Wrangling a few more points about US Rail

designThere’s very little serious discussion these days on what to do about US passenger rail service, outside the occasional silly swipe about Amtrak’s low ridership compared with the much more generously subsidized air travel and highway systems, or a smarmy comment about railroad nostalgia.  It’s a bit idiotic, really, to blame nostalgia for encouraging America to keep up with the high-tech bullet trains of other countries, and only slightly less idiotic to expect an anemically supported mode of travel to run neck-and-neck with the steroid-pumped, oil-promoted interstate highway system.

But, these tend to be the twin drums beat by the anti-rail crowd, and the accompanying arguments are usually no less lacking in reason or vision.

For example, about a year ago the Freakonomics blog published a fairly comprehensive selection of recent commentary on US passenger rail, with a title that couldn’t miss the point further if it tried: “Can Amtrak Ever Be Profitable?”  How silly it is to ask how profitable an infrastructure element can be, when the point of economic infrastructure is to spread positive externalities to the market itself by enabling exchange?  Journalist Nate Berg says it well:

The return on investment for these services doesn’t have to be direct, and for transportation modes like passenger rail it often isn’t. Think of transportation as a line connecting two dots. The economic value of this connection is captured not by the transportation method itself, but by the people and places it connects. The value is in the dots, not the line. But without the line, the two (and in reality many) dots would have trouble sharing and compounding their relative economic powers.

In fact, much of the negative commentary on rail travel suffers from either missing the economic point of getting people (and their dollars) from point A to point B, or from the goofy habit of denigrating rail travel for the symptoms of inadequate funding caused by denigrating rail travel.  It’s like ignoring regular auto maintenance because “cars are worthless” and then concluding that “cars are worthless” because your engine seizes up from lack of oil.  Mature, honest, and responsible minds simply do not think this way and we have not only a right but a duty to elbow such foolishness out of the discussion.

Here’s my mind-by-mind take on the Freakonomics compilation.

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Private Gain vs. Market Prosperity

The first Freakonomics expert, Eric Morris (who has written episodes for Star Trek : Voyager and Xena : Warrior Princess, so there’s your literary link), demonstrates that he’s a bit near-sighted when he suggests elsewhere that we could direct highway traffic away from congested roads by charging variable tolls calculated by computers in real time based on congestion, ignoring the obvious alternative of making drivers aware of existing costs by simply providing them the toll-calculating program’s data directly, perhaps even translating that information into a rough fuel cost based on average mpg. Another obvious solution that doesn’t involve pumping drivers for extra cash: requiring web-connected traffic-avoiding protocols in direction-finding apps, which become more widely used every day.

In other words, if the idea is to manage traffic by providing direct economic feedback to the consumers of road access, there are ways to do this without double-taxing the citizenry.

Any time someone advocates imposing a new revenue vacuum on regular folks—even disguised as a way of providing them new value—we have a perfect right to suspect that the fees they (or their government contractor comrades) plan to harvest is a greater psychological incentive than the service they claim to offer.  And how long before governments, incessantly lobbied by private profiteers, further monetize these variable tolls by routing traffic toward commercial enterprises that have paid for special treatment?  Do we really want public infrastructure to be Facebooked and Googled full of “sponsored” destinations?

Injecting a revenue-gathering model into the management of traffic opens the door to massive new opportunities for private sector corruption of the public sector. And, quite frankly, there’s enough of that already.

Moreover, Morris’s comments on rail travel are similarly hobbled by myopic thinking and silly, partisan red herrings:

… subsidies for Amtrak are justified only if they bring broader benefits to society. Do they? Are oil rig workers in Texas or accounts payable clerks in Tacoma somehow better off because Joe Biden enjoys taking Amtrak back and forth between Washington and Wilmington?

Okay, I admit Biden's Amtrak obsession is kinda funny.
I admit Biden’s Amtrak obsession is kinda funny.

Of course, nobody is making such an argument, and Morris shows the quality of his thinking by resorting to straw men (an irrational tactics) based on cherry-picking (another irrational tactic) only anecdotal (another irrational tactic) hypothetical non-riders who provide the negative examples he’s looking for (confirmation bias, yet another fountain of irrationality).

Yeah, yeah, these might be time-honored rhetorical devices but their deployment is a fairly reliable sign that one is hesitant to, or incapable of, addressing genuine arguments. Furthermore, taking a non sequitur swipe at a partisan politician gives us a pretty good idea whence Morris is swiping politically, and he confirms this by trumpeting rail’s ability to handle industrial freight and suggesting we end all passenger rail subsidies (subsidies he fails to significantly distinguish from much higher interstate and airline subsidies) and privatize, privatize, privatize!

It is unfortunate that I have to point this out, but constantly promoting the gains of a single faction in a competition is not how free market efficiencies and prosperity are really accomplished.

Stooping to nostalgia zingers, Morris likens rail travel to zeppelin travel in an attempt to dismiss it as a “19th century technology that we are attempting to apply to a 21st century problem.” Moving freight over water by ship is an ancient technology (the first seaworthy vessels might have been built nearly 50 centuries ago) yet roughly ninety percent of freight worldwide moves over water in ships, partly due to America’s massive investment in a Navy to keep the waters safe and clear of piracy.  But, following Morris’s anachronism logic, perhaps we should scrap all of that as well.

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How Does It Actually Work?

The next Freakonomics expert, Brookings senior fellow Robert Puentes, does a fair job identifying ways to maximize rail’s strengths, and uses science rather than rhetoric to do so.  Citing figures on how rail competes with air travel, actual market shares along routes where rail works best, and research into the optimal travel distance for rail competitiveness, Puentes provides practical models on how to improve America’s rail system rather than resorting to schoolyard sniping in order to tear it down.

My only complaint would be that Puentes does not go far enough, and seems to focus a bit too much on the quantitative factors in rail competitiveness.  The features I most appreciate about rail include the luxurious leg room compared to air travel, and the un-car-like freedom to do something with my brain and eyes other than focus on the road.  These alone are worth paying a bit more and taking a bit longer.  If the café car selection were more appetizing, all the more competitive.  And, if the scheduling were more accommodating (easily accomplished by double tracking, which can provide several times more passenger rail opportunities) people would have greater incentive to go rail instead of air or highway.

Customers can’t develop loyalty to a brand if it’s not available when they need it. If we build it, they will ride.

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Monkey See, Monkey Don’t

The third expert, Yonah Freemark, kicks it off right with this concise dismantling of the anti-rail position:

Yet the alternatives being hammered out by opponents of the nation’s railroad, such as privatization and a reduction in government subsidies, are a collective non-starter. Experience abroad suggests that successful rail systems—in fact, most transportation systems—require significant government aid, especially when it comes to capital projects.

My only editorial suggestion would be to replace “successful rail systems—in fact, most transportation systems—” with “most successful transportation systems—including rail—” in order to stress the general quality of the economic truth being expressed, and avoid even the appearance of an a priori pro-rail bias.  It’s not about rail and, by extension, most transportation systems; it’s about transportation systems and therefore also rail.

Freemark goes on to make very cogent arguments explaining how the supposed solutions to Amtrak’s woes—cheerleading for “automobility and aviation” while flirting with privatization—are ironically the cause of those woes.  He points out that when these themes have been acted on elsewhere the results have been disastrous.  Why would we want to repeat the mistakes of the UK and double-down on our own failures?

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We Are Urban America

OneAmericaSpeaking directly to my vision of US passenger rail uniting America in one community the same way metro/subway systems unite individual cities, Nate Berg (whom I quoted above) cites an observation in the book Megalopolitan America by Arthur Nelson and Robert Lang that the majority of Americans live within 23 urban clusters.  The One America plan connects those urban clusters into a single community with the vision of enabling Americans to visit (and interact economically with) each other’s cities the way intra-city rail enables commerce between neighborhoods and suburbs.

But, to round out Berg’s city-oriented analysis, I would point out that One America also connects rural areas between urban centers, providing opportunities for small town America to benefit from the economic vitality of the metropolis.

Berg closes:

Certainly Amtrak could be operated in a way that better met the needs of our increasingly mobile and interconnected society. But to single it out as a money hog amongst a broad swath of government-subsidized infrastructures and services is to turn a blind eye to the fact that the provision of such services, profit or no, allows the country’s economy to function.

Precisely, and it requires vision to keep that infrastructure pumping positive externalities into the larger economy.

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“No Good Reason” To Start Scavenging America’s Corpse

Freakonomics wraps it up with Stephen Smith, a writer for Forbes.  Ignoring the re-nationalization of rail in Britain, Smith is devoted to privatization but even more transparently than Morris.

While rightly finding fault with outdated regulations and crippling labor relations (which I have addressed) Smith offers no  explanation why the end state of reform should be to sell off America’s assets piecemeal.  Instead, he just brazenly starts planning the auction as if it were a foregone conclusion:

… there is no good reason that American politicians shouldn’t begin the process towards privatization now. The process, however, will be a long one, with privatization being the end goal rather than the starting point … But even privatization is not a straightforward affair. The first decision to make is whether to go for the European model of forcibly separated infrastructure and operations, or to sell off the railroads as an integral unit … beyond that, we have to decide how to break up Amtrak. The Northeast Corridor is an obvious candidate for splitting off and selling, because it’s both the most profitable route, and the only one whose tracks Amtrak actually owns …

Despite decades of private sector attempts to “starve the beast” so that the Republic can be “drowned in a bath tub,” America is not yet dead and it is both premature and distasteful to discuss selling off her assets as if this were an estate sale.

For Smith to say there’s “no good reason” not to privatize, while offering no reason at all why we should, is such a laughably obvious maneuver that cookie-plundering children would be mortified by its clumsiness.  Putting economic infrastructure in the hands of self-interested profiteers makes about as much sense as trying to hang a picture on a nail hammered into its own frame.  A genuine market economy requires a field in which self-interested actors can compete, and public infrastructure provides that field.  Once we put passenger rail on a narrow, for-profit model, its beneficial externalities in the larger market will evaporate overnight, and the private sector will have poisoned its own well with short-sighted profiteering.

Again, lack of vision is keeping us from reaping the greatest economic benefits here.

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