Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Self-Correcting Blogithingy In Action (Amtrak Edition)

by Tom Bozzo

Megan McArdle writes:
[W]hy is America's high-speed rail so dreadful? [...] The answer is that the Acela uses existing track, which is twisty, the better to serve every congressional district between here and Boston.
The little problem here is that this was either pulled out of her backside, or perhaps more likely pulled out of the backside of a libertarian welfare recipient who'd had a few too many at some U St. bar and duly parroted on the website of the Atlantic. (The pulled quote is prefaced as part of a "discussion" she'd been in "recently.") This is linked approvingly by the theoretically more trustworthy Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, where McArdle's account is smacked down in the thread's first comment. (See Stephen Karlson for the extended version.)

This seems par for the course for Ms. McArdle, but what's Cowen's excuse?

Largely unmentioned anywhere is that the correct answer to why America's high-speed rail is so "dreadful" — in our neck of the woods, we say, "nonexistent" — that is, chronic underinvestment in rail infrastructure.   Karlson makes his usual [*] point that outside of the Northeast Corridor, perfectly useful 110 MPH trains could be run over a lot of existing track with mostly regulatory changes.  But remember, for approximately the price of reconfiguring the runways at O'Hare to accommodate air traffic that may never (future path of oil prices and all) materialize, you could build 300 km or so of electrified 350 km/h line.  The French did.

[*] And useful! I consider myself bludgeoned into agreeing, even though I'd see them as a gateway drug of sorts to the newfangled Electroliners that Karlson mildly to moderately disparages as expensive utopian toys.

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It's called "if you build it ..." For many years the Milwaukee-Chicago was a neglected part of the Amtrak network, making do with leftover Milwaukee Road coaches, then those French turbotrains that were allergic to winter, later with left over Chicago and North Western bilevels with leaky roofs, and no food service. There's now at least a trolley service of soft drinks and bag snacks on some trains, and a halfway decent frequency of trains.

In the east, the Boston-Portland also manages despite hostility from the successor to the Boston and Maine, New Hampshire's willingness to free-ride on state funds from Massachusetts and Maine. That service is more noteworthy as there was a 35 year gap between the Boston and Maine's service and the Amtrak.

It's worth remembering that the Metroliner, touted by the Johnson Administration and The Pennsylvania Railroad as out-Tokaidoing the Japanese (hee hee, but you could look it up) started as one round trip a day, and it took riders a while to figure out that reliable 120 mph service on Amtrak beat messing around with the Eastern Shuttle or the New Jersey Turnpike.
One other note: A deal like the OHare expansion project means millions for Mayor Daley's pals in Fed money.

The payoff juice for rail just ain't the same.
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