The Corner

A Desire Named Streetcar

Robert Samuelson has a terrific takedown of Obama’s high-speed-rail fantasy today. I’ve already commented on it over at Powerline, but there’s always more to say about this subject. One of the favorite clichés of the rail-transit-mongers is that Europe shows that high-speed rail can be a success. This ignores some essential facts, such as Europe’s higher population density and smaller geography. 

Interestingly, there is one U.S.–Europe comparison that they never make: The U.S. hugely outpaces Europe in one key area of rail transport, but it’s freight rather than people. This report from the European Commission (table 5.1, page 68) tells the story. Measured in ton-kilometers (i.e., one ton shipped one kilometer), the U.S. ships more than six times the amount of freight as the European Union. Freight rail in the U.S. accounts for 43 percent of total ton-kilometers shipped by all transportation sources, versus only 16.7 percent in the E.U., where they ship much more by truck, due in part to the shorter distances goods have to travel.

In both cases, the freight choices are driven by markets and geography. In other words, freight rail accounts for so much more of our modal share for the same reasons more passenger rail makes no sense. When markets rather than bureaucrats and subsidies determine the outcome, rail does just fine in the U.S.


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