High Speed Rail Boondoggle (Cont’d.)

From time to time we have commented on the high-speed rail boondoggle. It’s not that we think trains, including high-speed trains, are bad. Rather, they are good when they are properly routed where their efficient usage stands a chance of coming close to achieving reasonable passenger ridership figures, and in the best of worlds being economically self-sustaining. In other words, they may make sense in the densely populated Northeastern Boston-Washington corridor, but not in the middle of nowhere, in California’s Central Valley where the first segment of our high-speed rail line is scheduled to be built.  For our most recent commentary on the high-speed rail boondoggle, go to http://gideonstrumpet.info/?p=904

Now, in spite of all the hype,  the bloom seems to be off high-speed rail. The title of a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed says it all (James E. Moore II, Federal Funds Are Drying Up For California’s project, and That’s a Good Thing, L.A. Times, April 25, 2011, at p. A11)

There is also an op-ed in the New York Times (Richard White, Fast Train to Nowhere, April 24, 2011, at p. 9 (Week in Review Sec.). This one is particularly useful because it reminds us that the 19th century rail-building program promised much but underdelivered, and was rife with abuses and profligacy. It brought a wave of eminent domain takings that  in the long run have done much harm, because acting in the name of progress, American judges  favored railroad construction and formulated stingy compensability rules in eminent domain, some of which are still with us. In the 19th century it appeared that these rules did little harm because takings were largely of easements across unimproved farm land and caused few, if any, collateral losses to the condemnees. But when those rules were unthinkingly applied to mass urban condemnations of the second half of the 20th century, that displaced hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers annually, it was an altogether different story. 

If you want an insight into those 19th century practices, we recommend the introductory part of volume 1 of John Sherman’s memoirs, published in 1896, describing railroad condemnation practices in Ohio before the Civil War, in which he was involved a railroad lawyer.

To return to modern times, it now turns out that the Chinese high-speed trains that have been held out by President Obama as models for our own are actually a disaster. The Washington Post reports that far from being the harbinger of future transportation, they have been a flop. (Charles Lane, China’s Train Wreck, Wash. Post, April 22, 2011). The Chinese high-speed rail program has become a “financial and public relations disaster.” Bottom line: The Chinese high-speed rail program has run up a $271 billion debt, and its “bullet trains” are being operated at 30 mph.

We also learn from this article that in France (also held out as a model for us) only the Paris-Lyon high-speed rail line is operating in the black.

Follow up. Remember Bruce Babbit? Sure you do. Former Secretary of the Interior and apostle for environmentalism, and all that good stuff. He is quoted in At Lincoln House, a publication of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy as follows:

“Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and interior secretary, and a member of the Lincoln Institute board, said the Obama administration’s campaign for high-speed inter-city rail was a “total disaster,” manifested in the failed Tampa-Orlando plan. “We don’t have the political courage to define our priorities,” he said, suggesting that the Northeast corridor should be the model, based on a system of reliable financing similar to how the nation built the interstate highway system.” At Lincoln House, March 2011.

If you are not familiar with it, At Lincoln House is a publication of the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge Massachusetts, devoted to land-use and property taxation. Its name has nothing to do with Honest Abe — it is named after John Lincoln, a clever fellow who invented the arc welder, and had the wits to do so before the income tax, which enabled him to do good works on a grand scale, and he just happened to be interested in land and its use.