Pete Buttigieg’s 19th Century Technology: The Bullet Train
With trillions of dollars of government money on offer, after the passage of the Biden administration’s so-called COVID-19 relief bill, there is an informal, unarticulated competition for the worst and worst uses. less productive of funds.
The new Secretary of Transport, Pete Buttigieg, made his entrance, even before the bill was passed. His proposal: to ensure that the United States a world leader in high-speed rail.
It’s a strong contender for the award for worst use of government billions – billions, not just billions. True high-speed rail, averaging around 150 mph, requires a dedicated track: you can’t safely run trains at that speed if there’s a freight train running at 60 mph on the same path. California is supposed to spend $100 billion to build what was sold to voters in 2008 as a $33 billion high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In real life, it seems likely that it will only be completed between Merced and Bakersfield. Judging by this experience, building – and, just about as expensive, maintaining – a track across the continental United States would cost literally billions of dollars.
And why? As Randal O’Toole, an analyst at the Cato Institute, writes, trying to be a world leader in high-speed rail is “like wanting to be the world leader in electric typewriters, rotary telephones or steam locomotives.” Rail travel is 19th century technology, not 21st century technology. The Japanese Shinkansen bullet train entered service in 1964, 57 years ago. It was the year that longtime California Governor Jerry Brown, a high-speed railroad propellant who left office in 2018 at the age of 80, graduated from Yale Law School. The French TGV, the only other high-speed train that has at least one seemingly profitable line, entered service in 1981. That was 40 years ago, when electric typewriters and rotary telephones had no not been replaced by laptops and smartphones.
“I just don’t know why people in other countries” – he mentioned Japan and Britain – “should have better train service or more investment in high-speed train service than the Americans,” Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. to find out why, he should take a look at a globe. Britain (which actually doesn’t have a high-speed train) and Japan are island nations, much smaller than the United States
Tokyo and Osaka, Japan’s two largest and most densely populated metropolitan areas, are home to more than a third of the country’s population. They are about 300 miles apart. The same goes for Paris and Lyon, the two metropolises that are the terminus of France’s profitable TGV line. Three hundred miles is the high-speed train sweet spot – the distance at which a true high-speed train is much faster than car travel and about as fast as air travel.
And high-speed rail can attract enough passengers to operate profitably only between densely populated metropolitan areas roughly as far apart. The Los Angeles-San Francisco route is not entirely admissible. The historic downtowns of the two metropolitan areas are approximately 400 miles apart and they are split between the interstices between the ocean, the bay and the mountain. At this distance and with widely dispersed destinations, high-speed rail cannot compete with air travel in terms of time or convenience. The Los Angeles metro area has five commercial airports and the San Francisco metro area has three, so travelers can depart and arrive at destinations with minimal door-to-door travel times.
Requiring business travelers to go to or arrive at a downtown train station makes no sense in Los Angeles, where less than 5% of jobs in the metro area are located in the historic downtown. As for cost-conscious travellers, high-speed rail will never be able to successfully compete with private company buses.
This is true even in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC, New York and Boston, the only site in the continental United States suitable for high-speed rail. You don’t see backpackers on the Acela or other Amtrak trains; they take the much cheaper buses. As for business travelers, the Acela isn’t much of a high-speed train anyway, given its highest average speed of just 80 miles per hour. The Acela has been competing with airlines for the past few years because LaGuardia Airport has been such a mess. But the Port Authority is rebuilding LGA, and New York’s MTA might actually connect it to a subway.
Amtrak, after 50 years in government custody, still hasn’t become a true high-speed rail service, as Buttigieg concedes. “Amtrak has done a heroic job with the constraints that have been placed on it,” he told Reid. “Now we have to take things to the next level.” Does that mean the federal government acquires land for a right-of-way and then builds a high-speed lane? That would mean crushing state and local governments in eight states and the District of Columbia. It would also mean spending trillions of taxpayer dollars across the country on a project whose benefits would be concentrated on affluent business travelers in a geographic area with less than 20% of the country’s population.
Rail transportation, whether it’s city-to-city high-speed rail or fixed rail transportation in cities or metropolitan areas, has always been a favorite of liberal nannies. Rail travel appeals to the same spirit that led these officials to micromanage shutdowns (no garden seeds!) and specify careful gradations of vaccine eligibility (and demand throwing away doses rather than giving them to others before they expire).
Railroading allows a centralized decision maker to set rules that everyone must follow – or are expected to follow: because Americans tend to want to do what they want. The temptation to spend some of those billions on a so-called bullet train is strong for President Biden, who commuted on Amtrak from Delaware to Washington for 36 years, and for Buttigieg, whose hometown of South Bend, Indiana, is about as inconveniently removed from a major airport (111 miles to O’Hare!) as any small US town of this size. They should remember that “high-speed rail is yesterday’s technology,” as Randal O’Toole writes. “It’s inflexible, so if travel habits change, it’s left in the dust. It takes years to plan and build, and no one really knows what means of transportation will be needed in a year, let alone a decade.
Having already taken the Shinkansen and the TGV, I know it’s good for Japan and France. But despite long years of sailing the Acela Corridor, I know it’s not really for us.