Sunday, March 28, 2010

Conservatives Don’t Like Passenger Rail

Well, not all conservatives, as I consider myself one.

I ran across 'Defining Success: The Case against Rail Transit' by Randal O'Toole - Page 1 of 40 when visiting the Cato Institute on the Web.  This site links to a lot of great, politically conservative writing.  But this study makes me shudder.

If you like Passenger Rail as a transportation mode, you should read the whole study.  It’s a great example of good investigation, science and research.  Some of the climate-change people should take it as an example.  It doesn’t paint rail transit in a very good light for those of us who would like to see reduced government size and cost.

If you are a railfan, some of the criteria Mr. O’Toole uses for viable rail transit systems are quite laughable.  Even if the criteria are not chosen objectively – what a lot of researchers do to slant the outcome – how the transit systems meet these criteria is looked at systematically.  You can then throw out criteria that appear ridiculous, and you still get a very bad picture of rail transit’s future.

Okay, so these conservatives have an axe to grind with big government.  But I think those of us who advocate expanded railroad passenger systems are a bit guilty of wanting to put trains on ‘whenever and wherever.’

When I criticized the way that tax dollars would be spent on HSR, I got a bad reaction from some of you.  Some of the comments – not all shown on this blog – suggested that we should take anything that will bring on more trains.  That attitude is dead wrong and will lead to some of the situations that are grist for the conservative mill. 

First and foremost, there are some places where we shouldn’t be looking to put on more trains.  Not now, at least.  New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express was one of these, and now a very, very poor state is burdened with a very, very costly train that could have been done another way.  Rah, rah, for the train, but boo to the tax burden.  To even suggest that we put on more of these kinds of trains is going to work against us.

Second, we should stop looking at rail only in terms of “dollars of subsidy” per “passenger mile.”  Every mode of passenger transport is subsidized.  We should also have a “value” per “passenger mile” measure.  And we should have a spirited debate about what these values are.

Here are some suggestions:  What’s it worth to have the majority of travelers using a very low-polluting, fuel-saving mode?  What’s it worth to travelers to be able to look out a window and see where they are?  What’s it worth to have fixed guideways that will NEVER bring their noise and disruption to ANY OTHER than their nearest neighbors?  Buses don’t do that, you say?  Well just take a look at how easily a bus route can be changed!

These are just some of the talking points we could use to argue with Mr. O’Toole.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

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