High speed rail, especially California’s project, looks to me to be monorail economics, a costly boondoggle whose appeal lies not in rational calculation (also here) but in the desire of some politicians (and voters) to feel visionary and sexy. In theory, CA HSR might work but the inevitable reviews, delays, lawsuits and special interest payoffs make the prospects of a beneficial project look dim, demosclerosis kills.
Slow speed rail, however, i.e. freight transport, isn’t sexy but Warren Buffett is investing in rail and maybe we should as well. In particular, there are basic infrastructure projects with potentially high payoffs. Congestion in Chicago, for example, is so bad that freight passing through Chicago often slows down to less than the pace of an electric wheel chair. Improvements are sometimes as simple as replacing 19th century technology with 20th century (not even 21st century!) technology. Even today, for example:
…engineers at some points have to get out of their cabins, walk the length of the train back to the switch — a mile or more — operate the switch, and then trudge back to their place at the head of the train before setting out again.
In a useful article Phillip Longman points out that there are choke points on the Eastern Seaboard which severely reduce the potential for rail:
…railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line. In 2007, it submitted a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a steel wheel interstate from Washington to Miami, but no federal funding has been forthcoming.
Longman points out that:
Railroads have gone from having too much track to having not enough. Today, the nation’s rail network is just 94,942 miles, less than half of what it was in 1970, yet it is hauling 137 percent more freight, making for extreme congestion and longer shipping times.
I believe that there are valuable infrastructure projects but I am dispirited by the fact that these projects have been valuable for a long time and progress is very slow. Why haven’t the gains from better infrastructure already been taken? Why haven’t the $500 bills been picked up? It’s worrying that the bullet boondoggles get all the attention while simple things like updating 19th century technology is ignored. And it’s not just rail, sewers and the water supply are another example. Consider:
The average D.C. water pipe is 77 years old, but a great many were laid in the 19th century. Sewers are even older. Most should have been replaced decades ago.
Does that sound like the infrastructure of an advanced nation?
Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build the system today. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.
Hat tip: Mark at Observation Epidemiology.