Taking Different Routes

to the same place(s), when you could have taken the train. Sweet baby Joshua… how our perceptions of liberty have us by the short hairs. Is it just that we think we’re too good to be sitting in a line going in the same direction as other people? Seem too egalitarian or Marxist for you? Come on, people! Train travel is the kind of sexy everybody understands. And… you were going there anyway.

Really good rebuttal of typical, widely-disseminated HSR critiques, here. You know, the ones with casually construed cost-benefit analyses that say they will need so much annual public support they will never work so let’s cut the crap and not waste any of the serious consideration we might instead devote to new fighter jets and switchgrass ethanol. And lo, as turnips mold in the field where they lay, High Speed Rail actually pays for itself over time.

That may even to have been Glaeser’s [NYT Economix blog] intent in writing the series. The problem is that–through a sorry mix of omission, oversimplification, distortion, and deficiency–his calculations bear no relation to the effects he is claiming to consider. So it’s important to show that “the numbers” do not at all undermine the viability of HSR in the US, even outside the northeast and California. In fact, they tend to support it.

By populating his model with a better set of assumptions, we hope to show how badly the economist missed the mark even on his handpicked example of an HSR link between Houston and Dallas. In reality, a well-designed high speed intercity rail project between the two largest cities in Lone Star State would likely produce a net economic benefit–not at all the white elephant Glaeser suggests. In this more comprehensive model that takes into account trivialities like regional population growth and a reality-based route, the annual benefits total $840 million compared with construction and maintenance costs of $810 million. Which is to say, our numbers show that HSR pays for itself rather handily.


So instead of deeply flawed attempts to project ridership based on the Northeast, we should be focusing on high-speed rail’s noted ability to take substantial market share away from the airlines and even from automobile commuters. Evidence from overseas to this effect is plentiful, though Glaeser doesn’t even mention it. In France, for instance, the 200 mph TGV Est line between Paris (metro population 11 million) and Strasbourg (600,000) carried 11 million passengers in its first year of operation. Rail now commands 70% of total travel market share, including automobiles, versus 30% before the line opened. Today, roughly 10 million people a year travel between Dallas and Houston either by plane or by car.

Go read the whole thing. via Yglesias. On a related note, I guess de-regulation of the airline industry is taking the long way around, leading us into the waiting arms of HSR as airports/airlines undermine their business model by inviting us to despise and increasingly avoid them. Neat trick. Maybe in 2024, we re-name the first non-stop intercontinental HSR route connecting Charlotte and Seattle after Ronald Reagan, at a sparkling, Gipper-themed gala at its new connection point in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The 4R’s, indeed.

Reach of the Blind Eye

This is like a sad, parallel history about where we once were that circles back around to the present and how we arrived here. We need not separate the aesthetic from the practical as they once were wed, an example that easy to see at this site showing 11 beautiful train stations that fell to the wrecking ball.

Having just passed through the current iteration of Penn Station, this image brings a shutter. You want to turn away at what we’ve done here, as well as the other stations shown in Then and Now comparisons. It is hard to escape the depths of just how badly we have screwed up our transportation system in the race to make way for the automobile and not see it as a metaphor for the harm we’ve done to our other systems, from agriculture to any other kind of culture. And the whole thing was so short lived! And now we struggle to reconnect or ‘reconnect’, as we have come to refer to ideas which have become puzzling and esoteric.

That the old Penn Station is as glorious as the Gare St. Lazare or any of the other beautiful examples of practical architecture around the world should be a cautionary note about all we have chosen to systematically eliminate. And why.

Two other great links on that page, as well.

Train epilogue

Sometimes in an airport, you can feel like you’re anyplace, or no where in particular. The same can be said of the exits off of any major interstate, with their full compliment of fast-whatever offerings.

So, to spend 15 hours on a train crossing a large swath of the country in few ways resembles the same trip by car or plane. But of course, rail travel diverges from the other two in non-trivial ways right out of the gate, or station, such as they are.

First trains are all about a schedule; you leave at a certain time and arrive elsewhere at a certain time. This certainty is where the airline version can and does go off the rails with great frequency, and its anti-thesis is exactly the point of a car trip. Auto excursions are self-defining; in theory, we travel by car in order to chart our own course, in space and time, to eschew the very idea of a schedule. It’s supposed to be liberating, this idea of freedom and, except for the extraordinary telecommunications tools that become necessary (cell phones, GPS navigation, etc., not to mention the portable DVD players to distract passengers from the monotony) as a result, I guess it is. There is a case to be made that we have created a need for highly complex communications systems exactly because we have fouled up our transportation systems so badly, but I won’t make it here.

But back to those 15 hours… were they lost? This question belies the mythical crux of our ability and desire to move about, and the associated problems our choices have created. With no internet connection or TV, I was out of of touch in modern parlance, except, curiously, with the other people in my sleeper compartment. Laughter, conversation, meals, sleeping – these have their place, though we have dethroned them to a great extent, and we all know it. Sharing a constantly changing view out of the window with your family presents an opportunity we could all get to know better. So if the crux is about defining productivity up or down, you be the judge.

And we got there, on a schedule everyone could follow without a lot of last minute calls. We were picked up, by other family. It was a nice reunion, limited to those present; we were rested and in a different place, a very specific place, along with our luggage and all manner of souvenirs from the city. The energy that often gets sucked up by the stress of these other individual elements of travel, we could instead employ elsewhere.

Away IV

So, if you’re scoring at home, you’ll see that we’ve taken the family up from the south to NYC. And as an airport avoidance system, we arrived by train.

A few things first: a sleeper room runs about the same expense as four plane tickets, plus, as noted above, no airport, which means no parking or driving in, or a cab into the city. Amtrak arrives right into Penn Station.

It’s an overnight trip, and a sleeper includes meals in the dining car – you only pay for wine or beer. Sleeping on our modern US train system in no way resembles sleeping or a modern train system, especially anywhere south of the Northeast corridor; the tracks are rickety and pale in comparison to the pristine state of our roads. This could change in five years with some major investment and high-volume use as the cities along the route are already connected. A high-speed route connecting the same network of towns and cities a la the TGV is easily imagined and only a question of will and prohibitively expensive gasoline.

South of DC, the trains are pulled by diesel engines; in the nation’s capitol they switch to electric, which powers the Acela line and the rest of the commuter lines around the region. One aspect of the new, high efficiency electrical grid that you hear about, the one we desperately need, is that it could be arranged along high-speed rail lines it would need to power. Then it could branch out from there. 

Now off to real bagels, museums and friends, in no particular order.

Alien Lanes

In a state that is toying with secession from the Union, Department of Transportation plotting probably doesn’t even get this sophisticated. But as this post and chart make clear, there is a variety of other choices available that usually don’t even get put on the table for consideration.

And this kind of deliberate ignorance about alternatives gets expensive; it’s a dispositive of the conditions that “trap” us all in the unsustainable transportation cycle where 1) an absence of mass transit leaves driving as the only option, so 2) every person in a household over 16 years of age must have a vehicle, 3) more roads are required to support an ever-increasing number of vehicles, 4) transportation dollars automatically go to road building and maintenance and 5) mass transit projects are deemed too costly, which neatly leads back to 1).

But building and maintaining roads is very expensive, too. And that’s just the roads; once we begin to price-in the negative externalities of CO2 emissions and the general conditions surrounding resource scarcity, not to mention drive-time radio, we should be able to consider cost of driving to be sufficiently astronomical as to squeeze a few more chairs around the transportation planning table.

Tha Facts We Hate

The post-post modern effects of the torturous discussions of torture run wild with the startlingly banal discoveries that the horrors which terrorists may inflict upon us are nothing compared to what we can and will do to ourselves.

Everyone, or at least maybe every other person, has heard of the film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, the story of the EV-1, each model of which was effectively transported directly from the assembly line to the recycling junk heap by our caring and compassionate corporate overlords.

Now comes a new film about the implications of our transportation “choices”, that selection process of judging the merits of multiple options and identifying one for action. Otherwise known as something we did not do but that was done for us because we were, um… too… something. Taken for a Ride examines the story of the successful campaign by General Motors, among others, to buy and dismantle streetcar lines.

Across the nation, tracks were torn up, sometimes overnight, and diesel buses placed on city streets.

The highway lobby then pushed through Congress a vast network of urban freeways that doubled the cost of the Interstates, fueled suburban development, increased auto dependence, and elicited passionate opposition. Seventeen city freeways were stopped by citizens who would become the leading edge of a new environmental movement.

A future based merely on re-aligning the injustices of American history would be a wonderful place, probably with a Cherokee name.