Intercity passenger trains are being talked about a lot in the public square these days thanks to the $8 billion allocated by the economic stimulus bill toward the development of high-speed rail. Newspaper editorials and pundits of every kind have been hailing high-speed rail.
Sure, there have been a few dissenting points of view. There always are and always will be. Not everyone loves trains or is convinced of their value as a means of transportation. But mainly the critics are focusing on the price tag of developing a high-speed rail system. It’s a legitimate concern and should be talked about. What are we getting for all of that money and do we need it?
Supporters cite rising congestion of the nation’s highways and airways. Long-time passenger train advocates like to talk about the need for a balanced transportation system. Inevitably they make comparisons between the United States, which has very little high-
speed rail, and Western Europe and Japan, which not only have plenty of it, but have systems that are reliable and operate with a high level of service.
Yet if you read the editorials carefully, listen to the speeches, and think about what people are saying about high-speed rail, it become apparent that they are in love with the concept with rail passenger service without having much knowledge of what it will take to make those dreams a reality. This is true with President Barack Obama, who sees development of high-speed rail as a legacy to leave behind after he leaves office. Like so many others, Obama sees the type of high-speed rail systems that exist elsewhere and wonders why the United States can’t have that.
The short answer is that this country could have that type of rail service. Yet it is doubtful that Obama or the pundits, or the editorial writers or even many rail passenger advocates comprehend what it will take to translate love of the concept of passenger rail into a
concrete system complete with trains, stations and high-speed tracks. Yes, they say they know it will be expensive. But do they understand how expensive?
Everyone says that a high-speed route ought to link Chicago and Indianapolis. But it is one thing to say this route is a natural and another to make it happen. Amtrak trains between the two cities now follow a slow, zig-zag route that involves five railroads. The scheduled travel time between Indy and Chicago is five hours.
It may not be practical to upgrade this route for 100-mph operation or even 90-mph speeds. Another route likely would need to be created. Imagine the NIMBY opposition that is sure to come when plans are announced to put down tracks where there are none now. Imagine the outrage from some when they see the millions, even billions, it will take to cut a couple of hours off the travel time between the two cities.
Most policymakers understand that European-style high-speed rail systems will require dedicated tracks that will be very expensive to build. It remains to be seen whether policymakers have the political will to support the appropriations bills needed to pay for those tracks and the legal battles that NIMBYs are sure to launch to stop them. Those numbers are sure to make Obama and other lawmakers recoil in horror.
At some point, policymakers in France, England, Spain, Germany and Japan, among other countries, must have had similar moments. Development of the European and Japanese systems began decades ago when construction costs were lower, but the costs still must have been relatively high. What convinced them to press ahead? Is the political culture of Europe and Japan that much different from the United States when it comes to transportation development? Yes, it is.
Thus, step one is going to be transforming the political culture in this country. That means having to engage in a long fight. Rail passenger advocates have been urging such a cultural transformation for years, but sympathetic lawmakers have been unwilling to engage in much more than a battle of words. In that battle, everyone says they love
passenger trains. But few are willing to pay for them.
In the movie Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee is portrayed as discussing with General James Longstreet the cost of war. It was on the second day of battle and Lee understood that his army was going to suffer heavy casualties.
“The soldier has one great trap,” Lee told Longstreet. “To be a good solider you must love the Army. To be a good commander you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. We do not fear our own deaths, you and I, but there comes a time when we are not prepared for so many to die … We are prepared to lose some of us but we are never prepared to lose all of us – and there is the great trap. When you attack, you must hold nothing back. You must commit yourself totally.”
The Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg and subsequently the war, but Lee’s point was still valid. If he wanted to win a battle and ultimately win a war, he needed to look past the inevitable human suffering and misery. It wasn’t that Lee was callous. He just understood the cost of winning did not come easily.
No one is going to lose their life or suffer a debilitating injury in the struggle to bring about better intercity rail passenger service. But make no mistake that it is going to be a struggle, a long struggle.
No one likes to talk about it, but the cost of building a high-speed rail system in this country is going to be lost opportunities to do something else with that money. Many rail advocates might say, “it’s about time” and cite how many billions federal and state governments have spent building highways and airport runways. Fair enough, but the lawmakers who vote on spending bills don’t look at it that way. Nor will the pundits and editorial writers now calling for high-speed rail systems in this country. Those same folks at some point are going to rail against the cost of rail.
The stimulus package was at best a down payment. Much higher bills lie down the road, which is one reason why lawmakers have dodged the cost of rail development for so long. Lawmakers say they favor better rail systems, but will they still be in love with rail when they learn its cost? It is easy to be in love with the concept of better intercity railroad passenger systems. But if this country is going to have better intercity railroad passenger systems, it is going to take money, yes, but first it will take commitment. How many love affairs have fallen apart when commitment time came?