The High Speed Crazy Train


Today Vice President Joe Biden followed up on the President’s threat… er, promise… from the State of the Union speech to plow $53 billion into a “national high-speed, intercity passenger rail network.”  CNN described the plan as “a significant expansion of the $10.5 billion already spent on high-speed rail expansion since Obama entered office, including $8 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package.”  Did you know we had already blown $10.5 billion on this boondoggle?  It’s so hard to keep track of the small change in the federal budget.

According to the CNN report, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs “told reporters potential funding sources for the plan will be outlined in the president’s proposed budget,” but Coby Itkowitz of The Morning Call pressed Biden on the point after his speech, and he said high-speed rail would be funded “the same way you fund the highways.” 

As Itkowitz points out, highways are funded by [insert sinister music here] gasoline taxes.  Six or seven dollars for a gallon of gas should put plenty of people in line for those trains!  Or does Biden actually think high-speed rail could be funded through extra fees paid by its passengers?  Because trains don’t work that way.  Every passenger rail system, most definitely including Biden’s beloved Amtrak, requires massive subsidies to stay in operation.

Of course, like every other big-spending initiative of this bankrupt Administration, Biden described high-speed rail as a jobs program.  The proposed system would “connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced.”  We’re back to “creating jobs” by paying people to dig holes we don’t need, and pour money into them.  Creating hundred-foot ice sculptures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in every major city would also create a lot of skilled jobs, but we don’t need to waste tax money on that, any more than we need high-speed rail.

As to the rest of Biden’s sales pitch: does anyone really think the major problem facing the American economy is a lack of “connection” between communities?  Even with rising gas prices, we still have the most mobile workforce, and the most mobile underclass, in human history.  Not even Obama’s disastrous “Cash for Clunkers” demolition of the used-car market has significantly reduced our ability to seek employment opportunities in other communities.  The only “infrastructure” our unemployed really need is a system of teleportation booths linking small towns to Washington, D.C., which has been doing all the hiring lately.

On the topic of “reducing congestion,” Michael Barone pointed out recently that very few places in America, outside of the already rail-heavy Washington to Boston corridor, would gain significant convenience from high-speed rail.  The proposed American system wouldn’t be nearly as fast as Japanese or European trains, so there are few long journeys that wouldn’t be quicker by air, and few short ones that aren’t more convenient by automobile. 

Politicians love railroad projects, because they require a great deal of government spending and regulatory intervention to complete, and the end result is a system that controls the population.  Trains go where and when the controlling authority decides they will go.  There is little room for competition or innovation, as in the case of upstart airlines.  Only so many trains can travel across any given stretch of rail in a day.  The power to decide whose engines and cars rattle down those tracks is extremely valuable, and will never be ground down by the winds of private-sector competition.  Once the populace becomes dependent on the rail system, threats to reduce or withdraw service become a potent tool for shaping local politics.  Access to railroads is a sharply limited resource the government can ration.  Politicians treasure nothing more highly.

It’s grimly amusing to watch President Obama make a big deal about cutting a few hundred million from the titanic federal budget, while his Vice President shovels seventy-five times that amount into the furnace of his high-speed toy train.  They still don’t understand what “cut spending” means.  Hopefully House Republicans will explain it to them by tearing up their absurd railroad fantasy and showering them with the confetti.