(This was supposed to auto-post at 3PM yesterday. Bloggered again...)
ABC News has a high speed rail story up on its site this morning, about the proliferation of HSR plans around the country. They quote some skeptics, including William Garrison, a retired civil engineering professor at UC Berkeley:
William Garrison says there is little national demand for high-speed rail. He says the push for high-speed rail is merely a new way of doing something old. "While the high-speed trains look nice, they're just polished-up, old, sterile technology," he says. "They're like I am. I am an old man with a new haircut."
It's conceivable that Garrison has not been to Europe or Japan anytime in the last 30 years to see the cutting-edge, extraordinarily popular high speed trains there. It's possible, I guess, that he hasn't even been to the western edge of his city to see the frequent, high-ridership Capitol Corridor trains. And it's more than possible, but quite likely, that he's just an old-school freeway builder who convinced himself in the 1960s that rail was dead and 40 years later cannot bring himself to admit new evidence and new realities.
Ironically Garrison himself coauthored a book attacking that kind of thinking:
Major themes of the book include the pervasiveness of conventional wisdom, its often unfortunate role in shaping policy, and the need to resist it. Another theme is historic path dependence, in which initial decisions when a technology is young lock systems into development paths out of inertia (as in the case, say, of railway gauges), so that they become historic artifacts rather than dynamic transport systems. The authors also address the maturity of our transportation system (and its possible senescence). That creates the danger that new ideas will be suffocated or starved, especially given the present preoccupation with polishing and fine-tuning obsolete systems, or tinkering around the edges, refining and optimizing in small increments what is already deployed.
Despite this undercurrent of dismay, the authors claim to be writing out of a sense of optimism. "We need to think harder. We need to do better," they write, with the implication that that is possible.
The book includes an attack on high speed rail, which is directly contradictory to its stated themes:
At the same time, the authors suggest that the passenger railroad is a dying technology, suitable for a select few settings, but extremely limited in its practical usefulness overall. They analyze the prospects for high-speed rail in the U.S. market and, contrary to some widely publicized views, conclude that it is not likely to succeed on its own merits. In the two places where high-speed rail has enjoyed some of its greatest success, Europe and Japan, other factors contributed to the outcome. Regulatory schemes artificially inflated airfares, so airlines could not compete for customers on price. And because Europe and Japan are more densely populated and have more severe congestion and capacity problems, high-speed rail has an easier time of matching the convenience of air, creating the high-volume, short-distance market for which high-speed rail is most suited.
So how do they explain the Acela's success?! European air travel has been revolutionized by low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair, but high speed rail has still beaten them. Matt Melzer destroyed the "more densely populated" argument here on the blog last month, showing that Spain has very similar conditions to us in California, and Spain's successes can be repeated here. Finally, the notion that air travel is "convenient" just doesn't seem true any longer - when American travelers are given a choice between flying and high speed rail, they're choosing the rails.
Garrison and his coauthors go on:
Finally, they argue, high-speed rail is too late: "In mature systems, the benefits of new infrastructure in an already well-served area are elusive." Tinkering with an older system will yield only minimal gains. "Whether high-speed rail is a new story, or simply the final chapter to the history of conventional passenger rail, waits to be seen," they conclude.
Of course, California is not a "well-served area." HSR isn't "tinkering with an older system" and his implicit notion that passenger rail is headed for some dustbin of transportation history is belied by the reality that surrounds us.
Ultimately Garrison's argument is really little more than libertarian anti-transit nonsense dressed up in academic speak. Their book purports to explain why "the math" doesn't work for transit, but this ignores the massive subsidies given to freeways - meaning "the math" doesn't work for them either. And nowhere in their book, published in 2006, do they discuss the impact of higher gas prices or global warming mitigation costs on transportation - both of which suggest that HSR will be effective from both a transportation and an economic point of view.
Garrison's arguments are the last gasp of a dying 20th century model. The 21st century model is one that emphasizes sustainability, in our case through modernized passenger rail. I love riding the Coast Starlight, but give me high speed rail and I'll choose that over Amtrak, driving, or flying any day.