Trains in America, and Elsewhere

The Economist

Fundamentally, without major government commitments to high-speed rail, America simply will not have a high-speed passenger rail network. This should probably be discomfiting, since every other economic superpower (the EU, Japan and China) does have a high-speed rail network. That makes America look a bit backward. The time horizon for building such a network is several decades, and it’s interesting to think about what will happen in the middle decades of this century if air transport becomes unaffordable due to high fuel costs and America doesn’t have an electric alternative for high-speed intercity transit.

Politically, I would describe what’s going on here as a loss of confidence in the principle of government investment and planning, in the face of the demonstrated incapacity of the contemporary American government to do an adequate job of investment and planning. That incapacity is largely due to conservative political opposition to government intervention in the economy, either for ideological reasons or because it entails higher taxes or because it treads on the toes of vested business interests. But the fact that the American government can’t get its act together to create a decent modern passenger rail network doesn’t mean that governments in general are incapable of doing so, or that it isn’t a good idea. Europe, Japan, and China seem perfectly capable of doing this job. A more narrow response to the rail problem, specifically, would be to encourage a BOT deal in which the government uses eminent domain to create the rail corridor and turns to the private sector to raise the capital, build it and perhaps run it. But, again, this doesn’t question the need for the government to plan national infrastructure, which seems to me to be pretty hard to gainsay.