Robert J. Samuelson is one of the more right-wing writers at the Washington Post. His previous columns have proposed privatizing Medicare, for example, just to give you a picture of who we are dealing with. And like Ed Glaeser and Ed Morris before him, he has decided to bring a right-wing frame to his attack on high speed rail in today's Washington Post.
The column turns on two basic arguments. The first is that somehow HSR will not pencil out. The fact that every HSR system in the world covers its operating costs is lost on Samuelson, who passes off as fact Glaeser's bad math that we've already debunked. Perhaps expecting HSR supporters to respond with the fact that European and Asian HSR systems cover their expenses through fares, Samuelson then tries to argue the USA is different:
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.
As Bianca pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, however, California HSR will have a much higher density than the figures Samuelson provided above:
Okay, I pulled the numbers from the US Census site (linked above.) Note these are numbers based on the year 2000, so current numbers are likely higher.
San Francisco County – 9,999
San Mateo County- 1,575
Santa Clara County- 1,303
Merced County- 109.2
Fresno County- 143.1
Tulare County- 76.3
Kern County- 81.3
Los Angeles County 2,344.1
Orange County- 3,607.5
average: 2,138 persons per square mile over nine counties served by HSR.
This is just for the San Francisco to Irvine section, but I think we can safely lay density to rest as an argument.
It is true that the Central Valley cities have smaller densities. But one of the purposes of HSR is to spur that density by providing HSR stations in city centers that can serve as magnets for transit-oriented development. Even with that in mind, the average density of the CAHSR route from SF to Anaheim is significantly higher than the numbers Samuelson provides. It blows his entire argument out of the water.
But as James Carville once said, "when your opponent is drowning, throw him an anvil." We can go further and show that the European nation most closely resembling California - Spain - has had dramatic success with HSR. Bruce McF made that point at Daily Kos today, and Matt Melzer made it here in July 2008 using the following charts:
That last chart in particular is of immense value in discussing American HSR plans. Spain was not the stereotypical European nation that already had a large share of its population using trains. Spain, like California, was primarily dependent on cars and planes to get around the nation. And yet it is Spain that has had the most dramatic success with HSR in the last 20 years.
Samuelson also made another point above, that trains don't work as well as cars because they don't give you door to door service. There are two flaws with this. First, a high speed train from SF to LA is still faster than driving, getting you from point A to point B in about half the time. Sure, you have to drive to a train station, but the HSR stations in both the Bay Area and SoCal will be centrally located.
That leads to the next point that Samuelson almost totally ignores. Yes, as he says, beyond 400 or 500 miles high speed trains don't compete well with planes. But most US HSR plans, including California's, fall into the sweet spot. SF to LA via HSR will be a 432-mile journey. Madrid to Barcelona is about 385 miles. And that corridor, once the world's busiest air corridor, high speed trains have had a smashing success, grabbing 40% of the market share in just its first year of operation.
It should be quite clear that Samuelson's attack on HSR is not based on evidence at all. Rather, as Dean Baker points out, it seems based solely on hatred of trains. Weak stuff indeed.
Finally, as Rafael noted in the comments to yesterday's post, it's a shame we're even having these discussions. California voters have made their decision - they want high speed trains. President Obama ran on a winning platform that included frequent and prominent references to high speed trains. Glaeser, Morris, O'Toole and Samuelson seem interested in using their prominent media platforms to try and reverse these outcomes. Yet they cannot do so on the evidence alone. They either have to structure their analysis in such a way that ignores the whole context and leaves a lot out, as Glaeser and Morris have done, or they have to ignore evidence entirely, as O'Toole and Samuelson have done.
One wonders when the NYT and WaPo will be publishing pro-HSR op-eds in their pages and on their blogs.