High speed rail and politics

It is often alleged that projects to develop high-speed rail systems are cases of “pork-barrel” politics. Lots of money, sexy projects, and politicians can’t resist “targeting” the spending to areas of benefit for their reelection campaigns.

With respect to the funds to assist high-speed rail that were in the “stimulus” package early in Obama’s presidency, I addressed this charge: as best I could tell from the information available, it was not pork, at least at the legislative stage.

On the other hand, I have heard allegations that certain lines and stations in Japan’s system are “porky” in that they were built in regions that supported key Liberal Democratic Party politicians, but had less obvious merit in terms of the coherence of the rail system itself. ((This does not mean that the shinkansen project as a whole has not been beneficial, only that certain parts of it may have had political, rather than technical, criteria behind their selection as priorities for spending.))

The distinction here is in the extent to which a public project is sited in a way consistent with programmatic criteria, on the one hand, or for political objectives, on the other. There is not always a bright line between programmatic decisions and pork-barrel decisions in individual cases. Sometimes the objectives are even aligned! Yet conceptually, the distinction is fairly clear. If the decision regarding where to place a line (for example) are based on objective criteria, where some panel of nonpartisan experts scores various competing proposals in order to determine which ones have the most merit, it’s not pork. If politicians determine where to put a line based on the value of that line for their party (or individual politicians’) constituencies, it’s pork. ((Note that this implies that the criteria to evaluate programmatic vs. porcine policy are thus largely ones of the process of decision-making, and certainly not normative judgments of whether one likes a given policy choice or not!))

So the politics of a proposed high-speed system in the UK are interesting. Normally, at least in US discussions of pork-barrel politics, we assume that projects get sited based on their providing benefits to the districts of politicians who are strategically positioned to influence the choice of routes and stations. We do not normally think that the electorally secure politicians whose districts the lines will traverse will oppose the project, while the project will mainly benefit locations not currently represented by politicians in the governing party or coalition.

Yet the latter pattern is what we observe in the UK currently, as The Independent reported on 26 June.

David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.

The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line.

The news article goes on to note that the high-speed rail line may cost the Conservative party votes in these “rock-solid” districts, but the party will win them in the 2015 election, anyway. The project will be popular enough in northern areas where the party is targeting many seats for possible pick-up in the next election, so there will be a net gain for the party.

At least within the classic US frame, pork is about rewarding incumbents for their incumbency, and rewarding voters or interest groups for their support of the incumbent. But apparently that is not the case in the UK, for this project.

The difference lies in the highly party-centered nature of parliamentary politics, UK style. As opposed to the more decentralized parties and candidate-centered politics of the US presidential system, in the UK politically based decisions on where to build projects are driven by collective party needs, instead of by needs of individual politicians.

This is exactly the pattern we should expect in a political system like that of the UK. If there is pork–and generally it is assumed that there is some just about everywhere, but not a lot in the UK–it should be based on party criteria. If the article is accurate in its portrayal of the politics of high-speed rail, party pork is precisely what we are seeing. Top governing party leaders propose to spend on a project that may earn the party votes in areas it needs to win the next election, even if the project is opposed by some of the party’s own secure incumbent MPs.

High-speed challenges

Mark Reutter writes in the Wilson Quarterly about the challenges–technical and financial–of building high-speed rail systems in the USA.

He starts by highlighting just how far behind we are, noting that the original Japanese Shinkansen trains are now in museums, while their successors have continued to run at faster speeds and have gained in popularity. And the technology continues to be implemented all over the world:

Today, trains doing 125 m.p.h. or more zip across 13 European countries as well as Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia recently let contracts for a European-style supertrain between the western port of Jeddah and the religious centers of Mecca and Medina, while Israel has a new Tel Aviv-to-Jerusalem line in the works and Iran is upgrading its main lines out of Tehran to standards exceeding 120 m.p.h.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Acela averages 67 MPH between Boston and New York City. It does reach 150 MPH on one short segment and 125 MPH on a few other segments. Nothing else in the USA comes close to these top speeds.

Compare this with the 217 m.p.h. maximum and 146 m.p.h. average of Spain’s 386-mile line between Madrid and Barcelona, and the gap between U.S. and European railroads becomes apparent.

Reutter notes, “Without a doubt, fast trains attract more passengers,” and that they recover “a high percentage of their costs when carefully planned.”

The needed investment can be put in perspective by reference to the Interstates.

In 1955, as plans for the 40,000-mile Interstate Highway System were taking shape at the Eisenhower White House, Fortune magazine pointed out that “the administration has a highway plan with but one major flaw—it costs money.” A huge amount of money, in fact. First estimated at $27 billion, the price of the interstate system soon ballooned to $40 billion (about $280 billion in today’s dollars).

Measured against the needed investment, the eight billion dollars in seed money that was inserted into the stimulus bill in February at President Obama’s insistence, is a pittance, as is the nine billion dollars in bonds authorized by California voters last November. It is a start, but we have a long way to go to catch up to the modern world of mobility.

Update: Stephen, at Cold Spring Shops, adds his thoughts. Recommended.

High speed stimulus

In a bicameral system, when one chamber proposes to spend two billion on some line item and the other proposes to spend zero, what do you expect the inter-cameral conference to propose?

One billion?

Good guess, but when it comes to high-speed rail in the recent US “stimulus” bill, that answer is a bit off.

The final bill authorized $8b.

In case that was too subtle, let me make it a bit more clear:


We can thank the third, uni-personal, legislative chamber for this: It was something Obama wanted. (Thanks, Barack!)

See National Corridors Initiative for details (including chamber comparisons on other rail and transit items, and a nifty map of approved corridors).

A tip of the engineer’s (or, rather, the Superintendent’s) cap to Sephen Karlson, whose post on rail in the stimulus has many other good links on this topic).

Combined with California voters’ passage of Prop 1A in November, this makes modern train service more real than it has been in a long time.

(I know eight billion is not really all that much. But you have to start somewhere!)

Finally, to those who would cry ‘pork’ upon knowing of spending on this, or other “pet,” projects advocated by specific lawmakers for their regions, the Washington Post notes that a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (who wants a maglev train between Las Vegas and Anaheim or Los Angeles) claims that the transportation secretary “will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds.” While the delegation of such authority to the transportation department does not guarantee the use of technical (merit) rather than political criteria, it makes it much more likely. In any case, if the bill does not allocate money to specific projects, or require congress or the executive to do so, it is not pork. At least not at this stage.

High Speed Rail passed

California Proposition 1A on last week’s ballot passed, 52.2% to 47.8%. This measure allows the state to sell bonds to finance a high-speed rail system. Good news!

If one compares the map of counties in which the measure won or lost with the route map (cool graphics there!), one finds only a loose correlation. Sure, the measure won in the big population centers that would be connected by the rail system (those in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County). It also won in Kern and Fresno Counties (Bakersfield and Fresno, Central Valley population centers, would have stops), and a few other counties along the route. However, it much of the rest of the Central Valley (including the counties where Sacramento and Modesto, which would have stops, are located), while passing in some locales quite distant from the route (e.g. Mendocino, Monterey, and Santa Barbara). The biggest percentage win was in Modoc County, about as far from any proposed station as one could be and still be in the state. It lost, 52-48, here in San Diego County, which would be on an eventual extension (running close to Ladera Frutal!), but not the preliminary route.

Despite the passage of the bonds, this system is still a long way from being built. But it is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Rip notes that, elsewhere in the country, “It was a big day for many Rail Commuter and Transit Agencies last Tuesday.”

A monorail would be so modern

With the voters having soundly rejected the “please, sirs, if it would not trouble you too much, might we consider just maybe talking about some day using just a little bit of the land around the Miramar base for a modern airport?” advisory measure, the San Diego County airports commission is looking for ways to make the best of antiquated Linbergh Field.

One idea that has been hit upon is to build a centralized parking and transit hub with direct access from the freeways and rail lines that pass so near, yet so far, to the airport. From there, one member suggested, “We could whiz everybody around on a Walt Disney monorail.”

Cool. We might as well use the latest whiz technology.

The Disneyland Monorail was built in 1959, partly as a showcase of the future of mass transit. (I read once that Disney proposed building the line not only for the theme park and adjacent hotel, but with a larger loop around the city of Anaheim, but city officials thought the idea a bit, well, loopy.) That future has been rather slow to catch on, though there does seem to have been something of a boom in monorail construction around US airports in recent years.


Before getting to the substance (such as it is), first the following blog functionality update:


Thanks to RAC for finding the necessary pesticide (fully organic, so I can assure you of the healthfulness of all the fruit here). RAC proved to be a better HIGHER TECHNICAL SKILLED PERSON than the one that the hosting company promised would fix the problem. Now, for our, uh, substance…

Sometimes–as I alluded to in the last planting–you just have to waste a little time (though this time was wasted weeks ago, yet the “fruits” of that time were temporalily blocked from planting by the F&V migration problem)…

I saw this over at Signifying Nothing and Cold Spring Shops, and could not resist having my own. Below, not necessarily in any rational order, are the logos of the urban transit systems I have ridden (or at least a reasonable sample of them).

So, here are the sybmols, and no, I do not know why they appear in a single column. But the really, really important fact is that I have ridden many more than Chris or–especially remarkably–Stephen!!!

Got at b3co.com!