Passenger rail is an old technology that is particularly attractive to planners, the folks who want to force us out of our cars and into subways that travel only on the routes they design. Let's make everyone live the way people do in Manhattan!
This is contrary to the thrust of emerging information technologies, which let us take whatever path on the Internet we want. Sort of like automobiles.
Moreover, the idea that it would be great to put high-speed rail lines all over the country shows an underappreciation of American geography and of some of the nation's genuine strengths.
High-speed rail can compete with air travel only over limited distances, but the United States is a continental-sized country. Japan and France, as you may have noticed, are a lot smaller.
China, which is continent-sized too, has been building high-speed rail, but it's cutting back now and slowing down the trains after a bad accident. Brazil, also continent-sized, is dropping plans for a Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo line. Its airlines and buses already work fine.
America's alleged lag in high-speed rail is also a consequence of our excellence in freight rail. Over three decades after Jimmy Carter's deregulation, freight rail has squeezed out costs and made shipped goods much cheaper for all of us. Europe and Japan have lousy freight rail and pay more for things.
The reason that's important is that truly high-speed trains cannot use freight rail tracks. Freight trains travel slower and have a hard time getting out of the way of passenger trains traveling 200 miles per hour. Japan's bullet train and France's TGV operate on dedicated tracks specially built for them. That's expensive.
As a frequent traveler from Washington to New York, I'd love to see a real high-speed train in the Northeast Corridor -- the only place in the country where it might make economic sense. But if not having one is the price to be paid for the demise of the Obama high-speed rail boondoggle, I'm happy to pay it.
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