11A028 High Speed Trains by Jim Davies, 1/28/2011    

One of the wild promises floated by Obama in his big speech on Tuesday was to fix the infrastructure, which he admitted is crumbling; and nobody outside his audience is responsible for that neglect. He said "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. (Applause.) This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down. (Laughter and applause.)"

Thus did the President dispose, en passant, of the outrage of TSA's intrusive searches. And they laughed.

Trains do have a romantic appeal. To board one in one city center, take a meal as the countryside flashes by, go to bed and wake up in the center of a distant city, is an experience one should enjoy at least once in life. And if they go fast, so much the better, unless the scenery is especially spectacular. Readers who have traveled in Europe will recall the Trains Grande Vitesse (TGVs) whooshing by almost before one sees them coming. So shall we have them here?

That decision is properly one for investors, which should include you and me, who might buy a share in a railroad company. Does the profit potential justify the risk of losing the money? - and notice, those decisions will be made by the million. If the investor community reckons the firm has done its homework, money will be made available; and not, if not. That's the way it works, in a free society.

I'm not sure about this idea, though it's worth a closer look. TGVs can compete well when cities are relatively close together, as in Europe and Japan; but can they rival air travel when separated by a thousand miles? How much re-laying of tracks will be needed, for safety at 200 mph? Cost? What's their vulnerability to "terrorists," ie government's competitors?

I can't answer those questions, but the point is that politicos like Obama are certainly the wrong people to ask them. They are notorious at underestimating costs (and as above, at underspending on maintenance) and have none of their own money at stake and so are intrinsically incapable of assessing the risks. They would spend someone else's stolen money, reap the benefit of added votes if the project succeeds, but hurry on to the next boondoggle if it fails. They have power, but no responsibility. Therefore, they should not come anywhere close to such an enterprise.

Government has, unfortunately, had much to do with transportation. It distorted all that decision-making, by building early roads where politically advantageous instead of where economically sensible, subsidising certain railroad constructions (though not James Hill's Great Northern) and obstructing others, but then (in the mid-20th century) bankrupting passenger railroads by its massive program of road building - a vast subsidy to the automotive trade. Lastly it controls air travel, so determining the fate of that trade. In the alternative natural environment of a zero government society, all these modes of transport will compete for our business - but the investing decisions will be made rationally, by people with their own funds at risk. No sounder way has yet been invented.

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