Responding to Misinformed Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

NARP President Ross Capon submitted the following to the Wall Street Journal, but it was not chosen for publication:

Wendell Cox provides incomplete information in his attack on the Obama Administration’s high speed rail grants (“The Runaway Subsidy Train,” Feb. 1). He says foreign trains benefit from “a strong core of rail passengers that does not exist in the U.S.” Yet our “core” has been strengthening for years, due to congestion and rising costs in our highway and aviation systems and increased concern about the environment. Despite a weak economy, Amtrak posted its best-ever October-December quarter for ridership.

Cox criticizes French and Japanese high-speed rail because there are still Paris-Marseilles and Tokyo-Osaka flights. No one expected trains to eliminate airlines on a 466-mile run where the train takes almost 3-1/2 hours. Nonetheless, TGV has over 50% market share, while most of the fliers connect with international flights or want to go near the Paris or Marseilles airports. Tokyo-Osaka is a huge market, with air’s share only around 25%.

Cox disparages U.S. projects for being much slower than iconic foreign trains. But California’s three successful train corridors—among others—show that the public will flock to attractive trains and stations with frequent service, even if top speeds are just 79 or 90 mph. Moreover, those trains are laying the foundation for a “faster future,” just as today’s bullet trains mostly were developed because conventional lines were at capacity.

Cox savages the plan to spend $590 million on the Seattle-Portland corridor, claiming it will simply “shave about 10 minutes off a three-and-a-half hour trip.” Actually, the funds will also add bypass tracks for more frequent, reliable service; install new signal and safety systems; and eliminate grade crossings—work that also benefits highway users, commuter train passengers and freight trains.

Contrary to Cox’s claim, highway travel is heavily subsidized. That is reflected most recently in laws signed in successive summers by Presidents Bush and Obama transferring $15 billion of general fund revenues to the Highway Trust Fund for use on highway (and some transit) projects.

Upgrading America’s long-neglected passenger train network requires public investment, but the resulting benefits are many and well-documented.