High Speed Rail and the Transcontinental Railroads Are Not the Same
According to Stanford history professor and high speed rail opponent Richard White, HSR and the transcontinental railroads are exactly the same thing:
High-speed rail in California has just gone through its latest devolution. It has become a lesser version of itself without shedding its greatest problems: It has no clear source of funding; it cannot attract private investment and thus depends on public subsidies. There is no evidence that large numbers of people – and the numbers need to be very large for it to even pay its operating costs – will climb onboard. It remains a “build it, and they will come project.”
The transcontinental railroads were also a “build it, and they will come project.” “They,” however, didn’t come for 30 years. Meanwhile, the transcontinentals bred disasters, repeatedly going bankrupt and feeding financial panics that threw the country into serious depressions. They bred the corruption that gave the late 19th century its name: the Gilded Age.
Of course, White is yet again proving that evidence does not matter to him – there is plenty of evidence, from state ridership studies, Amtrak California ridership stats, and HSR ridership numbers around the world that if you build it, yes, people actually will come.
But more importantly, White is making a rather strange intellectual leap here – arguing that high speed rail is just like the transcontinental railroads.
There are problems here we can identify immediately. HSR around the world routinely covers its own operating costs. And so far, there’s no credible evidence that the California HSR project has any kind of corruption at all attached to it. It’s a public project, so it more closely resembles a BART extension or an airport expansion than the corruption that the Southern Pacific Railroad – and Leland Stanford, benefactor of White’s employer – became known for.
The fate of the transcontinentals resonates because we are in a second Gilded Age of corruption and rising disparities of wealth. But it is the eerie particulars that makes high-speed rail so reminiscent of the transcontinentals.
In the late 19th century, the fat lands between the Missouri River and the 98th meridian needed roads to haul crops east while California needed railroads to haul wheat from the Central Valley to San Francisco Bay for shipping by sea.
Today, both the Bay Area and Los Angeles need local transit to relieve their clogged roads. Gilded Age skeptics pointed out that what the country did not need was expensive subsidized railroads across the interior West that lacked the traffic to sustain them. Skeptics now voice similar doubts about the ultimate traffic between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
That comparison makes hardly any sense at all. Again, the evidence from around the globe shows that in travel markets of 400 miles or so – the distance between LA and SF – bullet trains grab the market share from airlines. That’s what has happened in Spain and on the Northeast Corridor here in the US. As gas prices rise and the need to reduce carbon emissions becomes acute – two issues White never mentions – HSR becomes an even more compelling draw for both riders and policymakers.
Further, the airlines themselves are calling for high speed rail to serve the short-haul markets so that they can focus on the more profitable middle- and long-range markets.
The transcontinentals tried to assuage such doubts by manufacturing information in one of the great fictional genres of the late 19th century: the annual corporate report. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s publications have proved worthy successors. The authority has succeeded in funneling large amounts of money to consultants and even larger amounts of bad information to the public to assure us that everything will be just fine.
White is just making unsupported assertions here. He does not cite a single stat or point of evidence to back up the extraordinary claim that the CHSRA’s business plans are “fictional” or have “manufactured information.” As an academic, he ought to know that such claims require evidence.
In the 1870s, a congressman grasped the essence of schemes to subsidize transcontinentals. The bills were “substantially a proposition to build … on Government credit without making them the property of the Government when built. If there be profit, the corporations may take it; if there be loss, the Government must bear it.”
The details differ with high-speed rail, but the core concept is the same. Whatever profits come from the project will go to corporations; the losses – and there has still not been any convincing argument about why there will not be losses – will go to the public.
Actually, there has been convincing argument about why there will not be losses. It’s called global HSR experience. Every HSR system around the world generates an operating profit. Not a single one loses money on its operations. Freeways, of course, are the great money losers of American transportation, but I don’t see White attacking the Interstate Highway System.
Much of the harm the transcontinentals did was active: the provocation of unnecessary Indian wars, the eradication of the bison, the collapse of the range cattle industry, the repeated failures of farming on the Great Plains, the production of minerals with no markets in the Rockies.
The harm high-speed rail will do is passive. It will pour money needed elsewhere into what will most likely be an unnecessary luxury largely used by upper middle class people like me. Riders can feel good about themselves while far more necessary projects go unfunded.
White is just grasping at straws here. HSR isn’t unnecessary, unless White believes that gas prices today are affordable and that climate change is a lie. It won’t be a luxury largely used by the upper middle class – airfares are expected to rise and by providing a stable, non-oil powered form of transportation, HSR can actually have more predictable and ultimately lower costs than air travel or car travel within the state.
As to money being needed elsewhere, that’s the worst canard of all. Even if high speed rail is never built, California still has significant unfunded needs – job creation, health care, schools, and so on. Taxes will need to be raised to address those needs no matter what happens with HSR. White wants people to believe that there’s a finite amount of money available, but there isn’t. We can always go get more.
Ultimately White’s claims to authority here rest on his recent book on the transcontinental railroads, and while he does a good job in that book examining the problems with those projects, those lessons are simply not applicable to HSR today. More importantly, the significant amount of evidence accumulated shows HSR will be profitable and will meet a clear need in California. White hasn’t disproved that – he just doesn’t want to believe it. What I don’t understand is how a trained historian – a leader in his field, in fact – is willing to make arguments like this when the evidence is so overwhelmingly against him.