Is High-Speed Rail Un-American?

It’s hard to see very far into the future wearing a green eyeshade, and Wendell Cox obviously didn’t take his off before sitting down to write his grouchy op-ed against the Obama administration’s high-speed rail plans.

For Cox, who served on the Amtrak Reform Council and who has co-authored a study of the Calfornia high-speed rail proposal, the billions already promised for high-speed (and other) rail projects in California and Florida are nothing more than a “political plum”; and, he says, this is only the first installment: the rail projects being planned now, he argues, will require subsidies for a long time to come.

And the benefits are not guaranteed, in Cox’s judgment. His own studies have shown that high-speed rail will have a “negligible” impact on highway traffic. But he doesn’t entertain the idea that American travel habits could change over time – just consider how President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System changed American life in the course of just two decades — and he sneers at the thought of making automobile travel more expensive in order to increase rail ridership, as the French did for their Paris-Lyon line and the Japanese for the Tokyo-Osaka train.

His figures show, further, that the trains are a costly way to reduce greenhouse gases, exceeding, by far, the cost-per-ton “estimates” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published; but he leaves it unclear whether he thinks those estimates are right, or just overly-optimistic, and whether the costs of reducing greenhouse gases would change if people were given more incentive to leave their cars at home and travel by rail – or if we figured high-speed rail into a larger plan to decrease our dependency on automobile travel.

These and other questions linger. But in the end it seems Cox simply can’t imagine a future in which we do not travel between cities primarily by automobile, alone, in our cars, on the Interstate. Travel by high-speed rail just isn’t the American way. “High-speed rail,” writes Cox, “is driven by little more than a romantic notion to confer a European ambiance on American cities.”

The remark is telling, not just because it has a familiar whiff of Francophobia about it (I guess they’re still serving Freedom Fries at Wendell Cox’s barbeques); but also because Cox takes it for granted that his readers will view with suspicion and disapproval the notion of importing into our cities that “European ambiance.” So he never has to say precisely what that ambiance is, or feels like, or how it works.

And it’s crucial that he doesn’t say.

Cox apparently likes to get from one place to another as efficiently as possible – ambiance be damned; and he thinks most American travelers will share his point of view. (So did the Bush administration, which made speed of travel the primary criterion for judging infrastructure projects; the Obama administration has now said that quality of life concerns are also part of the equation.) He figures travelers on the Orlando-Tampa line “will be better off driving,” because “driving would probably be faster.” And on the Charlotte to Raleigh and Chicago to St. Louis lines, where speeds will hover around 80 miles an hour, “car trips will normally be as fast door to door, and they will be far less costly than taking the train and then renting a car” at the destination city.

Leave aside, for the moment, the notion that destination cities might link to high-speed rails with their own trolley or subway systems, obviating the need for a rental car or driving within cities or in sprawl, where traffic tends to snarl. Those urban and suburban infrastructure improvements – all of which contribute to quality of life — apparently aren’t in the cards for Cox.

But there are other advantages of high-speed rail travel he doesn’t consider. You don’t have to do the driving. You’re not alone. You get to spend time with other people – other Americans. Trains are more likely to roll in bad weather or winter weather that might make driving dangerous. You can take a high-speed rail to one city and connect to another high-speed rail to another city. While aboard, you can eat, nap, have a coffee or stretch your legs if you like. You can work on your laptop, use wifi services, talk on the phone, and do business. You can look out the window and think about the country.

Romantic? Maybe. But it also sounds downright American, doesn’t it?

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