Monday, 20 April 2009

The perennial rail discussion

Reflecting a recurring theme at Signifying Nothing, the administration’s announcement of its plans to sorta-kinda invest in high speed rail brings out the predictable reactions: Cato says it sucks, the central planning enthusiasts love it, and Prof. Karlson and John Stilgoe remind us that relatively inexpensive, incremental improvements are probably a better use of taxpayer money than flashy bullet trains over the distances Americans are likely to travel by rail.

My view, as always, is that all of these promised lines are of little value if they are not connected to the transportation system that most Americans already use: airports and their associated amenities like safe long-term parking and the rental car counter.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Getting railroaded

Megan McArdle follows up on my previous post, which I think she took as being more critical of her position than I intended; I was attempting to use her post as a jumping off point for some broader thoughts on pluralism vs. centralism*, rather than a debate over the anarcho-libertarian “all government inherently sucks” position. Indeed, the continental model sucks on other dimensions, such as respect for private property rights and minority interests†, which might be more important to citizens in the Anglo-American tradition than efficiency or speed. Megan adds that we might potentially also blame government accounting methods, which sometimes fails to internalize costs properly.

* I don’t think the usual political science antonym for “pluralism,” “corporatism,” really works here; this is more a contrast between the pluralist, politically-egalitarian Anglo-American model and the elite, expert-dependent (Napoleonic/Confucian) continental model of bureaucratic decision making.
† In the Madisonian, not racial, sense.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Not government, but pluralism

Megan McArdle is answering questions by request from her readers; returning to a theme near and dear to Prof. Karlson’s heart, she again addresses why passenger rail sucks in the U.S.:

I am about to blame—you will perhaps be unsurprised—the government. Why isn’t there a high speed train from New York to Chicago? Well, first of all, this would greatly anger legislators from New York and Michigan, who like the fact that the Chicago train must pass through Buffalo and Detroit, even if this assures that almost no one with a job will actually use it.

There’s also the problem of the Federal construction process. The high speed train between DC and Charlotte was first conceived in the early 1990s. The EIS for this project will be completed probably sometime in 2010. Then we have to get final legislative authority. Then we have to put out the project for bids. By the time the thing is actually built, we’ll probably all have evolved an extra leg and be able to run faster than the high speed train.

Neither of these things are true of government in general. As a couple of her commenters point out, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Germany (where things are more of a work-in-progress) have managed to create impressive high-speed rail systems, as has (of course) France.

It’s in the Anglo-American countries where high-speed rail has hit a roadblock. The United States in particular has the ideal conditions for low support for efficient HSR: legislators with a great deal of autonomy from their parties and an interest in developing a personal vote through constituency service and pork-barrel spending, a geographically dispersed population, and few potential logrolls that can produce a majority vote in either house for practical HSR schemes. Even voter-initiated schemes in states fall prey to these issues; witness the California High-Speed Rail proposal, which has to promise future HSR access to as many communities as possible to maximize the chances of a funding referendum passing in November.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, the U.S. and Britain have much more stringent environmental review procedures than France and Germany—to say nothing of 1960s Japan, when official LDP policy was to maximize the amount of pork spending diverted to infrastructure companies, environment be damned—which (at best) lead to delays as the potential impacts, real and imagined, of projects are cataloged by the government and consultants and (at worst) allow every interest group and NIMBY under the sun multiple chances to stall the process along the way.

In an entirely different venue, compare the war on plastic bags in China (via Matthew Stinson’s shared items feed) and Laredo. Both situations involve “government,” but government is acting in very different ways. I personally wouldn’t trade our pluralist system for a more centralized one, but there are times the transaction costs associated with the former make one long for the latter.

Monday, 26 September 2005


Stephen Karlson has some thoughts on the viability of intercity rail travel in response to Jeff Harrell’s skepticism over further Amtrak funding. My two cents:

Outside the Northeast Corridor and a few regional operations, Amtrak is a classic example of GNDN. I know exactly one person who has ever ridden the City of New Orleans, despite having lived in two cities that are served by the route. The only advantage of Amtrak over auto travel is that you don’t have to drive… and that one is largely negated if there’s hassle at either endpoint, such as inconvenient modal transfers, long layovers, etc. The only advantages over Amtrak over flying is that (a) you don’t have to deal with getting from the airport to the central business district (assuming the CBD is your destination) and (b) the security hassles are significantly reduced (but by no means nonexistent). And, the only advantages of Amtrak over riding Greyhound are (a) reduced travel times and (b) marginally better comfort.

It seems to me, then, that viable passenger rail needs to be designed to complement other modes of transportation. That means, for starters, more intermodal connections like at BWI and MKE airports, and direct connections to local mass transit (that means, when I get off the train in Chicago, I shouldn’t have to walk several blocks to get on the L). That also means making it easy for people to rent cars at train stations… many general aviation airports (in addition to every commercial airport in the country) have car rental counters, but good luck trying to find one at most Amtrak stations. While you’re at it, include safe, secure, long-term parking lots.

Amtrak probably hasn’t helped its case in “flyover country”—particularly with Republican politicians—by only operating its flagship Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor. If other parts of the rail system had been upgraded to a similarly high standard (notwithstanding the problems Acela has had), the political case for continued Amtrak subsidies would probably be much better, even if the economic case for building high-speed rail in other areas is weak-to-nonexistent—the existence of Southwest Airlines, for example, makes a Houston–Dallas rail link a sure money-loser, even though tens of thousands of people make that trip daily. Ironically, because of Amtrak’s brief flirtation with economic rationality, Amtrak has virtually no constituency other than its employees outside the NEC states.