George Will: Why liberals love trains

High Speed to Insolvency

Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute notes that high-speed rail connects big-city downtowns, where only 7 percent of Americans work and 1 percent live. “The average intercity auto trip today uses less energy per passenger mile than the average Amtrak train.” And high speed will not displace enough cars to measurably reduce congestion. The Washington Post says China’s fast trains are priced beyond ordinary workers’ budgets, and that France, like Japan, has only one profitable line.

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Comment: Good read.


  1. I don't know if it would be profitable at all, but I think having a coast to coast train with as little stops as possible might be good, fun at least. I would pay the same amount as a plane ticket to travel overnight and arrive at destination in the morning.

  2. There are at least two Amtrak routes, Daniel, from Chicago to the west coast. The Empire Builder goes from Chicago to Seattle, and the California Zephyr goes from San Francisco to Chicago. Both take about 55 hours (not overnight), neither has good dining car service, the seats are generally two decades old or more, and the bathrooms are pretty much airliner bathrooms that dump right on the tracks.

    And no, it's not profitable. Reality is that even back in the 1940s and 1950s, they weren't--the mail paid the bills, and the passenger cars simply got customers interested in the freight service.

    To get the trip you'd want, you'd need to go from the $300 price point across the country to about $1500--which would allow them to offer dining car service, new seats, and so on.


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