The Washington Post Features High Speed Rail Hack Job

This is the big problem with Ed Glaeser’s New York Times posts purporting to analyze the costs and benefits of a high speed rail system.

Despite Glaeser’s acknowledgment
that his "back-of-the-envelope calculation" doesn’t "[represent] a
complete evaluation of any actual proposed route," the posts are sure
to be read and regurgitated by rail opponents uninterested in having an
actual debate on the merits of high-speed rail investments.

the Washington Post’s lame excuse for an economics columnist, Robert
Samuelson, used numbers from Glaeser’s analysis in writing an extremely
regrettable piece arguing that investments in high-speed rail are
misguided. But this is no honest entry into the discussion of how best
to invest in transportation infrastructure. It’s a hack job, plain and

Samuelson begins by complaining about Amtrak
subsidies, but he can’t be bothered to address what those subsidies
actually suggest about the competitiveness of fast, intercity rail. On
the corridor where service most closely resembles true high-speed
service, Amtrak runs an operating profit.

It gets much worse from there. Samuelson argues against rail on the basis of population density, writing:

What works in Europe and Asia won’t in the United States. Even abroad,
passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable
because geography and energy policies differ.

Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct
connections between heavily populated city centers and business
districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it’s 653 in
Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land
in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and
factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can’t pick up
most people where they live and work and take them to where they want
to go. Cars can.

This is embarrassingly bad analysis.
America’s overall population density includes vast expanses of land in
the west where few people live and where high-speed trains won’t be
built (have a look at the administration’s map of proposed routes here and note how many low-density states are not expected to get service).

proper point of comparison is the population densities of metropolitan
corridors where lines will be built. A child could understand the
point, and yet Samuelson, out of ignorance or deliberate obtuseness,
doesn’t get it.

He follows that up with a similar error:

Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can’t compete with planes.

Again, this is just embarrassing. Distances between major cities on planned corridors will be at most 400 miles. No one is suggesting that rail compete with planes on coast-to-coast routes.

is a hugely important factual point, and Samuelson seems to be entirely
ignorant of it. He simply knows nothing about the policies being

Samuelson goes on to make other mistakes; like
Glaeser he fails to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives to
high-speed rail — given current congestion levels and expected
population growth, new infrastructure of some kind will be necessary to
keep the national economy functioning. But given the basic errors
mentioned above, it’s hardly worth engaging with the piece.

Post should be ashamed of its decision to publish this. And Glaeser
should be at least a little bit uncomfortable that his work is being
cited in factually challenged columns by writers who clearly have no
interest in honest participation in the discussion.

  • David Galvan

    There are already 20 pages of comments to go with that editorial. Makes me not want to even bother chiming in.

    Great post though!

  • DJB

    Samuelson points out that subsidizing inter-regional rail corridors means that there will be less money available for transit subsidies within regions. I share this concern, since most trips we have to make are within one region (especially in this gigantic region).

    There already are many transit options that link far-flung regions together, such as buses (e.g. Greyhound). High-speed trains would be cleaner than buses, driving or flying, but is that a good enough reason to take money away from intra-regional transit subsidies or other measures designed to protect the environment? Is it really that important that I be able to travel from LA to San Francisco in a couple hours on a train? No matter how you make that trip, it’s not great for the environment.

    We have limited resources and we should attempt to apply them in a way that will produce maximum benefits for the environment, the economy, and social equity.

    I have trouble supporting inter-regional high-speed rail while my region still has a long way to go in offering an excellent intra-regional transit system.

  • David Galvan

    The whole intra vs. inter regional issue is poorly represented by the samuelson article. The people who have studied and who advocate HSR have already thought about this issue: (here, for example:

    The proposed california system linking the bay area to the L.A. area is a no-brainer. The distance scales are directly comparable to Japan/Spain/Germany/France.

    As for competion between inter-regional and intra-regional systems for funding, they are really more complementary than that. If we get HSR running from L.A. Union station to S.F., more of the public are going to demand better intra-regional public transit within L.A.. Yes, the money is not infinite, but I think raising the public awareness of these different options is every bit as important as actually having the money. It’s people’s awareness that will inform their votes, and its their votes that will drive the successful policies of the politicians who can make these decisions.

  • As transportation funding channels are “set up”, such as they are. Transit dollars are not entirely fungible.

    If HSR were scrapped, it does not follow that this money would go to intraregional transportation instead, anymore than if we scrapped all intra-regional rail for the BRU’s bus-only paradise, that all those rail transit dollars would go toward providing bus service.

  • DJB

    In the long run all public spending can be redirected. I think it’s worth looking at things like an economist would from time to time (i.e. how can we make the “best” use of our scarce resources). How much should we be spending on intra-regional transit, as opposed to inter-regional transit? I don’t think it’s a simple question to answer, but somebody has to decide.

    I also hope we don’t end up subsidizing mega-commuting and accidentally working against environmental goals (e.g. if there were high-speed rail, couldn’t I, theoretically, take a job in Fresno while living in LA?). We shouldn’t forget that transit can fuel sprawl too.

    Since it’s happening, I hope HSR is successful and makes people advocate for intra-regional transit more. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  • Wad

    DJB, I generally agree with the comments you make in #5.

    The one thing, though, is not to wave sprawl around recklessly in hopes of affecting a reaction in our audience.

    It sounds like the prospect of a Fresno to L.A. or Fresno to Bay Area trip as a daily labor shed is a recipe for sprawl on steroids.

    Well, high-speed rail used for commuting such unprecedented lengths is overwhelming at first. But there are also reasons why it’s not a bad thing, and how such behavior can be economically beneficial:

    *The sprawl came to the Central Valley first. The rampant home-building had already occurred, and the bubble had led to an oversaturation of housing. Those homes will be there for years. At least with high-speed rail, there will be a market for those homes that’s far better than the alternative of HUD scooping them up. Ask the Antelope Valley how well that worked out.

    *The Central Valley is an urbanized agricultural belt. The area between Sacramento and L.A., of roughly 250-300 miles, is home to about 5 million people. The urbanized cities are mostly along Highway 99, surrounded by mostly farms and mountains.

    *The urban Central Valley is an economic basket-case. The cities are far too dense to support everyone working in the agricultural sector. The Central Valley is home to 4 public universities, yet they produce more graduates than the local job base can support. Professional jobs are lacking outside of the public sector. Universities alone aren’t enough to produce a professional job base. So, many of the grads from CSUs Bakersfield, Fresno and Stanislaus and UC Merced will have to go elsewhere for work. If they stay in the state, they’ll likely go to where these jobs exist: the Bay Area, Sacramento or Southern California.

    *At least with high-speed rail sprawl, there is no way the highways can be widened or straightened enough to make a car commute even come close to a train trip. Fresno to L.A. will still take 4-5 hours each way.

    *High-speed rail will give California’s businesses comparative advantage. California will continue to remain a high-value, high-cost economy for the future regardless of whether we reform government and taxation. If there is a job that can be done cheaper and/or better overseas, it will be. However, there’s still a large cluster of the economy that cannot be exported to lower-cost areas and is location-dependent.

    Most of these sectors, though, are in the high-cost Southern California or Bay Area megalopoles. The Central Valley, with high-speed rail, can take some of the more price-sensitive functions out of the coastal areas and yet still be within reasonable reach of those markets.

    This comparative advantage would correct the education-jobs imbalance of the Central Valley, and allows coastal California companies to maintain key high-value functions in high-cost areas.

  • Erik G.

    I’m guessing that 86 persons per square mile figure was including Hawaii and Alaska, you betcha?


US PIRG: How About High Speed Rail for Every Major City

(Image: U.S. PIRG) Now that the Obama administration has awarded $8 billion in high-speed rail grants to more than two dozen states, with $2.5 billion more coming soon, why not keep thinking big when it comes to bullet-train expansion? That’s the ethos of a new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group […]