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Why Obama's High-Speed Rail Idea Won't Work

Recently, Obama presented his idea for a network of high-speed rail in America. This has prompted a lot of discussion in the blogotubes, and I would like to toss my two pennies on the already-towering mountain of copper.

I live in Japan, and enjoy having one of the best high speed passenger rail systems in the world. These trains are amazing. On time every time, fast, and the price is the same no matter where you are in the country.

Now let me point out why this has nothing to do with the situation in my home country of the US:

  1. Japan is smaller than America.
    The distance between Tokyo and Osaka, for example, is not really that far, even though these are the two biggest cities in the country. This is like if NYC and LA were 250 miles (400km) apart, instead of almost 10 times that far (2444 miles / 3933km). The distances we're talking about in the US are ungodly huge. It is for this reason that we in the US (and our Aussie friends) have standardized on the automobile, not because we're lazy morons (the fact that we are lazy morons is a side issue).
  2. Japan has a well-established local public transport system.
    I'd also like to point out that, even in the case of taking the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, you actually have to get off at Shin-Osaka, which is basically in Kyoto, not Osaka, and you have another 45min express to take before you're really in Osaka. Without that smaller train network, the bullet train would be utterly useless. Putting in a high-speed network with no light rail at the stops is just a massive waste of money. No one will take it. This is like if Eisenhower had built the interstate highway system (one of the many great ideas we got from the Nazis, BTW) before any roads existed in towns. A system like this is supposed to link existing systems up. If it doesn't, it's useless.
  3. Japan has a much higher population density than America.
    This is the biggest difference right here. Contrary to popular opinion, Japan is not packed coast-to-coast with people. Much of Japan is virtually uninhabited. That's because much of Japan is at a 45-degree angle. It's a volcanic archipelago, remember? Basically, there are a few flat areas where you can grow food and live properly, and those regions are where everyone lives. This means that Japan Rail (which operates the bullet trains) can count on getting enough passengers from each stop to pay for the operating costs of the track between. Everyone lives in the same place, so you have money flowing into your system anywhere you decide you want to collect it. This is absolutely not true in America. The distances between cities is vast, and there aren't many people who live along the way. You'd have to pay for more track and more electricity to run the trains on it with fewer customers per kilometer. It's a nightmare.
  4. Even with Japan's higher population density, most of the network is paid for by urban travelers.
    Basically, the cost of taking the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka is, per-kilometer, roughly the same as taking it to Echigo-Yuzawa (heading toward the Japan Sea), even though much fewer people take the latter, and that line, with its many, many kilometers of tunnels bored straight through the mountains in between, was much more expensive to construct and much more expensive to maintain. How does this work? Simple, JR makes enough money on the more-often-traveled lines to float the losses on the less-traveled ones. Add to this that JR does not only operate bullet trains, but also most of the country's local lines as well, and they can ensure that prices are affordable no matter where you're going. If you're riding the Yamanote line around metro Tokyo, you are massively over-paying; if you're riding the train from Uozu to Toyama in rural Toyama Prefecture, you're getting a steal. This is why, in the urban areas, it's always cheaper to use one of the local "private" (JR used to be public) lines, who don't have to maintain a bunch of track no one uses. In the case of the US, you'd need a lot of people getting on in LA and San Francisco to cover the vast wasteland between them (no offense if you live in that area of CA--but you would agree it's quite rural, yes?). Basically, many of the lines that JR runs operate at a loss, even given the population density and short tracks.
  5. JR used to be public.
    The startup costs of something like the JR rail network are phenomenal. Unbelievable. Sure, JR keeps its head above water now, but that's after decades of being a public service that guzzled tax dollars. Now, I think that was money well-spent, but I'm not insane like most Americans. You tell Americans you want to use public funds for something that benefits the public, and they poop down their bloated, pasty legs in horror. They start demanding that the thing pay for itself when it can't, and when it will only be affordable if we all chip in and do it together. Basically, Americans are selfish assholes who can't get it through their thick skulls that they aren't homesteaders anymore, and that helping others is not going to somehow mean they won't have enough wood to make it through the winter. I imagine this Obama plan will be sabotaged by idiot politicians who call it a waste when it isn't profitable, cut funding left and right, and then blame the Obama administration for "wasting" all that money on a train system "that didn't even work." --Because there's no way a plan like this will see completion in 4 or even 8 years. For something like this to work, you have to have a culture that isn't broken; that just isn't going to happen in America.
  6. Trains are more expensive than planes anyway.
    Yes, you read correctly. It is almost always cheaper to fly domestically in Japan than it is to take the train. Now, I, personally, take the train any time I can afford the extra money, because it is more comfortable, more convenient, and even though it's slower, you don't have to show up to the station an hour early to turn your ticket into a real ticket and then subject yourself to some security theater (I bet that the US would institute some secure theatrics to the train system, though). The American public is already served pretty well by the airline industry (not as well as when it was public, but I already ranted about that); I don't really know that building another infrastructure is either necessary or prudent.
  7. Even in rural Japan, you need a car.
    I have lived all over Japan. When I lived in Osaka, I did not really need a car. But when I moved out to Toyama, life was miserable until I broke down and altered my stereotype of what life was supposedly like in Japan and bought a car. Stores are not necessarily near railway stations--in fact, just like in the US, they are often in the middle of nowhere, where land is cheap--and buses are few and inconvenient. If you need something that is not sold in your town--for example, clothes that are appropriate for someone under the age of 85--you need to drive to the nearest "big" city to buy it--just like in the US. Even when I moved to Makuhari, a famous suburb of Tokyo with many international companies, a huge convention center (Tokyo Motor Show is there), and a large baseball stadium, I found that a car was necessary. Just 40 minutes from Tokyo station, but already there were plenty of rice fields separating me from where I wanted to be. Now that I live on the other side of Tokyo, the situation is even worse. I'm 20 minutes from the nearest train station. I drive everywhere. My point being that even with one of the best public transportation systems in the world, even with the short distances and high population density, much of the population still lives the same lifestyle as that of most Americans--the car is king. It's not going anywhere.

Let me be clear: I love this idea. I like a lot of Obama's ideas (not too thrilled about the copyright nonsense). I voted for him, and I'm glad I did. But this idea is doomed. It will be too expensive, too unpopular, may not even be necessary, and won't really address the bigger problems the US has with public transport (i.e. local public transport). Moreover, it's enough for me that Obama understands that this is a nice idea; I'd prefer he focus his attention on some of his good ideas which are more likely to succeed. "Yes we can" is a great campaign slogan, but the truth is that, for many things, we basically can't.


I want a smarter kind of rail.. The only sci fi analogy i can come up with would probably be from minority report... I want a mass transit system designed after IP packet switching.. not the telegraph/telephone. Give me a pod that can switch on and off of a crazy tree root of rail to get around..

In your example you cite the need for local trains and larger long distance trains. Why not chuck that and have lots of things that can switch on and off of local or long distance rail. Then juice the whole thing with grid power supplied by the greenest thing you can find.