Conservatives and Trains


Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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70 Responses

  1. fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

    One of the *possible* issues with high-speed rail is that it could become, because many of the ‘smaller’ stops might be eliminated in the name of “efficiency,” a sort of ground-bound airline.

    I like Amtrak (with some reservations) and I use it for long distance travel – I dislike flying in general, I am claustrophobic in a way that planes exacerbate but trains don’t, I have sinus issues that can make pressure changes unpleasant, and where I currently live it’s actually less hassle to get to a train station than to an airport (nearest airport to me is DFW, enough said about that).

    But if high-speed rail came and the stops on the line I most often take would be Dallas, Little Rock, St. Louis, and Chicago with no or few intermediate stops (it is not uncommon I am the only person boarding at the station where I get on), it would be less useful to me. I’m not driving to midtown Dallas for a train. I’m not going all the way to Little Rock for a train.

    I do think one of the challenges with train travel in the US – as opposed to in Europe or Japan – is that the US is enormous, and there are lots of low-density areas where a few people might use the train for long-distance travel, but most won’t.

    Some of the other reservations I have with Amtrak deal largely with the compromise as to how it must exist: it uses the freight tracks, maintained by the freight companies, and therefore is subject to delay in favor of freights. The biggest thing you learn as a usual Amtrak user is (a) don’t have tight connections anywhere, (b) leave a day before you need to be somewhere if you can at all do it, (c) pack an extra book for the train (or whatever your preferred form of entertainment is). It’s a good trip when the train’s less than an hour late; three hours (for a ~15 hour trip) is more typical. I just roll with it because I hate flying more than I hate the delay.

    I also wonder if some of the “disdain” you hear for Amtrak is a case of “but *those people* use it” – it really is a cross-section of society, and because coach tickets are a good bit more reasonable than a flight, people who might not afford a flight use it. You see lots of large families with lots of small children, and small children can be loud. I’ve seen Amish people using the train. I’ve seen people who didn’t speak a word of English. And also, you have to be able to “roll with” whatever quirks your fellow passengers may have for a longer period of time than on a plane (and I suspect some behaviors are more tolerated on the train that wouldn’t be on board a plane). I admit I spring for a roomette because I had an unpleasant experience (long story short, but: guy with a fetish for women with long hair, I wound up having to sit in the lounge car under the watchful eye of the conductor I complained to). Roomettes are really, really nice, but they’re also expensive, on the order of a plane ticket…Report

    • Avatar Road Scholar in reply to fillyjonk says:

      One of the *possible* issues with high-speed rail is that it could become, because many of the ‘smaller’ stops might be eliminated in the name of “efficiency,” a sort of ground-bound airline.

      Buses seem to have taken over the spot in our transportation infrastructure previously occupied by rail. And the spot previously occupied by buses is… just abandoned.

      I live in a county seat town in NW Kansas. When I was a kid (60’s) all these county seat towns along two-lane Federal highways (in my case US 36) had a bus terminal. They suck for long-distance travel but if you couldn’t drive you could at least hop on the bus to get to a train station or airport as well as shorter journeys. Now the bus routes are all just running the interstate highways and from where I live it’s about the same distance to a bus terminal, train station, or (small) airport. Bottom line is that there essentially is NO public transit in my corner of ruralia so I can see why the conservatives that live here (80% Republican) would see money for mass transit as going for “those people”.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon in reply to fillyjonk says:

      I hate to break it to you, but and hour to 3 hours late has become pretty typical for airplanes too, especially at busy hubs. When we first moved out East, we wound up waiting 2 hours for a less than 2 hour flight to NYC. After that, we learned. Anything Amtrak can get to within 3-4 hours is faster and more reliable by train. Also, on a plane, the weirdo who like women with long hair would be sitting there skeeving on you the whole flight – if there aren’t empty seats, there’s nowhere to retreat to.

      But clearly that will vary a lot by region. High speed rail makes sense between major city centers. It reduces congestion on roads and in airports. For greater distances, fewer people will choose it, so it doesn’t make sense. Honestly a train that crosses the Rockies ought to have a car with big windows or a glass ceiling dining car to make it a tourist trip in itself to take in the natural beauty.Report

      • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to bookdragon says:

        there are Amtrak fans who refer to their trips as “land cruises.” Most of the Wester trains have “sightseer lounges” with big windows for doing just that.

        I have dreams some day of doing the cross-Canada trip by Via Rail, almost entirely for the sightseeing potential.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon in reply to fillyjonk says:

          Yeah. That Canadian Via Rail trip has been on our bucket list for awhile.Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to bookdragon says:

            It’s beautiful and comfortable
            a great experience. Just give yourself LOTS of extra time to catch any other transport home after the train. Last time Fledermaus took the train (The Canadian, the beautiful scenic Via train) to visit her parents, she arrived 20ish hours late on the way out and something like 27 hours late on the way home.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Couple of thoughts:

    Like you, I think trains are neat. When I was in Lisbon a few weeks ago, my wife and I figured out the metro system there first thing. Took the trains everywhere we wanted to go. I don’t hate trains. I do think mass transit advocates love them a bit too much and want them on routes that don’t make sense, as I’ll note below.

    Regarding mountains and Japan, keep in mind that we could drop the major islands of Japan into the northern Rockies and forget where we put them. So yes, but keep the scale in mind. We can cut and tunnel HSR through mountains, but that will be a hell of a chunk of change. This is basically the same argument I was making regarding a southern border wall; the fact that we can do something does not mean it’s worth the cost to do it. A HSR Chicago to Seattle route, say, will have about a third or more of the new route cutting through mountains, or it won’t be HS (the existing rail can’t support Shinkansen speeds, too many turns and grades). You gotta have an awful lot of people wanting to travel between Seattle and the Twin Cities or Chicago.

    Rail is heavy. Nature of the beast. Steel wheels on steel rail is efficient, but only if the cars weigh enough. The mass of the passengers will always be a small fraction of the mass of the rail car. Think of it as a passenger to mass ratio. A rail car is around 80 tons, so the ratio of the rail car to a single (200 lbs) passenger is 800:1. A passenger car is 10:1. I get 4 people in a car, and the ratio drops to 2.5:1. Four people in a rail car is still a 200:1 ratio. You don’t need to pack in 320 passengers to make a rail car worth it, but it’s going to be a number much bigger than 4.

    Hence you are spending a lot of energy to get that car moving, even with regenerative braking, so that car better not be empty. In short, there is a minimum passenger load for the train to make sense, and if you can not reliably get that minimum load, then running that train is a waste of energy (and money). Which means you need to be very careful about where you drop your rail line, because it’s a long term investment. You either need a route you know will be able to support the ridership for years, or you need to get busy reworking your cities so people are funneled towards the rail system (and hoo-boy won’t that be a fun bit of politics!). If your plan is to be able to see yourself portrayed by the latest incarnation of Kevin Costner on the big screen in the new “Train of Dreams” film, you need a better plan.

    And you still have the last mile issue to contend with (which is where, personally, I think autonomous cars will shine, especially if we have them be dispatchable).

    So for this center-Left libertarian, it isn’t the train, it’s the advocates who:

    1) Don’t seem to grasp the costs and time horizons of installation and operation.
    2) Hand wave away the last mile problem.
    3) See trains as some kind of solution for social issues, such as inequality (which translates into the Train of Dreams).

    If you want to build a rail line, that’s fine, just show me your homework first.

    PS regarding the CA HSR: Overall, it’s not a bad idea, but the plan and execution… I don’t think the people in charge had any clue how much legal push back they were going to get, and they should have.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      One of the things we’ve seen with transportation is that they can often generate their own support.

      Meaning, you add a rail connection or freeway onramp and the neighborhood immediately adjacent becomes more valuable and changes to a higher density.

      There are of course plenty of other factors and variables, but it is a thing.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        Oh, I know it’s a thing. If I was planning a train route, that thing would be a significant factor for where to put a stop, if I had good reason to route a train through economically depressed areas that I wanted to spur development of, provided of course that said route already had enough predicted ridership to support it’s existence.

        Of course, if you are using a train line/stop to promote social justice, congrats, you probably just started the ball rolling for that area to gentrify and push all the poor people further away from the train station. Hope you are coordinating with your affordable housing office about how they plan to deal with that eventuality.

        Also, hopefully you didn’t route through the economically depressed area instead of a more rational choice, like the business/industrial district with lots of employees who live along other stops on the planned line. That’s a big risk to take. Not only do you piss off the (probably middle class) voters who would like to take the train to work, you can’t guarantee that the train stop will spur development. It’s great when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        More train stops means a slower overall trip.Report

  3. Avatar bookdragon says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head here and look forward to your next post.

    I got my BS in engineering at a MI university and my husband and I worked both at GM before moving out to the Northeast for different jobs (we saw the writing on the wall well ahead of the ’08 crash). We both drive, and while I’m more of a boat enthusiast, hubby is very much a car guy. That said, traveling by rail has a lot of advantages – like being able to read reports or simply nap on the way to a meeting an 1 hour or so away rather than having to navigate traffic. Plus, while the train is sometimes late, there is little concern about getting stuck in endless barely moving traffic.

    Also, if we go out for drinks, no need for a designated driver. Which brings up the the reason I’ll look for local rail wherever we decide to retire: I can already see how driving is becoming more difficult for my parents. For people with disabilities or medical conditions that preclude driving, or even temporary “don’t operate a motor vehicle while taking this medicine”, local rail is a real blessing. It gives freedom and independence. Something conservatives ought to support.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to bookdragon says:

      The problem with that is that it only makes sense in very dense cities. Small towns are never going to have light rail, but they’ll be taxed to pay for light rail for urban folks because rail lines almost never generate enough profit to be self-sustaining.

      Hernando De Soto exhaustively researched the history of bus lines in Peru and explained a recurring pattern in the Peruvian transportation industry, a pattern that had first appeared in the US decades earlier.

      As a city develops new neighborhoods and new industrial sectors, there are people who need to commute from new homes to new jobs. At first they catch rides with someone who owns a car or van who is already traveling the same route. Someone decides they can make a side income by charging fellow commuters for the ride, and then uses the fare money to buy more vehicles and hire drivers. As ridership increases, the transportation entrepreneur buys an old American school bus so he can make more money per passenger. Over time, he starts buying more buses. His company thrives and becomes an established service.

      Then the passengers complain that he’s charging too much, and people who aren’t on the lucrative routes he developed complain that they’re not be served by the profit-mad capitalist bus mogul. The city forces him to expand his lines into very unprofitable areas (poor or sparse and remote neighborhoods) and sets the price he can charge, all to ensure fairness and equity.

      He starts losing money on the bad routes and cheap fares, and faces bankruptcy. The city steps in and takes over the unprofitable bus lines because it has become a vital transportation mode that people need to get to work. The city can’t make money off the bus routes either, so they don’t properly maintain the buses or buy new ones, so too many of the old buses break down. The city focuses the remaining buses on the busiest routes and cuts service, but it still can’t make money, so the few remaining buses end up only serving part of the city core until they too break down.

      This leaves people with no good option to get to work, so a few enterprising souls start charging people for carpooling, and eventually buy vans and then buses, and the cycle starts again as if the previous cycle had never occurred. Lima Peru is in its third or fourth such transportation cycle.

      The cause of the cycle is the people who think a transportation system should serve all the people equally, fairly, cheaply, and conveniently, and who resent any system whose CEO’s and investors are getting very, very rich.Report

      • Avatar bookdragon in reply to George Turner says:

        Or resent any system where people other than themselves are served? Because it strikes me that the resentment you point to wrt bus services is exactly the same initial argument for why no one can have any nice thing up at the beginning.

        Or at least that’s the only way I can how the cycle of Peruvian bus service entrepreneurship applies to a rail that is designed and funded from the get-go by local and state govt.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to bookdragon says:

          But why does the rail service need state and local funding? Remember all the railroad tycoons (aka robber barons) who, while not using state and local funding, built a system of rail lines that spanned the continent? That was back when passenger railroads could make a fortune just by selling tickets, and that worked because the riders valued the trip as being worth more than the ticket price the railroads charged.

          The alternative for the riders was to go by foot, horse, stagecoach, carriage, or barge, or not go at all, and thus the ticket price of the railroad merely had to be a better option than the alternatives. But since we don’t see private companies throwing up passenger railroads left and right, we can determine that the passengers are no longer willing to buy tickets at a price that can make the venture self-sustaining, much less lucrative. In large part that’s because cars, buses, and planes are a cheaper and better alternative. That’s even true in Europe, where rail travel ranks fourth in passenger miles, coming behind every other modern form of locomotion, though still ahead of horse carriages, mule trains, and flat boats. European rail is struggling under new competition from buses, made possible by abolishing laws that banned middle and long distance bus service as a means to make people ride trains. Additionally, the bus start ups emphasized making travel easier for the customers, adjusting schedules to meet spontaneous demand, creating smart phone apps, and charging low low prices. Unlike European rail companies whose passenger model is stuck in the 1800’s, the bus folks are trying to out-Uber Uber.

          The speed at which information technology and social networks can radically transform the public’s transportation patterns argues strongly against investing in any rail system, since rail is notoriously inflexible and an extremely long term investment, relying on current passengers’ children and grand children having the same transportation patterns as their parents, otherwise the ROI might evaporate. Rail needs government protection because virtually every other transportation mode someone comes up with, from cars to buses to early biplanes, out competes it and steals all its passengers.

          I’ve never ridden on light rail outside of a couple of airports that use it to shuttle passengers between terminals, and I’ll probably never ride on light rail. Thus the amount of tax money I’m willing to put toward light rail is $0.00 because it has absolutely no value to me.

          My current town of 300,000 people and my home town of 13,000 people both had light rail (trolleys) about a hundred years ago, but we got rid of them as an obsolete, unsupportable white elephant that was nothing more than a traffic nuisance. Back when Americans were highly familiar and comfortable with such transportation systems, virtually all of them in small and mid-sized towns reached the same conclusion and got rid of their cities’ tramways, trolleys, and other rail ventures. I think rail still has a place for personal transportation, but only in coal mines, and only by doing double duty transporting coal back out.

          If the people who want a rail system would be willing to pay the costs of it then my unwillingness to fund it is irrelevant because they wouldn’t need my money. Airlines operate on that model, and if I don’t fly I don’t get a bill from United or Boeing, nor do I get a bill from the government via the IRS. The taxes that support airport infrastructure are added to the ticket, not spread around the whole population. If railroads used the same model, rural people wouldn’t even have to care whether rail systems are built or not, just as most don’t give a second thought to airport construction.

          But the urban folks who want rail systems are not willing to pay the full cost, which is why the debate continues. They want everyone else to subsidize their conveniences – all while insulting everyone who doesn’t want to get billed for someone else’s travel, calling them selfish ignorant rubes for not wanting to leap back to the 19th century.Report

          • But why does the rail service need state and local funding? Remember all the railroad tycoons (aka robber barons) who, while not using state and local funding, built a system of rail lines that spanned the continent?

            The transcontinental railroad companies, and many of the smaller ones, received massive grants of public lands from the federal government, much of which they were expected to (and did) sell off to raise working capital. All of them were regular visitors to bankruptcy court where they stiffed the shareholders (and surprisingly often, after the robber barons had dumped their shares). The origins of federal regulation of monopoly abuses in this country were because of predatory pricing by the railroads.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to George Turner says:

            Most major airports are part of a Transit or Port Authority, and receive some level of public funding, even if it’s only the bare minimum of loan guarantees (it’s usually more than that). Those federal taxes on airfare are for (IIRC) things ATC/TRACON and rarely go to airport infrastructure (unless it’s related to ATC).Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

        Public transit of any kind never generates enough revenue through fares to be self sustaining.

        What it does is
        – save money on road and parking construction (low occupancy cars on road cost cities more per person transported and generate zero fare revenues)
        – generate more revenue through property taxes (business parking lots are pure expense – can’t tax them for much)
        – generate more revenue through income and business taxes, and reduce welfare expenses (more access to work places for people of limited means leading to more employment)

        None of that shows up readily on the transit authority’s books thoughReport

  4. Avatar JoeSal says:

    I will add a few more ‘train hate’ points.

    -Whenever one has to run a water line across a rail road right of way it is a royal pain in the ass requiring to bore under it. Even running lines parallel near the edge of the ROW, the permitting processes is just what you would expect.

    -Trains basically split smaller towns into subsections during the time they are passing. This often cuts off the firestation from the other side of the tracks.

    -Don’t even get me started on the fed side of it or the Rail Road Commission, that’s some real cheeky stuff right there.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    There is a good portion of conservatives these days who define their conservatism in terms of liberals. Whatever liberals want, they hate, and vocally so.

    You are not like that, and I really appreciate it. I don’t disagree with what you’ve written here in the least.

    One of the thing that vexes me is the marked difference in costs of projects like the subway you mention, but also including things like The Big Dig or Seattle’s recent version of it. They cost so much more here than Europe, why is that?Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      London sits on 300 meters of chalk. Paris sits on limestone, clay, and gypsum. In contrast, New York City’s geology features garnet, feldspar, quartz, and mica, and other igneous and metamorphic wonders. Many of our tall cities are on very tough granitic rocks, which makes for great skyscraper foundations but makes tunneling really expensive. Some of our other major cities, like Boston, have a long and intricate geological history that involves lots of faulting, magma intrusions, weathering and depositional infills that make tunnel construction quite complicated.Report

  6. Avatar Pinky says:

    This article assumes facts not in evidence. Shouldn’t you have published the article showing that passenger trains and high-speed rail can be cost-effective first? Instead you’re trying to explain why a group of people don’t agree with you. You’re trying to explain conservatives’ irrationality toward trains without showing their positions to be irrational. I don’t think you meant this in bad faith, but it functions that way.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to Pinky says:

      I think it depends on what you mean by “cost effective.” one of the reasons that so many other countries make so much more progress on rail transportation for the public is they don’t think in terms of revenue generated by the railroad must be equal to its cost (never mind the profit mindset). Thus those countries make decisions about operating subsidies and capitol improvements that we in the US don’t make. Is their model more “cost effective?” Having ridden their trains and out trains I’d say yes.Report

  7. As the blog’s rail skeptic, I enjoyed reading this post. I think you made good points but, ultimately, I expect most of the problems to be insurmountable for the reasons McArdle cited. There are a few lines that might work — Texas is working on one, there’s a Chicago-St. Louis Proposal. But I think something Acela is the best we can hope for.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      This is a recipe for climate disaster (and pace the last few grafs, I don’t think that’s something we can afford to gloss over–it’s a crucial reason to support HSR). You’re correct that Chicago-Seattle will likely never be a viable route, but the nation has plenty of room for good HSR (and Acela is not that–it’s both too slow and overpriced, and could benefit from significant reforms). The entirety of the BosWash corridor, Chicago-Cleveland-St. Louis, SF-LA…at this point you’re talking about a substantial fraction of the national population being in the service area.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      Chicago-St. Louis “high-speed” rail upgrades have been finished. “High-speed” is in quotes, because we’re talking about speeds of 110 mph. But the trains themselves aren’t built to code yet; cars built by a Japanese company failed safety tests, so they have to look elsewhere. Also, the route, like most in the country, is not in compliance with the 2008 positive train control mandate, so I don’t believe the feds will approve going any faster than pre-2008 speeds until then. Once those improvements are made, the 5 1/2 hour trip might take as little as 4 1/2 hours.

      I don’t think the route will be that popular, other than the first train leaving Chicago for Springfield or vice versa, among lawyers, politicians and lobbyists. The people’s people.Report

  8. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    I think you are right about transparent versus hidden costs, particularly with urban or regional mass transit. While passengers pay fares, these never cover all the costs. This results in a line item in the budget that can be presented as “subsidies for loser freeloaders.” The same is true of roads, of course, to say nothing of other externalities, but this is easier to ignore. The marginal cost of any given car to road construction and maintenance is nearly zero, so it is easy to pretend that you, the rugged individualist who doesn’t take handouts from the government, are merely making use of what is practically a natural feature. If called on this, the discussion moves to gas taxes, while discreetly keeping actual numbers of it.Report

  9. Avatar Aaron David says:

    Flexibility and subsidy. Those are just two of my reason for not liking commuter rail, of any speed. The laying down of tracks over miles of land, all of which needs Right of Way to be settled, is vastly expensive, constitutes a gross taking and, once in place, is immovable. Not only is this environmentally a disaster, but looking at the numbers of disused rail lines just in the west, we see the waste. Know, if you add gov’t subsidies to make this work, I the taxpayer, am paying for someone else’s folly and vanity.

    Like many here, I love trains on a personal level. My bookshelves are filled with books on various rail lines, as I find the industrial history of the United States very interesting. I also have more than a few books on wooden sailboats, as I find them equally interesting. And equally impractical.

    As I said in my post on the collapse of Californias HSR, for the vast majority of personal, long distance travel, air makes the most sense. Flexible, as we see the sheer number of small airports around the country supporting small airlines, airlines that are not subsidized.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Aaron David says:

      “Flexibility and subsidy” Of course all these objections apply to roads, often much more so than with rail.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Indeed they do, BUT! The sheer amount of different users that can be placed on them, Semi tractors to bicycles, along with being much cheaper to build, makes up for that. Plus they allow individual decisions on when and how to travel.

        And I would have to see the numbers to even remotely agree with “often much more so” after CA’s Boondoggle.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Aaron David says:

          This is a fair point when it comes to roads. Excepting access controlled highways, roads can support all traffic from pedestrians on up to big rigs. Rail lines only allow for trains.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        You’ve got to do quite a lot of handwaving and “well this is SORTA like this so it’s KINDA LIKE SAYING” equivocation before you can say that roads are subsidized to the same degree as passenger rail.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Depends on the road. Think of it this way, a HS rail line is probably comparable to a multi-lane surface highway (Interstate or major arterial). The key difference is that roads are much more flexible when it comes to following the contours of the land. A highway can have more severe grades, and engage more severe turns, than a rail line can, especially a HS line. So while the rail line actually uses less material (even for the track bed, which is more substantial than a heavy traffic roadbed), the planing and grading of the rail line has to be done much more carefully and involves a lot more work if the ground is not conveniently straight and level.

        So basically, you want rail lines to go where highways would go. And you’d want to shift them around about as often.

        The real issue isn’t the line, however. It’s the stops. Stations are a major cost in the way that on and off ramps aren’t.

        I sometimes wonder if our commuter rail service wouldn’t be improved by having some kind of hybrid street car/light rail system. Think about a ‘street car’ that runs through neighborhoods like a bus, picking up passengers, and then the ‘street car’ just heads to the main rail line, jumps on, and behaves like a light rail/commuter rail train. Maybe running on it’s own, or linking up to a longer train. You only have to change trains if your car isn’t going where you want, and you can do that at the street, rather than at an expensive platform. Heck, if the car actually joins a train, you might just be able to transfer on route, if you know that the car you want is three cars ahead, once the train is formed, you just switch cars.Report

  10. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    As a former California resident, what ticked me off about Cal-HSR was how that same money could have been spent extending BART to downtown San Jose. It would have been done sooner and had higher ridership–like, everyone from Pleasanton and the Central Valley would have mass-transit access to Silicon Valley, and those people currently drive the Sunol Grade every day–but no, BIG FAST CHOO-CHOO, gotta have that BIG FAST CHOO-CHOO to play with.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to DensityDuck says:

      It was a vanity project from the get-go.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon in reply to DensityDuck says:

      That exactly! +100

      What we could really use around my area is a belt of rail connecting the outer suburbs, but the proposals that get people *excited* are the flashy upgrade ideas. Not that anyone is jumping to fund even those.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to DensityDuck says:

      While I basically agree with the notion that BART can and should be expanded into San Jose, Caltrain does exist to fill that gap, it’s just not as good as BART in terms of immediate user cost and frequency of service.

      The HSR project was intended to do something different, to link up the L.A. Basin and Bay Area in a way far better than Amtrak currently does it. Then it was to link in San Diego and Sacramento, and then it was to join up the Central Valley cities — and now that there’s mission creep, it’s starting to look a little bit like Amtrak, isn’t it?

      IMO, the thing that gets conservatives most upset about rail projects is the price tag. California is particularly bad in this regard: it’s a given that whatever the initial cost proposal and initial timetable will be should be at least doubled, thanks to the state’s legal and economic complexity. (Which has advantages sometimes, but this is a definite downside.) HSR exceeded even that before Newsom dropped the axe on it. If you could build a reasonable HSR line from, say, Union Station in L.A. to Anaheim or Santa Ana and provide a reliable twenty-minute transit there for the cost of, say, building a school, conservatives might not be enthusiastic about it for other reasons mentioned, but they wouldn’t prioritize opposing it. But the cost is WAY more than that, especially for an all-urban route like that.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Ideological hatred of mass transit in general and trains in particular seem to be more of an American conservative thing rather than a conservative thing in general. I’ve never noticed non-American conservatives bristle with hatred at public transit.
    i think the idea of cars as a liberty machine really explains a lot of it. That and the long anti-urban bias in American conservative thinking.

    Americans took the car because they suited our self image as a free-wheeling people that went whenever we wanted to when we wanted to. Even with the most frequent transit, you are bound by some schedule set by another person or group and have to share it with other people. Cars also seemed inherently more capitalistic than socialistic to Americans even though roads were built and maintained by taxes. The interstates were even centrally planned. Since much of modern American conservatism is dedicated to defending what can be called the American way of life and they see liberals and their policy wants as trying to make American more European, they are going to be anti-transit.

    There is also the wealth and racial angle. Since the mid-1940s at the latest, Americans generally associated using transit with not being wealthy enough to own your own car. That generally meant you were not white. Since American conservatism tends towards policies that favor wealth and elements of it are really motivated by racism, they aren’t going to be pro-transit.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to LeeEsq says:

      There is also the wealth and racial angle. Since the mid-1940s at the latest, Americans generally associated using transit with not being wealthy enough to own your own car. That generally meant you were not white. Since American conservatism tends towards policies that favor wealth and elements of it are really motivated by racism, they aren’t going to be pro-transit.

      This is likely true of conservatives in the ex-urbs and smaller rural parts of the world. Having just spent a weekend in Manhattan however, let me assure you that many very wealthy people (or at least people who spend a lot of money on clothes and shoes) can and do choose to live in a way where the majority of their transportation needs are borne by transit.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    For trains to *REALLY* work, they require public transit. For public transit to work, you pretty much require cities.

    So large arteries connecting city to city to city, smaller capillaries of subways and buses (and cabs and ubers, I guess) in each city.

    San Fran and NYC work really well with this paradigm. Chicago did once, I imagine it can again.

    The problem is that in order to pull this stuff off, we need to be able to build subways again.

    If NYC didn’t have a subway today, there’s no way we could build it.
    We aren’t capable of building a society that relies on subways (and, by extension, trains) if we aren’t capable of building the subways.

    Until we remember how to build subways, the train thing is a pipe dream.

    (And, quite honestly, California just demonstrated that we don’t remember how to build trains.)Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

      Every “subway” system I’ve ever been on, NYC, Chicago, DC, Boston, even London and Paris, have extensive above-ground lines and stations. So while “subway” conjures up images of ridiculously expensive and engineering-intensive things like drilling underground transit tubes, the reality is we’re talking about urban light rail, which will have both above and below ground segments.

      Los Angeles has a subway/urban light rail system that’s only about twenty years old, is pretty good at fulfilling its mission of serving as a skeleton of intra-city transit, and has become a heavily-used public service. We can do urban light rail, even in as expensive and legally complex an environment as California. It isn’t cheap but L.A. has proven that it’s an investment in the city that pays off in the long run.

      See also commuter rail networks, linking up cities with middling distances between them.

      Regional rail is perhaps different story.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

        My only experiences with this sort of thing are San Fran and Montreal.

        Both of which had *AWESOME* systems.

        If LA’s is good, that’s a good indicator. Is LA scalable? Like, could we take what was done in LA and put it in Austin?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

        The big thing that transit advocates want is dedicated lanes. Preferably for buses but they might be swayed to light rail. I wrote about the hate for light rail below.

        Lots of the transit advocates I know argue that unless you have dedicated lanes, public transit is meaningless because the buses and trains just get stuck in traffic and everyone gets frustrated.

        Though another big issue in the United States is people who argue that public transit is a social service rather than a public service for all. Lots of public transit advocates seem to see themselves primarily as advocates for the poor rather than people arguing for a universal good.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Though another big issue in the United States is people who argue that public transit is a social service rather than a public service for all. Lots of public transit advocates seem to see themselves primarily as advocates for the poor rather than people arguing for a universal good.


    • Avatar Slade the Leveller in reply to Jaybird says:

      According to the World Bank, 82% of the population of the United States was urban. It seems to me that such a system is eminently doable, it just isn’t politically possible.

      Chicago is well-served by public transport, both rail and bus, today. It’s quite easy to get around town this way.

      I think the major problem is train advocates want to hit a home run every time they come to the plate. Concentrate on a feasible (e.g. Chicago to Milwaukee or St. Louis or Indianapolis) route and build from there. I believe the demand exists.Report

  13. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    One thing I don’t see mentioned in this article is the availability of air transit. The frequent objection I heard to CalRail was “why should we pay all this money to do what discount airlines are doing already?” And the truth be told, I’m not sure I ever heard or thought of a very strong rejoinder to that. If you want to get from L.A. to San Jose, there’s three airlines that are competing with each other aggressively to meet that demand for transit, and a flight is taking off basically every hour from LAX and every ninety minutes from Burbank and Santa Ana.

    The question of “what is the train going to do better than airlines” was answered with “it’ll be more convenient,” or “it’ll have more capacity,” neither of which is necessarily going to be true. The actual answer, “it’ll be more accessible to people of limited means,” is unpopular enough already before you get to the necessary codicil, “…because it’ll have to be heavily subsidized in order to be that way.” As the OP points out with respect to roads, the public costs and supports of air travel are relatively opaque, especially compared to what happens with a rail authority.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Also, air travel only requires significant infrastructure support at the end points. About the only thing needed along the way is radio beacons.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      It is true that I can easily take an Alaska Airline from SFO to LAX and spend about an hour in the air. The problem though is the first and last mile problem. The time getting to SFO, through security, and then to my destination in Los Angeles is a lot.

      When I lived back on the East Coast, I used to make a trip from NYC to Boston often enough. My favorite way to do this was via Amtrak. It was more expensive than the Bus but also more comfortable and it felt like less of a hassle than taking a plane.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Traveling by air used to be pretty easy too, up until people started blowing them up. And if you want the train in America to be more than a tiny sideshow then you’re going to have to handle the problem of people blowing them up.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        See, your first mistake is flying through SFO & LAX, when there are smaller, easier to navigate airports to use. I go to LA probably a couple times a year, and have flown into the Bay Area more than a few times. I have never once used SFO or LAX.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          SFO is closer than San Jose or Oakland. Plus they have more flight options than Burbank or Long Beach.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            Thems the tradeoffs, yes?

            How often was the HSR gonna run a train back and forth from SF to LA? How many options would that have given you versus air travel? And you still have the same last mile problem (I know Phillip doesn’t think that the TSA would have been able to get the rail cops to let them run security, but I’m not nearly as confident that a HSR line would be allowed to operate as a regular commuter train, instead of a fat, juicy target that the TSA would just feel obligated to protect). The only benefit over air is that a train station doesn’t need as big of a footprint.Report

  14. Avatar Aaron David says:

    There is also the question of Who is subsidizing Whom. As the estimable Jaybird points out, to make it work, you need cities as the terminus points. And if it is HSR, to be efficient and earn that moniker, you can’t have too many stops between destinations. So, who is using it? And in CA’s case, if you aren’t using it, but you are paying for it, well, that that is when your hubris gets clobbered by nemesis.Report

  15. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    If what you are saying about conservative opposition to trains is true, it says nothing good about conservatives in my mind. Lots of the oppositions reek of Poe’s Law and a fair bit of racism especially “public transportation helps those people…”

    FWIW true transit advocates don’t seem to like trains very much either. What they really like and want are frequent buses with their own dedicated lanes that no car can enter. They view this as the cheapest and most effective way of helping lower-income people achieve access to jobs and opportunity. The reason trains and light rail get more traction are kind of realpolitik:

    1. No one seems to like buses aesthetically and there are also class biases among UMC liberals who like trans/light rail but not buses;

    2. Politicians don’t like buses because when you buy a bus, you get a bus. With trains and light rail, you create jobs!!!Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Since we moved to downtown and got rid of the car, we use buses quite a lot.
      I can testify to the class distinction. Trains are viewed more positively than buses, even by my fellow liberals.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        SF has mainly buses and some light rail lines. You always hear stories about crazy things happening on the buses and BART but not the light rail lines. The light rail lines are often more comfortable in my view.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      In summary: Conservatives don’t like trains. Liberals don’t like trains. Conservatives must be racists.Report

      • Avatar Zac Black in reply to Pinky says:

        No, what he very clearly said was that conservatives don’t like trains because they might bring minorities from the city to wherever they live, whereas *some* liberals don’t like trains because they don’t do as much to help low-income and minority folks as more buses would. Therefore yes, conservatives as usual are flaming racists, QED. But then again, that would require an ounce of reading comprehension on the part of a conservative, which is like expecting an Australopithecus to fly a 747.Report

  16. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I don’t hate trains. (I actually have used my nephews as cover to do some railfan stuff in the past few years)

    But the economic case *is* weak, even if a decent carbon externality capture scheme was implemented. Amtrak is run very poorly – for instance it loses money on on train concessions (i.e. alcohol and food sales).

    If the NE coordidor (and this can include everything from Richmond Va to Portland Maine) – as well as the other superregion services, but especially the North East – were each spun off into their own entities, everything would instantly get better. Revenue would more directly go into capital inprovements to the people that use it most. The same with money coming from state governments.

    You’re always going to have a last mile problem, and frankly (and unfortunately), automobiles solve this problem better than anything else. And thus, once you have this sunk cost, the network effects make driving a viable, and often the best option, for solving things other than the last mile problem

    We can’t even get AOC to stop taking a car from the Navy Yard to Capitol Hill, despite it being a very doable (but somewhat extended) walk, a short bike ride, or a four stop (but w transfer) Metro ride.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Kolohe says:

      Given the hate the conservative media machine is drumming up for AOC I don’t blame her for driving when she takes regular predictable trips. She’ll probably see a rate of assassination attempts that would keep a secret service detail on its toes, if freshmen congresscritters rated such protection.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Hate? AOC is wonderful. She’s pretty, charismatic, ernest, and this walking proponent of bad ideas. If the dems hadn’t already settled on “the fight for 15” she’d be out there arguing for 50.Report

  17. Avatar Dark Matter says:

    California’s recent “success” at spending 10.6 Billion dollars to connect a midlevel city to a small city seriously does not impress. It cost 67 million dollars a mile. The main train is currently estimated to cost roughly $100 Billion (wiki with me rounding) but I seriously doubt we’re done increasing the price tag.

    Those of us who thought it an expensive boondoggle seem to have been proven right. My expectation is after it’s done, we’ll discover that it costs FAR MORE to operate than it can possibly make in revenue, i.e. that the demand for it isn’t there and was never there.Report

  18. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    In my city, the urban train hate comes in part from the (personality-wise, not necessarily political) conservative trait of focus on disadvantages and risks.

    Urban rail could take thousands of cars off the streets during busy times, reducing congestion so everyone, in trains and cars alike, can get around quicker and easier. But that’s not visibly tired to the train. And then there’ll be that one intersection where drivers sometimes have to wait for a passing streetcar. And that slight delay is obviously tired to the train (of course of all those people had been in cars the delay would have been an order of magnitude worse, but its “waiting for the damn train” that they experience).

    It doesn’t help any that our latest rail line extension was low key disastrous.

    Side note re trains being 19th century technology: toy know what other modes of transport are from the 19th century? Automobiles and bicycles. The realistic alternatives being walking (dating to the whenever vertebrates crawled out of the water) and reusing beasts of burden (dating at least to classical antiquity). 19th century transportation tech is the newest we’ve got.

    The only ground transport that was invented in the 20th century is the tank.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog says:

      “reusing beast of burden” – heh that’ll larn me to try to add to an existing post from my phone, racing against the clock…Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Trains have a marketing disadvantage compared to cars and bicycles. Even an areas where there is a large and well-used train network or subway system, trains are treated as a fact of life. Very few people advertise the joys and advantages of light rail, metros, commuter rail, and intercity trains. Car manufacturers promote cars and all the advances since Karl Benz turned out the first working model heavily. Bicycles are associated with alternative, healthy lifestyles.

      Most people’s ideas of trains are heavily based on the steam locomotive despite the fact that very few places use stream anymore. This could be very romantic or very primitive based on the individual but it is never modern. So cars and bikes might have been invented in the 19th century along with trains but in the popular imagination, at least in the United States and Canada, trains are of the 19th century while cars and bikes aren’t.Report

      • Avatar Philip H in reply to LeeEsq says:

        In many cases, railroads and rail transit agencies are prohibited from advertising of that type. Amtrak was thusly grounded by Congress from its inception until the very late 1990’s because – I kid you not – Congress was concerned about unfair competition between Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses. The best Amtrak could hope for was an appearance in someone else’s commercials that evoked warm feelings for train travel (Google the Publix Supermarkets christmas train commercial as an example).Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to dragonfrog says:

      The 1894 the fastest production car was the Benz Velocipede, of which 1,200 were made. It’s mighty 3 HP engine saw it push speeds to 12 mph.

      1898 world land speed record for a car was 39 mph, set by an electric vehicle. In 1899 it rose to 41 mph, then to 49 mph, 62 mph, and finally to 66 mph, all in electric cars. But they were still much slower than steam trains, which had run 82 mph in 1854 and 90 mph in 1895.

      In April 1902 the electric car records were smashed when Léon Serpollet went 75 mph in a steam powered car. That record was beaten three months later by an internal combustion powered car that hit 76 mph. The internal combustion cars kept setting records, but still lagged behind steam railroad speed records which reached 102 mph in 1904. Railroads held the lead until 1906, when the steam powered Stanley Rocket hit 127 mph, a steam car record which stood until 2009.

      In 1909 Benz came out with a 200 hp car that hit 125 mph, and cars with internal combustion engines finally and permanently beat choo choo trains.

      The internal combustion engine cars eventually topped out at around 400 mph, to be displaced by rocket and jet powered cars that finally went supersonic.

      Gas turbine cars are obviously the way forward because they are the only land vehicles that are significantly faster than airliners. And we don’t necessarily have to use a car. Jay Leno has a nice gas turbine motorcycle powered by an Allison/Rolls-Royce M250 jet engine. He has an early model (serial #002) that would’ve had the 320 hp engine, but current bikes use the 420 hp model. The M250 is available with up to 715 hp, and it only weighs 158 pounds, so there’s plenty of room for future development.

      So we have to ask ourselves, as commuters and as customers, whether we’d rather ride to work in a packed train car that rattles and clanks, or atop a 700 horsepower gas turbine jet bike whose mere presence at a stop light would make the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse spin and ride away in terror? I think the answer is obvious.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

        Indeed, driving our incredibly powerful automobiles with the kind of casual attention we and other road users give that activity, on roads designed with pedestrian safety a distant third or lower priority, is by far the thing almost all of us do where we’re most likely to kill another human.

        So I’ll ride my bike or take a train whenever its an option.Report