High Speed Rail, Thinking Large

By James Baxter, NMA President

In a presentation this past summer, regarding a local “high speed rail” project, Randal O’Toole, an associate of the Heritage Foundation, described the Federal Government’s fascination with rail passenger service, as “promoting a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” (I may be somewhat paraphrasing his statement.)

I can’t disagree.

For all the hype and multi-billion dollar grants, the proposals on the drawing board are almost farcical. The subject of this particular “high speed” rail project presentation is a 75 mile route between Milwaukee and Madison Wisconsin — peak speed 78 MPH.

The true cost per passenger is estimated at $165, although the proposed ticket price is $35; taxpayers will pick up the other $130. Meanwhile, the local intercity bus service (clean, efficient, convenient, and a little faster than the train, door to door) charges $17.50, unsubsidized, for the same trip!

Does this sound rational or like good public policy? The new incoming Governor doesn’t think so and has vowed to kill this project.

But to me, true high speed rail has appeal. By “true high speed rail” I mean 300 MPH trains that never cross a surface road or come to ground but to discharge and take on passengers.

I envision two routes to begin with; one from New York City environs to the Los Angeles area and the other from Minneapolis to Miami. For the most part they could follow Interstate Highway Corridors. Economically viable spur routes could be added as use and demand grow.

The land use and environmental battles would be epic! And the costs, almost beyond comprehension. But, high speed surface transportation could revolutionize long distance commercial travel. It would also decimate much of the air transport industry. There would be minimal impact on the use of personal vehicles.

Could we do it? We built the Interstate System and a secondary road system that is unequaled in the history of civilization. But that was then and now is now. We no longer seem to really think “big” or dream large.

The same nation that sent astronauts to the moon in vehicles that more resembled slowly exploding bombs now demands absolute safety and security in every aspect of daily affairs. Our population has doubled and spread across the landscape since the Interstate era. It seems anything of any magnitude does not happen without agitating and negatively affecting vast numbers of people.

Cost, conflict, and a timid phobic society may sabotage real high speed rail. The next question is what follows when only a small percentage of the traveling public can legally fly, or is willing to put up with the inconvenience and indignities of commercial air travel?

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