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Should You Support High-Speed Rail?

Probably not. A commenter recently got upset with me for saying:

Don’t subsidize long-distance rail (unless it’s Hyperloop). I don’t, unlike many other progressive wonk types, have any passion for really nice, high-speed transport between urban hubs. That’s a lie I personally do, but I depart from liberal ideology that it’s a social benefit. Think about it, the people who most intensely travel the Northeast Corridor – or between San Francisco and Los Angeles – are affluent professionals that take many more flights than the average American, are more likely the fly in environmentally-shitty business class setups, and all around typify the East Coast Elite Liberal stereotype. That it’s treated as some sort of environmentalist’s dream is a joke. (In fact, a 100% tax on business class, 200% tax on first class, and 50% tax on all economy flights after your first two in a year is a great idea).

He (or she) noted:

About rail: the population you observe is a selected sample. With rail, more people are likely to transport themselves; how do you account for this? The answer is far trickier than what you make it out to be.

I think this criticism is very fair. I made a rather blanket generalization from anecdotal evidence and it is possible, even probable, that my sample is itself highly biased. (For example, though I think the government should be helping many people, I personally do not know anyone that should fall into this category). Maybe the Northeast Regional is a lifesaver for much of America’s poor and lower-middle and I’ve misjudged the program completely.

So I decided to do a bit of research. But first, let me state the theoretical reasons why high-speed rail should never be at the top of a liberal’s agenda. By “theoretical” I do not mean abstruse mathematics or Euler Equations, but simple logic. Let me also say this is an important post, personally, because it marks a rather strong shift from my previous prior that we should encourage massive spending on high-speed rail across the country. I have some good things to say about rail, and I’ll get to that in the end, but I’ll first outline the case against.

Sometimes anecdotes can be generalized – especially those of broad economic judgement – and, as it happens, this weekend is a good time for me to write this post. I’m planning a trip from Philadelphia to Princeton tomorrow evening and I have two good options: a local connector via Trenton or Amtrak’s Northeast Regional. The former takes roughly four times as long (two hours to Amtrak’s half), requires a connection, but comes about $50 dollars cheaper.

There’s no reason for me – or most of America – to take the Amtrak. And that’s the problem with the high-speed emphasis of the conversation. Time is money but, for most of us, it isn’t much. Moreover, with smartphones, books, and sufficiently comfortable seats, the extra hour isn’t even time wasted as it once may have been. Of course, for America’s liberal, particularly coastal, elite – it is. Daily readers of the New York Times earn way more than most people, and their fodder, like Tom Friedman, work and play in circles where than hour is worth a lot of money.

This, by itself, doesn’t mean high-speed rail is ineffective. For example, slower speeds aren’t too bad for relatively short distances – say between Philadelphia and Princeton – but become a pain when we’re talking transnational services. Wouldn’t it be nice to get from Brooklyn to the Beltway in thirty?

Unfortunately, the usage of these services are almost exclusively beneficial to the somewhat upper middle class, if not only affluent. Flying JetBlue (as anyone not yet a millionaire should be doing, without whining) is, and in all likelihood will continue to be, a cheaper option. At this point, the high-speed rail activist points out that flying is shitty for the environment.

This is a concern that I sympathize with deeply. In fact, as Christie Aschwanden writes in Slate, the best thing you can do for the environment isn’t to become vegetarian, drive a Prius, or shop at Whole Foods but to stay within a hundred miles of your home and avoid flying to the extent possible.

But I am, and you should be, concerned about an argument to socially guarantee a rail service to clear the conscience of the rather select group that will use it. I would rather institute draconian airline fuel surcharges with annual exemptions. That is, most Americans barely fly, and when they do it’s probably for an important reason. Therefore, tax the first flight at 15%, and all subsequent flights in increasing intervals of 30%. Tax business class at 100% and first at 200%. Or something similarly aggressive.

As Aschwanden points out, telling an educated professional not to go to a conference or important business meeting is difficult. It’s why flying isn’t stigmatized like driving a hummer – it’s too important an action for the would-be stigmatizers. The tax system, in this case, is our friend.

And, by the way, some might say a “carbon tax will fix it all” but this isn’t the case for flying. Because the emissions are at a very sensitive part of the Earth’s atmosphere, the marginally emitted unit can be about four times as bad. More importantly, the worst part of a carbon tax is its regressive nature, and tilting the incidence to the wealthy is a good way to stem the welfare losses.

Ultimately, the data back my story up. The liberal argument for high-speed rail derives, primarily, from perceived environmental benefits, and subsidies for the poor. The environmental benefits can obviously be extracted in a more efficient manner (which the frequent fliers will hate, but so be it). But what of the poor? Well this is from a paper by Nevine Geroggi at the Center for Urban Transportation Research and Ram Pendyala at the Department for Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida:

It was found that nearly half of the low income and elderly made no long-distance trips in the 1-year survey period. In addition, it was found that long-distance trips made by these groups were more likely to be undertaken by bus and geared towards social and personal business activities. The paper discusses the implications of these findings in the context of transportation service provision and policy formulation.

Now, half of the low income made no long-distance trips in the sampled year. Contrast that with the average of seven long-distance trips made by the “average” American. Of course, I scare quote “average” because statistically speaking average quantities do not reflect the median American. Since long-distane travel follows a power law relationship, the large handful of affluent (or busy working class) people making weekly trips heavily skews the picture.

Liberals generally talk about high-speed rail as a way of replacing airplane traffic, but the social welfare point of their argument somewhat more evaporates when you realize  air travel is used for business purposes at over twice the rate of all other transportation methods.

You’ll find even more important data here. Usage of intercity rail services is correlated positively with education and income, and very negatively with those who haven’t completed college. In fact, the correlation continues quite steeply not just at the “mildly affluent” income level of $100-150k but well beyond. If the conversation were limited to Amtrak, the divide would likely be even worse.

A subtly of the pro-rail argument is that we as a country should replace airplane traffic with more rail traffic, and use the government to achieve this outcome, rather than just use less airplane traffic to begin with. This wouldn’t bother most of America – which uses the interstate highway system to travel – but it certainly would cost the affluent. The conservative political establishment generally doesn’t seem to give a shit about the environment, so they don’t begin the argument at all. But that’s not much better than using the whole country’s purse for the betterment of a small group of people.

In fact, the liberal argument might be worse in that the fact that so many of us (unfortunately, I may not write “you”) even fly to begin with undermines our environmentalist credo. It’s like a watered down version of the joke where a Hollywood star drives a Prius to his private jet.

Note that while it is true that rail is environmentally healthier than using a car, it would be too expensive – and not socially efficient – to build high speed rail across all of the country. It would only be smart to link major commercial hubs – and this won’t help most people.

The driving assumption of this argument is that what does not help the poor should not be the government’s objective. That’s a dangerous line of thinking. In all likelihood, considering our record low interest rates and need to employ the unemployed, a large-scale project that doesn’t help the poor may not even be a bad idea. But I’m not convinced rail would help even the middle class as much as the affluent in general and select members of the middle or poor. We can expand two-year educational opportunities and make healthful eating options available to the poor; we can expand the EITC and cut payroll taxes. I do not see why we should build a railway given these tradeoffs.

If high-speed rail is such a great idea, it should be privately financed by those interested. My guess is America won’t get its own TGV even if we institute aggressive airplane taxes. And that in and of itself speaks to the meek social utility thereof.

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6 comments
  1. Bryan Willman said:

    There’s another deep issue with rail. Spending a lot on rail will almost surely mean running unpleasent rail right-of-ways through and near the lands of the not-so-well-connected. So the same hypocrits who argue for a carbon tax while flying 1st class would argue for massive rail investment while making sure it does NOT go too close to their house.

    There’s another fraud in all this – the large pool of folks who don’t fly generally work in jobs, a great many of which depend on organizational functions that are impossible or much less efficient without flying. If flying is banned, expect a great deal of direct and indirect unemployment as a result.

    Finally, the BEST thing to reduce your impact on the environment is to have fewer children. Period.

  2. rjh said:

    I would argue that the US should subsidize passenger rail to the same extent (not more) that it subsidizes roads, air, and water transit. None of these modes are fully self-sufficient, and government biases on subsidies has led to serious mis-allocation of resources.

    And a smaller issues:
    I’ve looked at NorthEast Corridor (NEC) from a marketing perspective. It’s got a very complex market. The truly poor use buses. The middle class will use a mix of bus, car, air, and train. The upper class will use air and train.

    Car is very expensive in terms of tolls (very high) and time (very slow). Bus can be very cheap and equally slow.

    Air travel is very expensive if fast, cheap if slow. Air travel is beyond capacity for airports and ATC in anything other than perfect conditions, so it is highly unreliable. Fixing this means either reducing demand or building more airports. Building more airports would be a staggeringly huge government subsidy given the cost of land and construction in urban areas.

    Train travel is slightly cheaper than air by design. Amtrak uses yield management to stay slightly less expensive than equivalent time air fares. As a result, Amtrak gets 60% vs air getting 40% of travelers. Actual travel time and cost are highly sensitive to details of end point locations. Leaving from Queens vs Lower Manhattan have dramatically different cost/time tradeoffs. Destination of Pentagon vs Reston have dramatically different tradeoffs. These tradeoffs dominate the 60:40 split more than costs do.

    I also agree that the focus on “speed” is silly. The goal needs to be travel time/cost relationships between endpoints. On the NEC that is how airlines and Amtrak behave. On the NEC, the total travel time is dominated by the effects of chokepoints not by the speed on the fast parts.

    • The important problem with high-speed rail is it requires long lengths of straight track. If we allowed for more inconvenience via connections, the eminent domain costs would be less substantial. But that defeats the high-speed agenda. Again the only people who benefit are those for whom the time is very valuable. And to the extent this benefits the environment, we should extract those gains via a flight tax rather than socialized luxury travel for the wealthy.

  3. rjh said:

    You confuse time and speed, as do the speed freak environmentalists. The major delays on the NEC are from stretches of track that have significant speed restrictions. You don’t need eminent domain to fix those. One five minute saving in travel time this year came from replacing three bridges that were each over 100 years old. This upgraded the speed limit in that stretch from 30mph to 60mph. The delay of slowing down, traveling through the slow stretch, then speeding up added five minutes to a trip. The old bridges were worn out and overdue for replacement.

    The realistic Amtrak plans for NEC are dozens of repairs and improvements like that. Little eminent domain is needed. Most of the improvements are replacement of equipment from the 1930’s and earlier with modern equipment. Similar speedups are identified for other high travel corridors around Chicago, Pacific NW, San Francisco Bay area, and LA-San Diego.

    These improvements are sometimes listed as high speed rail, and sometimes not. It depends on the advocacy group. The underlying NEC strategy is to get the whole NEC operating at as close to 250 KPH as possible. In the other areas it is usually measured in terms of travel time reduction or capacity increase, not speed.

    Other improvements like the CREATE projects are not usually called high speed rail, but relocating highway, canal, and rail lines to eliminate bottlenecks and mutual interference are also appropriate. It’s ridiculous but true that you find opposition to relocating a highway by 20-30 feet so that a railroad crossing can be eliminated. The change improves traffic for both rail and highway. The railroads are willing to pay the relocation and construction costs for the rail lines. But government highway funds are frequently denied.

  4. letsgola said:

    I guess you could say that if you really wanted to help poor people with their travel needs, you’d create bus lanes on urban freeways (or congestion charge, I know, I know) to make bus trips faste and more reliable…

    • rjh said:

      Experience on NEC is that terminals, safety, and internet access are the big issue for bus travel. Bolt, Megabus, etc. must often use curb site pickup (not nice in winter for waiting passengers). The overall safety record is poor, with Fung Wah finally being closed this year for numerous unsafe practices. Many of these require Internet reservations, which sometimes means a credit card purchase only. They are cheap. Typical next day Boston-NYC is $20-25.

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