For lane markings, just embed a small piece of metal every few feet down the center of the lane. To put in the lane markings, mount a souped-up nail gun in the undercarriage of a work truck. The cars track the nails and stay in their lanes with radar looking ahead plus a simple electromagnetic sensor underneath. (A good radar set might be the most expensive part of the robo-car equipment, but it's necessary in any case. It must be included to warn of things that shouldn't be there, but are - tree branches, pieces that fell off of other vehicles, deer crossing the road, and idiot pedestrians.)