The $8 billion authorized by the vote is a down payment on an allegedly $68 billion project that rail advocates hail as a great step forward for America. At a recent conference in Philadelphia, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likened high-speed rail to great advances of the past such as the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge and the transcontinental railroad.
The canal system, in its day, was utterly transformative. It was a vast improvement over hauling small amounts of cargo via horse and trailer over the existing network of bumpy, muddy roads. Canals opened trade in places that had no navigable rivers or lakes. Entire cities grew up because of their strategic locations along canal routes.
When railroads came along, they leapfrogged the water-based heavy transit system by allowing high speed, high volume freight and passenger movement to anywhere tracks could be built. The most transformative aspects of railroad development occured before motorized cars and trucks were commonly used in the U.S. For passengers especially, railroads were a vast leap beyond horse-n-buggy travel. Before railroads, long-distance travel in the U.S. was extremely difficult. Again, entire cities leapt up along railroad routes. And this was considered good.
Then along came mass-produced, affordable cars and trucks. Suddenly people and businesses were no longer confined to the narrow routes of railroad tracks. The dirt roads already criss-crossing the nation rapidly became paved roads, connecting rural areas to urban areas in a bold new way. The result was the beginning of mass exodus from city slums as people discovered and embraced a lifestyle greatly enhanced by the freedom and flexibility of high-speed personal transportation. And THEN the interstate highway system came along to vastly accelerate this effect.
Many people seem to forget that passenger rail started dying well before the interstate highways were complete. But the big roads did help finish the job. Initially conceived as a network for moving military supplies during the Cold War, millions of people embraced the new opportunties created by the highway system. Entire towns sprung up along major highways. The modern concept of suburbia emerged as legions of city-dwellers eagerly chose to trade in their cramped, polluted, noisy urban flats for more spacious houses on property they could call their own. Again, this was a transformative occurrence and the overwhelming majority of citizens saw it as good.
Mr. LaHood would have us believe that high-speed rail is the next great leap forward in this chain of progress. Yet by its own conceptual design it can never be so. High speed passenger rail will not and cannot have the positive transformative effects that flowed from canals, early railroads and highways.
First, the technology isn't very new and the U.S. isn't even close to the cutting edge of it. The cold fact remains that the California rail project, as currently planned, cannot match the speeds already achieved in China and France. The cold hard fact remains that this nation is struggling to pay for second-rate high-speed rail. There's nothing for a nation to be proud of in this.
Second, compared to the freedom and flexibility of our road system, every form of passenger rail, including high-speed rail, is a step backward. Unlike previous advances in transportation tech, rail systems simply cannot take us to more places than roads can already go.
High speed rail cannot even match the flexibility of air travel, which also isn't as flexible as road travel, but is much faster. The only hope for rail tech is to come close to matching air travel speed over relatively short jaunts (less than 400 miles) while carrying large numbers of people. Real humans will embrace rail tech if and when the trains can get there much faster than car travel, and much cheaper than flying in a plane.
Sadly, the cost-cutting, shared-track, compromised version of the California "bullet" train can do neither. The rail line cannot open underdeveloped parts of the state without making a number of stops, and if it makes a bunch of stops, it cannot go fast. And if the train can't get from L.A. to San Francisco really fast, there's no market.
Bullet trains, like highway express lanes and non-stop flights, are designed to facilitate movement from one big crowded place to another big crowded place. By their limited nature, they cannot do much to create development opportunities because they don't open any unreached places for development.
Instead, high-speed rail is part and parcel of an urban planning movement that seeks to pull people out of suburbs and into cities again. It's a concept that flows from the idea that growth -- now seen as sprawl -- is fundamentally bad. And thus it is not transformative at all.
In fact, high speed rail is mostly a reaction to the high cost and perceived hassles of car ownership in big cities -- problems that simply do not exist outside of the nation's largest cities. Limited rail service cannot match the freedom and flexibility of personal transportation.
The pursuit of high-speed rail also represents a concession of economic defeat; a tacit acknowledgement that more and more families must relocate to big cities because they no longer can afford a car and house -- once core elements of the American dream. Adding to this sense of defeat, our political leaders admit that we cannot afford proper high-speed rail in California. To bring the spiralling project costs down to a semi-acceptable level, the revised plans gave up on achieving bullet train speeds.
High-speed rail does have a limited value in America. It could make existing city life a bit more efficient for some residents. With millions of Americans forced by economics to live in increasingly crowded cities, making city life better can be seen as a worthwhile goal. In that light, high-speed rail has its place.
But don't pretend this is a great leap forward.
Unlike our road system, which everybody pays for and everybody uses, city-to-city passenger rail will be paid for by everybody, but used by only a few. That's a bad deal for the public at large. And most people know it -- especially those living in rural areas, small towns, and entire "fly-over" states.