Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Even with Population Density, Trains Are Losers

By now all Gentle Readers should know SWNID's personal affection for all modes of public transportation. Were it possible, we'd ride a mule-pulled canal boat through New York, just for the experience of it.

Especially attractive are trains, thanks to their high level of comfort, ease of riding, access to views of the countryside, and relative swiftness. We'd love to ride a train from anywhere to anywhere else.

But reality is what reality is. Passenger rail is expensive to create and maintain. Fixed rails pick up and deliver people only approximately to their destinations, leaving them depending on still other modes of transportation to start and finish the job. In developed countries where people have choices, no passenger-rail system exists without two conditions: (a) high-end population density; (b) government subsidies. In those countries where such do exist, passenger rail displaces freight rail, leaving what is arguably a tradeoff of efficiencies.

So that's why our beneficent federal government is throwing money at passenger rail development. It just makes sense.

Well, it makes most sense where population densest. California qualifies almost as well as the east coast, so we'd expect California's rail initiatives to be healthy, right?


Writing for the libertarian organ Reason, Californian Tim Cavanaugh notes the massive waste and graft associated with the Golden State's 14-year-old, as-yet-unoperative high-speed rail system. And with still more subsidies, it shows no signs of progress or improvement.

Worse, people who ought to know better continue to endorse the initiative, imagining that the simple existence of a train will change economics forever.

We particularly relish Cavanaugh's remark that in a discussion of the CA rail initiative with influential journalists, he was the only naysayer in the room and also the only public-transportation rider in the room.

We look forward to meeting Cavanaugh sometime, probably on a bus.


Q said...

But how I love riding the trains in europe!

Martin said...

Some things are worth frivolous spending so I can enjoy them.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

As long as the Europeans are subsidizing their trains with their own taxes so that we can ride them, we are content.

studyguy said...

the train trip from Moscow to Warsaw is not exactly a fun trip - 22 hours including change of wheels as rails are not the same in the countries.

Tree Guy in Indiana said...

You can experience a horse drawn canal boat in Metamora.