MINT-AND-CORN COUNTRY, INDIANA — One of the more trivial effects of my grandfather’s passing this summer is that I have the opportunity to peruse copies of TIME and Newsweek as his subscriptions follow him toward earthly cessation. (Presumably, he’s able to read them still, for surely Purgatory is the final and ultimate postmortem destination of such middlebrow publications.) Somewhat to my surprise, thumbing through Newsweek, I found myself nodding my head broadly in agreement with Robert J. Samuelson, who in “High-Speed Pork” calls out the Obama Administration for its positively daft endorsement of high-speed passenger rail.
Let me first be clear about something: I’m not inherently opposed to passenger rail. I’m elated to see this addition to TAC, believe that when done properly rail transportation is morally superior to the mechanical Jacobin, and happily rode the Metro (to which I had to drive a mile *grumble*Stupid suburbia*grumble*) frequently when I resided inside the Beltway. But, as Samuelson notes, what the Obama Administration proposes is not well-planned, economical, and sensible infrastructure: Like the McRib, it’s quick-service pork — except that the McRib costs significantly less (clogged arteries notwithstanding) and is much rarer than federal fiscal foibles:
What would we get for this huge investment?
Not much. Here’s what we wouldn’t get: any meaningful reduction in traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, air travel, oil consumption or imports. Nada, zip. If you can do fourth-grade math, you can understand why.
High-speed inter-city trains (not commuter lines) travel at up to 250 miles per hour and are most competitive with planes and cars over distances of fewer than 500 miles. In a report on high-speed rail, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service examined the 12 corridors of 500 miles or fewer with the most daily air traffic in 2007. Los Angeles to San Francisco led the list with 13,838 passengers; altogether, daily air passengers in these 12 corridors totaled 52,934. If all of them hypothetically switched to trains, the total number of daily airline passengers, about 2 million, would drop only 2.5 percent. Any fuel savings would be less than that; even trains need energy.
Indeed, inter-city trains — at whatever speed — target such a small part of total travel that the changes in oil use, congestion or greenhouse gases must be microscopic. Every day, about 140 million Americans go to work, with about 85 percent driving an average of 25 minutes (three-quarters drive alone, 10 percent carpool). Even assuming 250,000 high-speed rail passengers, there would be no visible effect on routine commuting, let alone personal driving. In the Northeast Corridor, with about 45 million people, Amtrak’s daily ridership is 28,500. If its trains shut down tomorrow, no one except the affected passengers would notice.
Rather to my dismay, if not disgust, I find myself in agreement with Ohio governor-elect John “Don’t Blame Me for Lehman Brothers” Kasich (No Taft, he!), who, not yet inaugurated, “sent letters Monday to both out-going Gov. Ted Strickland and President Obama, asking the former to terminate current 3C [passenger-rail project] engineering contracts and the latter to either make provisions for the $400 million to be used to support ‘other vital transportation infrastructure projects’ in Ohio or, if that’s not possible, use it to reduce the federal government’s $1.4 trillion deficit”. Bravo!
When Kasich refers to “other vital infrastructure projects”, he specifically means upgrades to highways (No Republican is perfect.) and to freight rail! Callooh callay! I grew up, and still reside, in a town in rural Indiana where rail was once king, with one hundred and twenty-five trains coming through in a twenty-four hour period at the apogee of the rail era, and I see what become of this place when, amongst other things, long-haul trucks usurped freight’s throne, so I have a certain bias toward rail. Having spent enough time on perpetually under-construction, always-dominated-by-semis highways has confirmed my suspicious regarding the superiority of the train over the truck.
About a decade ago, I was at the Starke County 4-H Fair, conversing with the Republican candidate for state senate at the time. I have no idea what directed our brief discussion to rail at this point in my life, but for years, I’ve carried with me something that he noted: A supporter of his, a bigger player in trucking in the area, had confided to him something to the effect of “I run a trucking business, and I know that it would hurt my business, but we need to bring rail back. Losing rail just killed us.” Something simple, just an anecdote, but so poignant in its honesty.
My hometown is not only a former railroad town: We still have one not-so-busy line, which the Town owns, and we’re host to a popular train museum that offers rides on Saturdays (that happen to pass my family’s farm, where Grandpa resided ‘til his passing, and where I’ll soon be living and nurturing my anarcho-agrarian tendencies). And I’m fortunate enough to be in a position, professionally, in which I can attempt to help to bring more rail traffic and more rail-dependent industry to the area. But I digress; what is relevant about my hometown’s railroading past and present is something posted on the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum’s Website. About one-third of the way down this page, a damning chart provides some interesting information: Data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and USDOT (2005) tell us that although rail is responsible already for forty percent of U.S. freight ton-miles, compared to trucking’s thirty percent, rail consumes only eight percent of energy, compared to an astounding sixty-five percent by trucks. Such inefficiency is deplorable, not to mention environmentally inexcusable. Don’t forget the economic benefits of rail, either — or that replacing significant levels of truck traffic on the highways with freight trains has the potential to make our roads safer for motorists and their passengers, diminishes congestion, and drastically decreases the pulverizing damage massive eighteen-wheelers do to the pavement (and the concomitant costs).
Perhaps most important of all for cultural conservatives, rail can help to level the playing field for the “Flyover States”, bringing new economic vitality to communities desiccated by wave after wave of suburbanization so God-awfully subsidized by the federal government via long-standing transportation-funding policies (the unpleasant half of Kasich’s request). Plenty of folk’ll still drive off to Walmart because they truly cannot afford to shop from the smaller hometown grocer, as will a good number who value the supposedly disappearing middle-class lifestyle (of keeping up with the Joneses) enough to prioritize the new LCD (or whichever high-tech incarnation of idiot box is in vogue presently) over new helmets for the local Little League (Damn right I’m pulling at the heart strings like that!), but more than preaching the virtues and long-term benefits of shopping locally, what is needed to keep money circulating at home is the presence of more better jobs that do not require that people commute forty, sixty, even eighty miles. When stopping at the not-so-local hypermarket, finding a spot in the asphalt ocean, and inevitably buying things that you wouldn’t buy were you not besieged by apparent deals becomes less convenient, and when Joe Six-Pack is earning that paycheck three blocks from Jim’s Supermarket and Hank’s Hardware, he just may be more inclined to give his earnings to his old high-school classmates, rather than making a special trip to deposit his earnings with the Menard family or the Waltons, whose respective colossuses stood between the plant and the porch before the local factory re-opened adjacent to the new team track. (I pretend not to own plants or crystal balls possessed of essomenic powers whereby I can foresee such things, but anecdotal evidence and common sense suggest that I may be on to something here, at least in cases when Jim’s and Hank’s are sufficiently responsive to their customers’ needs — but that’s an excessive digression.)
The Obama Administration has not completely disregarded freight rail, offering TIGER moneys for rail improvements, entering public-private partnerships to update parts of the rail system, but their screw-ups here are, minimally, two-fold: Prioritizing funding for passenger rail over freight-rail expansion, and suggesting that “Improving miles of track in advance of a high-speed rail network also smooths the way for more efficient rail shipping” , despite that “fast passenger trains are not compatible with slow freight trains on the same track.” Bridges are inconsequential: We’re building an entire transportation system to nowhere!
Rail advocacy can and should very much be a conservative cause, provided that we’re not supporting it for the sake thereof. Much good can be said about forms of passenger rail, particularly commuter-rail and public-transit systems. Unsurprisingly, President Obama’s take on the issue is inimical to conservatism — perhaps, in part, because of his desire to adimpleate his campaign war chest with contributions from the “creative class” who stand to benefit from high-sped passenger rail and anything else that helps them to avoid becoming rooted —; almost remarkably, John Kasich’s tune isn’t too far off-pitch. Good for Ohio. Here’s hoping that others, like California, Florida, and New York — not exactly in good fiscal shape and “already lobbying that funds returned from states like Ohio or Wisconsin … would be re-allocated to rail corridors where true high-speed trains reaching sustained speeds of 135 mph or more, still far slower than Euro-style or Chinese trains that routinely clock speeds of 220 mph or more, can proceed” — learn from this Midwestern common sense. Let’s hope that Mr. Obama does.