Yesterday in The Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson criticized President Obama’s plans to finally provide funding for high speed rail projects across the country—the likes of which Europe and Asia have, but we lack. His initial point—that Amtrak only serves a small amount of people—is essentially correct. However, Amtrak is not high speed rail. Amtrak is as much a political tool as it is a transportation network. Politicians agree to fund trains that run through sparsely populated areas so that their constituents are able to have an alternative to driving. Plus, these trains are used as leverage, with more populous sections of the country only receiving support for rail service if the countryside is covered, too.
On balance, though, Samuelson’s harangue of high speed rail might have been more credible had he not made a few glaring omissions in his opinion piece:
- He argued that train travel caters to only a small percentage of the population, citing daily Amtrak ridership of 78,000. This ignores the fact that more than one million people ride commuter trains (which often are operated by contracted Amtrak employees) in dozens of major cities. The Virginia Railway Express estimates that its operation takes roughly one lane of car traffic off of I-66 and I-95 during the morning and evening rush hours. To imply that no one rides trains anymore is ludicrous.
- Samuelson said that the U.S. does not have the population density of other nations which have high speed rail. But no one is talking about building high-speed rail coast to coast, though the less populous states. The plan is to build corridors in California, the southeast, the Midwest, and the Northeast—where the people are.
- It is misleading to ask whether all of the train ticket subsidies would be “justified” without asking the same of highway and air subsidies. Trains are much safer than automobiles and have fewer carbon emissions per passenger mile than planes.