Bullet train faces firing squad
Some investors think a high-speed “bullet” train between Houston and Dallas would be a great idea, and they should have the right to spend their own money to find out. But a decision in another state shows why these schemes rarely live up to their lofty promises.
Last week Gavin Newsom, the new governor of California, pulled the plug on a similarly ambitious plan for a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project had been touted for years as a shining symbol of California’s commitment to bold, futuristic concepts. In the end, it collapsed for the boring old reason that its critics always said would shut it down: money.
The rail line would have cost at least $77 billion, and this is one of those projects where the figure got bigger each year. With an investment that huge, the train would need thousands of riders paying not-so-cheap fares to break even. It was harder and harder to find an accountant who could juggle the numbers to produce something close to that goal.
Unfortunately, Gavin didn’t shut the whole thing down. As a sop to the state’s many progressives who stubbornly believe it’s a wonderful idea, he will support completion of a 119-mile stretch in the middle of the state, from Merced to Bakersfield. Critics are rightly calling this half-baked half-measure “a train to nowhere.”
Perhaps when that segment is up and running, undoubtedly struggling with low ridership and high costs, all Americans will re-learn an important lesson: If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
Even though high-speed trains work better in Europe and Japan, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can succeed here. Europe and Japan have a history of train travel that meshes well with their tighter geography. In both places, because of political influences, cars are smaller and gasoline costs a lot.
Things are different here. We like our interstates, our pickups and our SUVs, and our affordable gasoline. You can argue that it’s cheaper to move a hundred people by train from Point A to Point B, but you still won’t get many customers lining up in the station.
And for longer distances, air travel is much more convenient unless you just want to sip coffee and flip through a magazine while your train rolls through the countryside.
Another point about the bullet train’s fate in California cannot be ignored: This is the exact kind of starry-eyed proposal contained in the Green New Deal unveiled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected Democratic congresswoman from New York. Ocasio-Cortez and many other liberals want this to become the infrastructure blueprint for America — complete converting to renewable energy, refurbishing every building in the country for environmental efficiency and even “build(ing) out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.” (How do we get to Europe or Japan?)
The kindest thing you can say about the GND is that it’s ambitious. But it’s gaining momentum in the Democratic Party, even becoming a litmus test for presidential candidates.
Yet if California, the bluest state in the union, wouldn’t hop aboard its own bullet train, what does that say about the real-world feasibility of many of these projects?
Like many proposals, these things sound good on paper. Republicans are just as guilty, such as claiming that massive tax cuts won’t swell the deficit. The real world, however, doesn’t exist on paper. It’s grounded in facts and numbers, and you just can’t spin or manipulate them to match up with your hopes.
This time, in California, reality was put off for a long time. But eventually, it could not be denied. How many more times will we need to repeat the process?
Thomas Taschinger, TTaschinger@BeaumontEnterprise.com, is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom