Wednesday, July 7, 2021

High Speed Trains Belong In Urban Regions


The estimable Steve Rattner opined in the New York Times that Amtrak is making a strategic mistake in aiming to serve small and remote locations and more long haul lines, when short hop airline connections and cars would make more sense. He said that Amtrak connections make sense only in the congested Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor (NEC, not to be confused with neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis). “America is not Europe, with its dense population centers clustered reasonably close together. Nor is it China, essentially starting afresh and without the regulatory, labor and bureaucratic issues that plague government projects here.”

To Rattner, the economic losses that Amtrak incur indicates inefficiency. He points to the folly of governmental planning. The San Francisco to Los Angeles high speed rail line is a farce, he says, and I agree. Rattner's solution is, privatize! “We can use the private sector when appropriate and apply rigorous analysis — not politics or nostalgia — to allocating public funds. We’d be much further along as a nation, if we had done that already.”

He got some letters in response. Train-o-philiacs told of the virtues of the long train trip, which is appealing to the senses, but avoid economic analysis. They are actually touching letters, to me. I also remember Joe Biden's recounting how his train commuting to his home in Delaware gifted him a second family, the regular travelers and train employees on the train. It touches the heart.

As readers know, I myself am not without my opinions, so I weighed in with a letter that the NYT saw fit to publish. I agree with Rattner in his support of Amtrak in the NEC, and with his disdain of both the California misconceived SF to LA high speed line. But I disagree with his conclusion of leave it to private industry. Private solutions to public problems often miss the mark, making money is often not the best criterion, and private solutions have difficulty being long-term and serving the needs of all the people – plus, climate externalities are often neglected. Thoughtful public planning should be possible in the United States, I think and hope, not just in Europe and China!

I've opined previously that we should be thinking about regional transportation in more expansive and imaginative terms. And

Luckily, since I had thought about the issue before, I was able to summarize my argument in fewer than 100 words, which no doubt contributed to its having been selected for publication. Here's the letter:

To the Editor:

Steven Rattner is right to impugn the vision of trains hitting small and remote destinations. But both he and Amtrak neglect the contribution that high-speed trains could make to regions around cities. High-speed trains in combination with other transport modalities could allow newly accessible peripheral centers to flourish and render housing problems more easily solvable. Time spent, rather than distance traveled, is the crucial variable in urban development. High-speed trains have a place; they have just been aimed at the wrong targets.

Budd N. Shenkin
Berkeley, Calif.

It would take a lot of thinking through, but I'm sticking with the idea. Everything can't be telecommuting! We will still need to move our bodies for the foreseeable future.

We can use some good high-speed train solutions!


Budd Shenkin

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