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Train Tracks
A look at the high speed train proposal

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
April 18, 2009

A remark about Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini that gained widespread currency before the war was, “At least he made the trains run on time.” It was a wry excuse, a mordantly humorous jape at the fact that the fascist regime had messed Italy up and reduced the country to a joke.

And the sad fact was that the trains were just as inefficient and corrupt as the Mussolini regime.

So where did it come from?

It turns out that Italy had the first true high speed train, clear back in the summer of 1939. The ETR 200 reached a speed of 203 kilometers per hour (about 126 miles an hour). Fascist regimes love showcase projects (think Hitler's architectural plans for Berlin), and this was Mussolini's. Unfortunately, the train and nearly all of the track was destroyed during world war two. It was 25 years before the next true high speed train, in Japan in 1964. It fared fairly well, running until 2002 when it was retired honorably.

After the war, different countries rebuilt their infrastructures in different ways. Europe and Japan emphasized rail, and in America, the government heavily subsidized construction of airports, and subsidized and designed the vast interstate highway system. Unfortunately, where Europe favored one over the other but worked on both approaches, America virtually deserted all forms of mass transit to chase the dream that anyone could hop in their car or on a plane and travel anywhere at will. Automotive and oil companies bought up mass transit companies – trains and metro buses – and disassembled them.

In the 1960s, with clean, efficient and uncrowded highways, and gasoline at twenty five cents a gallon, it worked. The American dream came with four on the floor and a 451 hemi.

We all sped down the wide, white cement freeways with nary a thought to how it was made possible by eminent domain, tax dollars, and the vast organizational skills of government. Nearly all the airports were built on the public dime, and the air traffic control system which prevented planes from having “near misses” (which grammatically means “hits”) was all on the tax dollar. Even the auto manufacturers got a lot of help from a grateful government (they had been instrumental in gearing up for the vast industrial explosion needed to win World War II) in the form of factory tools, manufacturing space, and even some union busting.

Government even helped clean up the mess all those automobiles made, passing clean air and clean water laws and forcing the industry to adopt more stringent standards regarding emissions and gas mileage. Most people, convinced that all pollution controls did was produce more expensive and less efficient autos (which they didn't), are surprised to learn that Los Angeles had far filthier air in 1975 than it does today, despite the fact that there are more than three times as many cars and nearly twice as many people there now.

Corporations flooded the media with propaganda about how they were far more efficient and cost effective than government, not just in areas where they really are, such as manufacturing and the service industry, but in areas where they really aren't, such as public services and mass transportation. The dirty little secret of the airline industry is that if all government support were withdrawn, the whole thing would collapse overnight, and that was just as true in 1980 as it is today.

The auto industry was actually more self-reliant, depending on government to facilitate use of cars, rather than the building of them. Usually, and until recently, that is.

The railroads always depended on the government to even exist. Contrary to corporate self-promotion, the building of the railroads was not the result of clear-eyed brave entrepreneurs who saw a need in the market and fulfilled it; it came about because the government had the vision and was willing to pay lots of money to make it happen. And the “entrepreneurs” were more than willing to take that money. It's instructive that the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, is named for an otherwise undistinguished surveyor who, it is said, was persuaded by Stanford, the railroad magnate, to assess the lay of the land between Oakland and Sacramento as being mountainous (it's mostly flat, with some low hills) so Stanford could charge the government triple rate per mile for building the railroad. It's pretty unlikely that Stanford would be willing to bribe surveyors if he wasn't getting government money. Or build any railroads. Most captains of industry don't like to pay for boats until someone has built the docks and secured the shipping lanes. Same applies to trains and railroads.

It's indicative of the right wing lunacy only now loosening its grip on America that we hear that government should have no role in construction of high speed rail, and that it will be nothing more than an expensive boondoggle.

That there will be abuses and overcharging is almost certain. It's a proud American tradition among capitalists to gouge the government whenever possible, and some will. Stanford wasn't the first to do so, and he wasn't the last. But the lines that he built are still among the most commercially valuable in America to this very day, and even with him cheating, we more than got our money's worth on the deal.

The trick is to build a system that does what it's designed to do, and will last. The private sector simply cannot do it. Not only do they lack the will and the means (money and right of way issues, for starters), but competition among them would lead to incompatible technologies and deliberate efforts to prevent ease of access, one region to another. (Think of the telecom industry, hobbled in America by an unwillingness to provide more than the least people will stand for, and more than willing to prevent competition in their regions and create wholly artificial incompatible networks).

As a result, I was looking over the White House plans for high speed rail. Contrary to the impression you get from media coverage, it isn't “continent spanning.” It's ten projects in ten regions, named as follows: California (Sacramento to San Diego, both coastal and inland routes), Pacific Northwest (central Oregon to Vancouver), South Central, Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network, Florida, Southeast, Keystone, Empire and Northern New England (some connect to one another, which means it would be possible to travel via high speed rail from Montreal to Miami if one wished). What the White House plan does is create ten high speed areas, the longest of which is 600 miles, which is about as far as you can travel by train before losing the time saving factor to airplanes. Nearly all of it follows existing track lines, and more importantly, most of it follows existing double track lines, eliminating most right-of-way and eminent domain issues. The areas avoid mountainous regions although in the west it's practically impossible to travel far without encountering hills at the very least. The (relatively) modest plan restricts to areas where it's most feasible, and most needed.

I admit to bias. Ever since I first crossed Canada by rail, Halifax to Victoria over five incredible days, trains have fascinated me, and I love reading about the sexy Mag-Lev jobs they have in Germany, Japan and China. I hope some day to ride on one of those. I love riding the Pacific Coast Starlight down to southern California and back, and simply cannot think of a better way of traveling. I enjoy flying, but I hate airports and the delays and cancellations and endless security and luggage hassles that come with it, not to mention the cattle-car conditions most planes provide these days. On the train, one can go for a half a mile stroll, or stretch out and sleep. Security consists of showing photo ID to the conductor as you board, and half the time they don't even bother with that.

So yeah, I would love to hop on a maglev that stops three blocks away and end up in Los Angeles, 700 miles away, two hours later. Who wouldn't? While we're at it, I would like to control the universe, too. Into each life some rain must fall. Poor me.

So I take a realistic view toward revamping the rail system. Baby steps. The huge advantage to the White House plan is that it's completely feasible, and can be up and running in pretty quick order. Along with trains that average 120 miles an hour, you'll have freight trains that will go nearly as fast, and it won't take long for industry to tumble to the huge cost-savings that can be had for a medium that moves the goods faster than any truck and at one tenth the fuel costs per ton. They'll be pressing for more, even as they bray that government is over-regulating them.

A well-designed high speed rail system can move 8,000 people an hour, which is more than a four-lane freeway can do. And even with upgrade and equipment costs amortized in, the ticket cost should be better than what it costs to drive your car the same distance. And you don't have to find a place to park the train.

The White House plan will work. Let's do it.

Posted: April 20, 2009

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