California, the land of perfect weather and perfectly loony residents, has failed to surprise the rest of us yet again by announcing massive cost overruns on an already absurdly expensive public works venture. A pipe-dream project to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco (and beyond) via bullet train, initiated in 2008, and projected to cost $40B when first proposed, is, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, experiencing a “worst-case scenario” in cost overruns. A 119 mile segment in the Central Valley, projected to cost $6B, is now estimated at $10.6B. The overall cost of this project, expected to have its first riders by 2025 and the LA-to-SF link open by 2029, is now estimated at $65.2B, $67B, $81.4B, or $95B, depending on who you want to believe. And, we’re less than half-way into the project (and I haven’t even mentioned construction delays).

Anyone surprised or shocked by this is terribly naive. It’s a massive public works project, and it’s California. It was as certain as the sunrise that this project would run over budget and behind schedule.

What were the voters (it was approved via referendum) thinking?

Apart from the aforementioned lunacy of Californians, there’s today’s topic: liberals’ obsession with rail transportation.

On the surface, high-speed rail looks like a lovely idea. After all, big cities like New York and London would be unlivable without their extensive subway systems, so why not extend that idea of mass transportation to inter-city transit? The efficiency benefits seem obvious, and high-speed rail systems in Europe and Asia prove the concept (or seem to). Wouldn’t it be better to ride a train for 2 hours than to drive a car for 4 or more? Shouldn’t it be cheaper to move large numbers of people along a pre-set corridor than to have an equivalent number of cars clogging highways? Shouldn’t the attraction of easy, passive travel be strong?

Many more virtues of rail can be theorized with little trouble. Reality, though, tells a different story. In America, long-distance rail is an economic loser everywhere except in the high density northeast corridor (which is probably the only legitimate comparison to the rail systems in Europe and Asia that are constantly raised). America is a much emptier place than Japan or Western Europe, and, moreso, there is a substantial cultural difference that works against rail. Advocates for California’s high speed rail system can and will argue that their corridor will work, given its similarities to those that do.

Even this, though, is a smokescreen for the real reasons our socialistic and statist friends are so hot on rail. Consider the essence of rail, and the truth will become apparent.

Rail systems, once built, are essentially fixed locations. The corridors, and more importantly, the stations, are permanent. Adding new ones is a major endeavor, involving large sums of money, long political processes, and years of construction. Thus, they’re not flexible or adaptable. And, thus, they influence where and how people live. If one is to rely on a rail system for commuting to work, or for frequent travel, one needs to live relatively close to a station. This gives advantage to higher density housing over individual homes and suburban sprawl. It also removes market forces and individual desires from the development of residential areas, and gives government planners a greater say in where people live, simply because they get to decide where the stations are going to be.

Travel by rail not only requires getting to a station, which incentivizes clustering housing near stations, but also requires getting from a station to a final destination. Even people who drive themselves to a station will need some sort of third-party transportation at the other end of the train line, and this biases public transportation such as subways and buses. Again, urban planners and politicians get to better manage how people move about, and thus influence how real estate is used.

Rail discourages urban and suburban sprawl. This is sold as a pro-environment thing, but to see it that way is to view humanity as a scourge to the planet rather than the sole reason the planet matters. Rail systems concentrate humanity together, and drive people to be more accepting of smaller homes, smaller apartments, and less elbow room. They discourage individuality, they underpin passivity in lifestyle choice, they drive greater conformity and a “one-size-fits-all” mindset. They encourage people to accept what exists rather than optimize their lives to best fit their desires, and drive down living standards through the acceptance of the sub-optimal.

Why would modern liberalism want this, when it makes such a big deal about diversity? Because modern liberalism is actually about subordinating individualism to the collective. It hasn’t learned or accepted the hard, harsh truths about communism’s and socialism’s destructiveness, and still believes that collectivist principles can be inculcated into people’s minds and mentalities. Rail is thus not only a methodological tool for controlling the landscape, it’s also a psychological tool for cowing people’s willfulness and rebellious opposition to the diktats of the Best-and-Brightest. Its message is about pols and bureaucrats bending the will of the people to what they think is best, rather than being guided by the will of the people. We see this in the proliferation of bicycle lanes in New York City and in concerted efforts to make driving in Manhattan harder rather than easier.

Think that’s a bit over the top? Consider what else rail does. It controls your time. You live by the train’s schedule, not your own. And, unlike a robust city subway system, where trains come and go every few minutes, long distance travel isn’t going to give you a lot of flexibility. Plus, an infrequent departure schedule will require you to add cushions to your travel time to the station, meaning you’ll sometimes have to idle time waiting for the train. Again, this promotes an attitude of passivity and tolerance for inconvenience.

A key principle of socialism is that things are better managed by a few people “in charge” than by the market forces created by millions of individuals each acting in self-interest. The fact that this conflicts with human nature is a key reason that socialism has never worked and will never work. But, this reality doesn’t stop some people from continuing to fantasize about a socialist dream world. These folks know, consciously or subconsciously, that they have to cause behavioral changes. Heck, even Lenin knew that socialism had to be indoctrinated. Thus, big government actions that run contrary to human preferences are perpetually attractive, because they run contrary to human preferences. We like our freedom of movement and the independence that cars and highways offer, so the statist reflex is to try to deny us this freedom and independence. Thus, giant rail projects continue to put stars in the eyes of these Best-and-Brightest, even when prospects for success are scant (if they were good, there’d be private money pouring into them).

Thus, the fanciful socialists in California pursue their fanciful $95B (we all know the high estimate is going to be the correct one) high-speed rail, even as they struggle with $1.3 trillion in state and local debt (over 50% of the state’s 2.5T GDP). They conned the voters, as all good socialists do, with highfalutin concepts and the promise of future days of wine and roses. And, when the bill comes due, when the citizenry is left poorer and deeper in debt, when the rail system fails to perform as promised or generate enough revenue to pay for itself, those socialists will have retired to their cushy, materialistic, 1%er lifestyles, unrepentant in the harm they caused and cocooned in their blankets of righteousness and good intention.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


Like this post?