It seems topics come in waves. I was just mentioning the other day, how in California, if they were really committed to the environment, they would start building the new high speed rail from LA to Sacramento/San Francisco, by digging up I-5. They could lay down the tracks right behind the crews ripping up the freeway. They won’t. The high speed rail is highly unlikely to ever be completed. A lot of money will be wasted. It will be the train to nowhere.
While high speed rail is a nice form of mass transit and is definitely more environmentally friendly, it just doesn’t fit in with our vast network of roads and it is one of the most expensive forms of travel. Such huge projects require the force of government to ever be completed. Private property must be taken. Profits rarely ever materialize so tax-payers usually have to absorb the losses. If high speed rail was such a great thing, private capital would fund it and companies would be beating down the door to build and operate such trains. Europe has a nice network of trains. I rode them when I visited a few years ago. They are an asset for the continent but they are not profitable. Not according to the Germans I spoke with in Munich. The government built the trains and the government still greatly subsidizes the trains. I suppose, as long as the people know that they are being taxed to support the trains, and they are ok with it, it’s all good. The U.S. is bigger and most people who will be taxed to build the high speed rail in California will never ride it. Even if more passenger rails were developed, I doubt I would ever have the benefit of using it. A train from Wausau to Green Bay (which I would use to go see the Packers of course) would probably be the lowest priority on the list of planned trains.
Even a train that is designed to ride from LA to Las Vegas (XpressWest), through desert areas, is having trouble. If it is to move forward it looks like it will have to get a multi-billion dollar loan from the federal government. If a train between to popular and populous cities through mostly empty desert areas cannot attract private money, then there probably is no high speed rail that will ever be privately built and operated in the U.S.
I hope you don’t get the impression that I am against high speed trains. I would use trains if they reasonably priced and served my local area. I think it would be cool to ride the high speed train between LA and Las Vegas. Trains are a more sustainable mode of transportation as well. The problem is that most of these trains cannot be built without government diktats and support. The government decision of when and where to build a train is not usually supported by the desires of the local population. When a private individual or company decides to build “infrastructure”, it is because they have analyzed the situation and determined there is a profit to be made by serving the people. Developers take risks with their money. Sometimes they lose. That is ok. Taxpayers usually do not end up paying for the loss.
Unfortunately, private developers seemed to be mis-allocating resources lately as well. Remember the housing bubble? Incredibly, house building permits have apparently gone up slightly in the past month, even though by many estimates there are still well over 10 million empty houses sitting around the U.S.! And this type of activity comes back to haunt the possible future for trains. The more subdivisions, parking lots, and sprawling highways that exist to support all the empty homes, the harder it will be to put trains in anywhere.
There is hope. A private market solution is evolving that fits within the framework of America’s love affair with the automobile. It is self-driving cars. I have covered the development of these cars for sometime now (here as well). Now auto research group KPMG has released a report stating that self-driving cars will be in showrooms by 2019 or even a bit earlier. The main bottleneck holding back self-driving cars is the law, legal liability issues, and regulations. The initial test vehicles are also expensive. The technology is already here and it works well. Self-driving cars will most likely be much much safer and more efficient. They will also be essentially like miniature trains. Packs of autonomous vehicles travelling on the freeways will even look like trains. The “tracks” have already been laid. It is the best we can hope for here in the U.S.
Have a fine Friday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on August 24, 2012