Lowry: the bullet train, a progressive fantasy

VSAlifornian progressives tried to build a European-style high-speed rail network and alienated the French in the process.

A large New York Times article on the rail project reports that the French, who wanted to work with California, decided the state was just too dysfunctional and left to help complete a high-speed line in Morocco at the square.

The ongoing dismantling of California’s railroad plan is an object lesson in how infrastructure as eschatology is a bad idea. If transportation is designed as a way to save the planet and satisfy a deep, quasi-religious fixation rather than a way to move people more efficiently, it is doomed to failure. Add to that California’s politicized decision-making and regulatory and legal roadblocks to construction, and it’s a formula for a mess for the ages.

No matter how highly California estimated the cost of the project, it was not enough, even though almost nothing was built. It started at $33 billion in 2008. Today it is $113 billion, with no one knowing where the funding will come from.

Not that the California experiment will lessen the progressive zeal for high-speed rail. As far as its enthusiasts go, it’s like socialism – never failed, but never really tried.

President Barack Obama has proposed an 8,600-mile high-speed rail system and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wants the United States to be the “world leader” in high-speed rail. Progressives think of high-speed trains as windmills on rails, a symbol of enlightenment and modernity, a way to break free from the selfish, petty tyranny of the automobile and embrace a smoother, more green and more virtuous.

Then the wheel meets the rail. In California, it might have seemed attractive to build a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco – if you disregarded the project of all the topographical and other difficulties. For political reasons, a less direct and less economical route between the towns was chosen. And the decision was made to start building between the two megacities, in the Central Valley, creating the possibility that California would end up with a high-speed train to nowhere.

Of course, we already have cheap high-speed transport between population centers. It’s called traveling by plane.

As Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute points out, planes travel at around 800 km/h. The Amtrak Acela, on the other hand, has a top speed of 150 miles per hour. Yes, planes need infrastructure, but not expensive and complex new infrastructure along their routes.

O’Toole notes that Japan’s bullet trains seemed to be the future in the 1960s, when air travel was more expensive than the train. Additionally, Japanese bullet trains had a ready-made following in the substantial proportion of the country’s population that already traveled by train.

In the United States, by contrast, the average cost per mile of air travel is cheaper than rail travel, and a miniscule 0.1% of all passenger travel is via Amtrak.

If we built the interstate highway system, why can’t we build a comparable high-speed network? As O’Toole points out, the highway system has essentially paid for itself and accounts for 20% of the nation’s passenger-miles and a roughly comparable proportion of freight ton-miles.

Bullet train could never be a game. Even if we put aside the endemic additional costs, the inevitable construction delays and the considerable maintenance costs.

As progressives swoon over high-speed rail as the bright future, another futuristic technology is likely to emerge. If the era of self-driving cars ever comes, people will be able to experience a car more like a personal train.

California did not create a railroad to the future but a warning to the rest of the country to avoid its illusion and madness.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist with King Features and editor of National Review. He is also on Twitter @RichLowry.

Jose P. Rogers