Friday, May 2, 2008

Obama on High Speed Rail

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

From Grist comes this story about Barack Obama's encounter on the campaign trail with an Indiana man who works in Amtrak's Beech Grove shop, and the candidate's remarks about the importance of trains:

The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking bout for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities -- Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now. There are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.

This is something that we should be talking about a lot more. We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don't have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn't have high speed rail. We just don't have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.

Right. On.

I really have nothing to add. Obama absolutely nails it here. He talks about connecting nearby regions with high speed rail to save money, to save time, to save on gas, to produce energy independence. These off-the-cuff remarks show that he is someone who clearly understands the value and purpose of high speed rail.

Hillary Clinton's ridiculous gas tax cut proposal tries to frame the issue of energy prices as one of high taxes. Obama instead gets what this is really about - we don't have enough alternatives to oil-based transportation. The way to lower the cost of transportation for Americans isn't to give them a meaningless gas tax cut that will put $30 in their pocket but devastate federal transportation spending - it's to spend the money on the systems, like high speed rail, that will help reduce their overall gas consumption. Hillary is talking about saving people $30 over a summer; Obama is talking about saving people thousands over the course of years.

That being said, I wouldn't object if Hillary began speaking more about supporting mass transit and high speed rail. For that matter, Obama needs to be making this a more central part of his campaign narrative. I'm with Grist - "Why doesn't transit have higher profile in this campaign?"


Anonymous said...

Mention infrastructure and most people complain about how bad it is, shrug their shoulders and then change the channel. It's very hard to make it a sexy topic, but Obama has proven that he is both a gifted speaker and a reflective candidate.

America's competitive edge in the world economy already depends heavily on intellectual property. The Internet has facilitated the free exchange of ideas, but it has not rendered face-to-face meetings obsolete. On the contrary, it has greatly increased their value thanks to improved preparation and follow-up. Transportation networks become ever more valuable as they grow, subject only to transaction costs (e.g. fuel and idle time). For intermediate distances, high speed trains reduce these costs compared to both cars and airplanes.

In addition, HSR makes it much easier to maintain personal relationships over these distances, increasing liquidity in the labor market.

Unfortunately, these are somewhat abstract economic arguments in favor of HSR. Energy security and global warming are also complex issues, but for various reasons, they resonate with voters on a more emotional level.

The same applies for the high human and $3,000,000,000+ financial cost of waging a war of choice in Iraq (as opposed to the one in Afghanistan). To put it in perspective: for the same money, the US could have built California's HSR - the US' single most expensive transportation project since the interstate system - some 80(!) times over.

Anonymous said...

Here's a status update on the progress the CHSRA is making in the run-up to the November ballot. All the years of preparation will give voters - and perhaps the Democratic candidate for the White House - the confidence needed to endorse the HSR project.

FLUBBER said...

whack...that article isn't free and my school doesn't have a subscription...

無名 - wu ming said...

he got a standing O for his amtrak/HSR line in his closing arguments speech today in indiana.

especially out there in the great flatness, it's insane not to build fast trains.

Unknown said...

Great blog! I just discovered it. I wrote about this post on my own blog, Talented Earthquake Productions,, and I added California High Speed Rail Blog to my blogroll.

Anonymous said...

AFP article on HSR and what Obama has said about it.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Good to hear Obama is now incorporating this into his stump speech, wu ming. It resonates well with voters, who after 8 years of relentless gas price hikes are beginning to realize the era of cheap oil really is over, and that mass transit and HSR are the only ways out.

Thanks for that link, anonymous - I've been planning to blog that article all morning, but got sidetracked looking at bike commuter blogs. Mmmm...steel-frame crossbike...

Anonymous said...

I find it laughable the pandering thats going on with this gas tax holiday. The funniest(most tragic?) part is the anti-economist populism.

Clinton said she didn't "put in her lot with economists". What does that mean? She has economic advisors like everyone else, but she couldn't find a SINGLE economis to back her proposal( and there's always hacks that will support anything, like Kudlow for the Republicans).

Even Mccain said "30 dollars might not be much for economists." I've got news for you Mac, we can't all marry rich!

It's classic shoot the messenger, because their plan fails in every way.

It won't reduce prices very much, it hamstrings the infrastructure budget, it encourages more consumption which is the root of the problem, and most of the benefit will go to the oil companies anyway. Saying that a windfall profits tax will make sure the oil companies won't profit shows a complete lack of understanding of tax incidence. If you tax the oil companies the equivalent of 18.4 cents per gallon and eliminate the gas tax, the effect is nil. But in terms of pandering? The sky's the limit. Have another shot, Hillary.

And this from the person that says she the most qualified candidate on the economy?

dbatreja said...

Nice blog. Also have a look at for more on trains.

elo said...

I would love to have high-speed trains...but I'm skeptical... I would rather go for broke. If we're going to get trains, I would rather go massively, head-over-heels into debt and hope that the war-level spending will stimulate the economy and create jobs and leave us with something useful...rather than a train that barely goes faster than my car--but provides less convenience and costs more....

John Tantillo has a marketing and branding blog on which he publishes weekly brand winner/loser post. Last week, he named "The Train To Nowhere" the loser, and he makes some very good points, asserting that it does not respond to any real need but instead follows the "build-it-and-they-will-come" model adopted by the now infamous American automakers. But with the added side-effect of disincentivize the development of alternatively-powered vehicles, with any (unlikely) success also putting further strain on already-struggling airlines. Since the supposed "high-speed" rail would not even be considered as such in other countries, Tantillo characterizes this proposal as greenwashing: "Thus another sin against marketing: window-dressing your brand as something it is not."
Full post: John Tantillo's Brand Winner... And Loser: The U.S. Navy and the Train To Nowhere.