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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rail, and what it means for American statism 


The Russians are putting in high speed rail service between St. Petersburg and Moscow. If you think of Russia as Europe, then it is joining the crowd. If you think of it as a low density country with lots of oil, then it is more interesting.

The linked article contains this bit about rail service in the United States, which strikes me as manifestly true:

For years, businesspeople and politicians have dreamed about America entering the high-speed era, but Amtrak has been plagued by budget and service problems and the closest Americans have come to high speed is the Acela, which rarely runs at what Europeans call high speed.

Now Siemens and its competitors are hoping all that has changed. The economic stimulus passed by Congress in April includes a five-year, $13 billion high-speed rail program. Siemens is one of four makers of high-speed trains, none of them based in the United States, that hopes to take advantage of it.

Siemens executives said the tilt toward political acceptance of high-speed rail in the United States presented a remarkable business opportunity — assuming the systems get built.

The United States “is a developing country in terms of rail,” Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window. “We are seeing it as a huge opportunity.”

Commentary

All around the world excellent rail service is a function of competent government. There are few, if any, genuine examples of good private rail service left in the world, but many examples of good government rail service. Statists who want to promote the heavy hand of government have no better example than passenger train service.

Except in the United States. Even our best passenger rail service through the parts of our country that have density akin to Europe -- the northeast corridor, primarily -- sucks by comparison. The Acela, which is a far better way to move between New York and Washington than air service, is slow, dirty, and of poor and variable service compared to comparable trains in France and Spain. And do not even try to make good time from New York to Boston, where the trains routinely grind to a crawl for no obvious reason, turning a trip that might take 90 minutes in France to almost four hours here.

In other words, our federal government cannot make the trains run on time, something that virtually every other rich country government is able to do.

There are a number of reasons why this might be true, but I suspect the dominant one is this: We do not attract our best people into government for reasons of history and culture. Deep down, most Americans believe that most government jobs (with a few exceptions at the very top and in the military, the foreign service, the Justice Department and the judicial branch) are for the stupid, lazy, or power crazy. Whether or not it is fair, in the United States routine government jobs confer no prestige and most people in the private sector regard government employees with deep suspicion. This tradition is at odds with virtually every rich European and Asian country, and it explains many things, including our traditional hostility to big government and our terrible trains.

It also makes me wonder whether government programs that "work" in France, Sweden, or Japan stand an ice cube's chance in hell of working here in the United States. Our inability to attract our better people into ordinary government jobs is the best utilitarian reason for us to develop uniquely American and nongovernmental solutions to social problems. Copying the Europeans will not work for us, no matter how much the academic policy wonks who so influence the Democrats wish that it would.

17 Comments:

By Anonymous feeblemind, at Sat Sep 26, 09:57:00 AM:

As a conservative, my question to you TH is, why should Government be in the railroad business in the first place? Could it be because passenger rail service is not competitive with other modes of travel unless highly subsidized? As a taxpayer I hate to see money poured into money losing entities like passenger rail service. If there truly is money to be made, why not privatize it?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Sep 26, 10:00:00 AM:

Rail needs subsidies to compete with automobiles, which are massively subsidized (insofar as the government builds and maintains the roads for cards). If you could find a way to privatize all road building and maintenance, you might get close to comparable economics, but since we probably cannot do that (and would not politically) rail will always need a subsidy to be economically competitive. That does not mean, however, that properly done it is not more efficient than cars, at least in high density environments such as the northeast corridor.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 26, 10:05:00 AM:

The United States had excellent passenger train service for years, UNTIL the Federal Government started to get involved.
1. During WWI, the Federal government formed the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) and tried to macro-administer the big roads.
2. Federal over-regulation of operating and fee structure because of the Interstate Commerce Commission
3. The Federal Interstate Highway program, which along with airlines, did the most to destroy once thriving commercial passenger traffic in this country. Watch "North by Northwest" sometime; Cary Grant is riding the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago.

So yeah, the Best and the Brightest in this country that serve in the Federal Government have done a jim-crackin' dandy job of managing the passenger rail business.

I have ridden trains in Europe (mainly France, including the TGV) and they're nice, but they are also all subsidized by the governments; by heavily taxing gasoline (usually at least twice the cost per gallon as the US).All their pensions are covered by the government.

The Pennsylvania Railroad used to have the GG-1, a heavy passenger electric locomotive, which ran for decades starting over 50 years ago, that pulled trains at over 100 mph. from DC to New York, which then became "Penn Central", and then the Federal gov. took over the passenger traffic in the Northeast Corridor.
Now we are going backwards with the "Acela", running slower than the GG-1 because of curvy right-of ways and low quality roadbeds.
Siemens' just sees a chance to dip their beak in the public trough. No more than that.

-David  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 26, 10:14:00 AM:

One big problem with high speed rail service in the northeast corridor is the number of places between Washington and New York where there are at-grade crossings which require all trains to slow to a crawl. IIRC, France and Japan built high speed trainsets and dedicated tracks for them. We built high speed trainsets to run on the existing tracks.

Retread  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 26, 10:18:00 AM:

Dear TigerHawk:

America has the best train service in the world... Just not in passenger rail!

If you take the time to do some research, you will discover that the privately owned, non-subsidized, lightly regulated freight train industry in the US is larger and has more miles of track than the all the Euros combined.

Driving around the major thoroughfares of Europe, it is stunning to see the immensity of the truck traffic on the roads... and the accompanying diesel pollution. Ever wonder why?

Cheers, and always remember that any desire to involve the government in commerce MUST be resisted with utmost force.

May the Founders, the Friedman and the Hayek be with you.  

By Anonymous vicki pasadena ca, at Sat Sep 26, 11:56:00 AM:

Hasn't the government owned AMTRAK for 30 years or more. The Acela service is prohibitively expensive. My daughter took it round trip from NYC to DC and it was almost $200.00. From NYC to DC on the Bolt bus is like $50.00. Takes longer but for a weekend trip, who cares. Don't try to blame this debacle on Obama.  

By Anonymous feeblemind, at Sat Sep 26, 01:34:00 PM:

You are quite right TH, the government does build and maintain the highways but they build and maintain highways with money collected from fuel taxes at the gas pump. So it is really pay as you go, not a subsidy. In fact they have been so successful at extracting money at he pump that highway money is now used to subsidize urban mass transit. Finally, and I know this is a quaint argument, but where does the Constitution give the Feds the authority to be in ANY business outside of the Postal Service?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 26, 01:52:00 PM:

I thought most of the Japan routes are privately owned.  

By Blogger Kinuachdrach, at Sat Sep 26, 01:53:00 PM:

Why do 19th Century trains have such a hold on the imaginations of 21st Century "progressives"?

Trains were a great way of moving people from A to B. Problem is that most of us don't start at A, and almost none of us want to go to B. A high speed train may make sense for the bureaucrat going from downtown Moscow to downtown Leningrad, but that is a small market.

Technology moved on, and gave us the highly flexible automobile, the great road network that automobiles pay for, and -- for longer trips -- the airplane. Unfortunately, Federal control over airport security and air traffic control has been cutting the efficiency of intermediate distance air transport. I wonder what the solution to that could be?  

By Blogger Brian, at Sat Sep 26, 02:22:00 PM:

TH - that's an interesting take on American exceptionalism as a curse rather than a benefit.

I can think of other government programs that also get top people - state universities, NASA, and research institutes.

I think the cultural attitude you talk about depends on the particular issue. We could choose to turn high-speed rail into a priority institution just as was done with those other American projects.  

By Anonymous Fair and Middling, at Sat Sep 26, 03:07:00 PM:

We do not attract our best people into government for reasons of history and culture. Deep down, most Americans believe that most government jobs . . . are for the stupid, lazy, or power crazy. Whether or not it is fair, in the United States routine government jobs confer no prestige and most people in the private sector regard government employees with deep suspicion.

While ostensibly a minority (fringe?) view here, I think that people who work in government are admirable: Doing important work often at a lower wage than they could earn in private industry. I do find government bureaucracy insufferable. The ability to tolerate it as part of their working conditions adds to my admiration for those who do work in fields like teaching, public health, planning and engineering, police and fire departments, scientific research, and the military . . . and, occasionally, even politics. As I'm sure you're aware, these types of jobs are often a foothold into the middle class for individuals without family means or pedigree (and the relative job security associated with these jobs is thus a highly rational reason for choosing them, over perhaps a private industry job requiring a similar skill set). I was actually raised to believe that everyone should spend at least part of their working life in public service, as a value -- not a stigma.  

By Blogger randian, at Sat Sep 26, 05:13:00 PM:

Doing important work often at a lower wage than they could earn in private industry

Lower wages in return for security was the traditional tradeoff for government jobs. That is no longer true, and hasn't been for years. Now government jobs pay a lot more more than private industry, on top of gold-plated pension and health care benefits.  

By Anonymous cansefan, at Sat Sep 26, 07:05:00 PM:

As long as the government is involved in our passenger rail system it will never be good.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 26, 09:11:00 PM:

The U.S. is always going to be backwards in terms of rail travel. We're too big.

I can get an Amtrack train from within 50 miles of my home to within 50 miles of my Daddy's place, or the In-laws. But it takes 32 hours.

I can drive it in between 15 and 16 hours, on a good day, and in less than 20 on a very bad one.

Why waste the extra day on the round trip, and have to rent a car when I get there? Even if gas was $5/gal, by the time I rent a car it's a wash.

FWIW, I've sent my wife up there that way, but I've never done it. I enjoy rail travel, but not enough to spend a whole lot more money on it than it costs me to drive. Now if I could take my vehicle with me?

Heh. Innovation that will never occur to the powers that be, Chapter LXXII.

Put my truck or the wife's Liberty in one of those unused car haulers? Hey. I'll ride in it, if you have an aisle to a bathroom.

That would work.

jefferson101  

By Anonymous Blacque Jacques Shellacque, at Sun Sep 27, 01:50:00 AM:

Now if I could take my vehicle with me?

Heh. Innovation that will never occur to the powers that be, Chapter LXXII.

Put my truck or the wife's Liberty in one of those unused car haulers? Hey. I'll ride in it, if you have an aisle to a bathroom.


Amtrak runs the Auto Train between Lorton, VA and Sanford, FL. Too bad they don't offer that service elsewhere in the system.  

By Blogger Don Cox, at Sun Sep 27, 05:39:00 AM:

Generally, it makes sense for the government to run things where competition is not practical. It would not be practical to have four competing toll roads running in parallel, or three competing rail tracks or canals. Or three competing navies for defending the nation from human enemies.

So I think state-run transport infrastructure makes sense.

The trucks, buses, cars, boats, or rolling stock that run on that infrastructure can however be privately owned and compete. Obviously in the case of rail, there has to be some kind of negotiation or arbitation to see which company's trains are on the track at any given moment; but a RedTrains Inc train can be immediately followed by a BlueTrains Inc train with more comportable seats or better coffee.  

By Blogger davod, at Sun Sep 27, 06:43:00 AM:

Ms.Pasadebna:

"Don't try to blame this debacle on Obama."

Who said anything about Obama?  

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