Friday, January 16, 2015

The mirage of Technocratic planning

It's about prestige, not efficiency:
In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by farthe greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.
A lot of the whining that we need to put the Technocrats in charge comes from people who couldn't find the actual solution if you gave them a GPS pre-programmed with waypoints.  The problem is that the Thomas Friedmans of the world don't know as much as the people actually, say, building and running railroads, but they think they do.

Technocratic government?  As Gandhi is said to have remarked about Western Civilization, that would be very nice indeed.


drjim said...

Yep, and I routinely see freight trains with 150+ cars pulling out of the LA/Long Beach ports on an almost daily basis.

Back when I was a project engineer for McGraw-Edison back in Illinois, our largest customer was Conrail in Harrisburg, PA.

ALL of their freight engines were "under-the-wire" locomotives, with the wire having something like 28kV at 25Hz. The rectifiers in the old GE locomotives had thyratrons, and GE was no longer supporting them, and Conrail was running out of spares.

We sold them a solid-state replacement, with huge "hockey puck" rectifiers on giant heat sinks.

We cut so much weight out of the loco by removing all the thyratrons and their cooling system, that they had to add ballast to the locos to keep the traction high enough to pull the freight cars!

And Conrail was making money, while Amtrak was loosing it.

NotClauswitz said...

If only we could turn people into freight. The Airlines keep trying, they're on the cutting edge.

Comrade Misfit said...

AFAIK, the western railroads were build with plenty of government subsidies. Free land, for starters. Most railroads were built with government power, including eminent domain. And there was no shortage of practices that today would be considered bribery and other bits of chicanery.

And other than upgrading lines, there's really not been much in the way of new construction since before the Great War.

Overload in Colorado said...

Light (passenger) rail has two major advantages vs buses:
1) The majority of the system costs are up front rather than later. It's easier for a government to get a lump sum to build rail than continuous funding to keep buses going.
2) Rail creates Transit Oriented Growth. Put a train station somewhere and people will build stuff around it.

That said, and as a major rail fan, I have to say that buses make more sense. If you only had room for rail or additional lanes of a freeway, the lanes will transport more people than the rail will. Rail is an advantage if there's a destination people go to. Here in Colorado, Denver is spread out, so the downtown area has a small percentage of the city's jobs. When Denver was build there were a lot of small trolly lines that sprouted from downtown and spread out over the metro area. They've all gone, but have left enclaves all over where these used to terminate.
Chicago, on the other hand, has enough downtown to make rail work, both for the terminus as well as stations along the routes.

As misfit said, most rail in the US was built with government help. There just isn't enough private money to finance building a rail line. The last all private attempt was to build a rail between New York and Chicago, and it ran out of funds before they could span the distance (and the Depression happened).

Overload in Colorado said...

Sorry, forgot to add this:
Denver has seen a huge about of light rail growth over the last 20 years (FasTracks). It's been over budget, taking too long, ridership has been below projections, and it's been unable to sustain itself once operational. Even the proponents best projections say that traffic won't be reduced, but won't increase by 2020.

It has dovetailed nicely with a downtown bicycle program (B-Cycle) which has a lot of users, but due to patterns of use require the bikes to be redistributed through out the day via flatbed trucks.