Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What's Up With All The SUPERTRAINS

A reader writes in to ask just why I'm a fan of intercity rail. Well, the truth is if I had an extra $50 billion of other peoples' money to blow on big transit projects I would prioritize intra-city transit systems instead of inter-city ones, especially if I could use the powers of my benevolent dictatorship to fix stupid land use laws around stations and corridors. We've spent and continue to spend a lot of money to build a world where mobility requires that individuals spend a hell of a lot of money to surround themselves with a few thousand pounds of metal. And, no, roads don't pay for themselves. Then we require them to spend more money on insurance because there's a decent chance they're going to maim someone. I think this state of affairs is especially bad for teenagers, the elderly, and the poor, all of whom are incredibly disadvantaged by lack of mobility options. This fact was made very apparent to me after visiting a less developed country with little quality mass transit, where lack of access to a car clearly shut people off from participating fully in the economy. The price of real estate in nice walkable urban areas demonstrates that there is a shortage of those places, and those places can't exist in areas which require one car per driving age person. In many existing urban areas like my hellhole, highway capacity into the city is unlikely to increase, well, ever, so improving transit service into the city is the only way to add transportation capacity.

As for inter-city rail, I certainly support it too on the grounds that driving long distances and flying really suck. Flying sucks more than it used to for various reasons, and it is unlikely to suck less anytime soon. Having to travel to the airport, arrive early, deal with the various indignities and potential delays, the discomfort of airline cabins, extra time at the other end waiting for baggage, the need, most places, to throw down a large sum for a cab ride or car rental, to then travel a fairly long distance to the city center, all make for an extended unpleasant experience. Good trains are fast and smooth, easily competitive with air travel up to 400 miles or so, even if they aren't truly super supertrains. The ride is more comfortable. You can get up and walk around, pay a visit to the bar car. Doing some sort of work while riding is much more of a realistic option than it is on plane. As is a quality nap.

But having said that, building new long distance train systems from scratch is expensive. Right of ways are very difficult to assemble, and existing ones are generally owned by freight rail companies. We do have this existing massive freeway system, for better or for worse, and inter-city bus travel is decent and improving in many places. If I ran the zoo I'd of course build the trains everywhere, but since I don't my preference is to try to free more people from expensive car dependency and the need for car ownership, while also hoping that relatively inexpensive upgrades to the existing inter-city system can go a long way.