Streetwise Professor

February 22, 2011

Channeling Casey Jones

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 5:01 pm

Et tu, WaPo?  Even the Washington Post recognizes that high speed rail is a loser.  The paper recounts the Chinese problems I wrote about Saturday, and then shovels more dirt on the coffin:

Of course, if the Chinese do finish their system, it is likely to require operating subsidies for many years – possibly forever. A recent World Bank report on high-speed rail systems around the world noted that ridership forecasts rarely materialize and warned that “governments contemplating the benefits of a new high-speed railway, whether procured by public or private or combined public-private project structures, should also contemplate the near-certainty of copious and continuing budget support for the debt.”

That’s certainly what happened in Japan, where only a single bullet-train line, between Japan and Osaka, breaks even; it’s what happened in France, where only the Paris-Lyon line is in the black. Taiwan tried a privately financed system, but it ended up losing so much money that the government had to bail it out in 2009.

When it comes to high-speed rail, Europe, Japan and Taiwan have two natural advantages over every region of the United States, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor – high gas taxes and high population density. If high-speed rail turned into a money pit under relatively favorable circumstances, imagine the subsidies it would require here. Every dollar spent to subsidize high-speed rail is a dollar that cannot be spent modernizing highways, expanding the freight rail system or creating private-sector jobs. The Obama administration insists we dare not lag the rest of the world in high-speed rail. Actually, this is a race everyone loses.

Despite the near universal recognition that high speed rail is a colossal waste, Obama seems intent on pretending to be Casey Jones, throwing on the coal and hanging on the steam whistle.  We know how swell that worked out.

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  1. The fascist preoccupation with railways was a matter of sport even by the 1930’s. The stunning thing is that little has changed in the intervening eighty years. PG Wodehouse captured it magnificently with Roderick Spode:

    One of the many measures I intend to introduce to the House of Lords will be a bill widening the gauge of the British railway system by eight inches, to facilitate the transportation of livestock! The “Dismal Jimmies” will tell you that we cannot afford to replace the twenty-seven thousand miles of track necessary for the task. They have not looked at it scientifically! It will be more than paid for by the fact that sheep will be able to stand sideways!

    Comment by ThomasL — February 22, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

  2. “That’s certainly what happened in Japan, where only a single bullet-train line, between Japan and Osaka, breaks even”

    And I always thought that Osaka was *in* Japan! Thank you for clearing that up, Washington Post copy editors.

    Comment by Æternitatis — February 22, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

  3. Without state subsidies we’d never have air travel either. What’s a market fundamentalist to do? Walk?

    Comment by So? — February 22, 2011 @ 9:30 pm

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