Because trains are gay

The Economist asks “Why don’t Americans ride trains?”:

AMERICA has by far the largest rail network in the world, with more than twice as much track as China. But it lags far behind other first-world countries in ridership. Instead of passengers, most of America’s massive rail network is used to carry freight. Why don’t Americans ride trains?

I’ve told you because they are gay.

There are many reasons why Americans don’t ride the rails as often as their European cousins. Most obviously, America is bigger than most European countries. Outside the northeast corridor, the central Texas megalopolis, California and the eastern Midwest, density is sometimes too low to support intercity train travel. Underinvestment, and a preference for shiny new visions over boring upgrades, has not helped. 

Most American passenger trains travel on tracks that are owned by freight companies. That means most trains have to defer to freight services, leading to lengthy delays that scare off passengers who want to arrive on time. Domestic air travel in America is widely available, relatively cheap and popular. Airlines fear competition from high-speed rail and lobby against it. Travelling by cars is also popular. Petrol is cheaper than in Europe (mostly because of much lower taxes). Road travel is massively subsidised in the sense that the negative externalities of travelling by car, including the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, are not fully offset, and most major highways—which cost tens of billions to maintain—are still free of tolls. And finally, Barack Obama’s embrace of high-speed rail has heightened a political battle over rail that doesn’t exist quite in the same way in other countries (although the fraught debate over high-speed rail in Britain comes close). Opposition to rail is now often seen as essentially conservative, and Republican governors oppose rail projects to boost their conservative image.

Republican governors oppose rail because they hate wasting billions on gay projects that don’t work.


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  • Liberty

    It is more like Americans being to gay to use public transport.

    • I also thought LA was sinking quite a bit in new metro system projects as well. Houston also following suit as well

      • philbest

        These are always fiscal disasters. The reason is basic. The subsidies are around 15 cents to more than $1 per person km traveled on them, versus around 2 cents for the subsidy cost of roads. Therefore, switching people to commuter rail is guaranteed to break public finances.

        People willingly pay the true cost of running their cars but they will not willingly pay a fare that covers any more than a fraction of the cost of running a public transport service.

        It is absurd to use “externalities” as an excuse to penalise car users, because society as a whole is quite comfortable with those externalities as a justifiable cost of the convenience and efficiency of roads and cars. The positive externalities are orders of magnitude greater than the negative ones, but for some reason all the bureaucratically-generated “transport studies” never even look at this.

  • Michael

    Low population densities mean rail is not economic? Sounds like NZ.

  • AngryTory

    And US domestic air travel is grotty.

    The good thing about the US – compared with NZ – is private air travel is easily available to those who deserve it – heli taxis inside cities, private planes, business jets.

    Although at least Teslas get to use the carpool lanes in LA – which is what we should do with the railway – dig up the tracks, privatize it, run it as a private road network for high speed hybrids only (so we don’t need to ventilate the tunnels)

    And no – Prisuses, leafs, renaults and that shitty little BMW don’t count…

  • AngryTory

    Republican governors oppose rail because they hate wasting billions on gay projects that don’t work

    The proposal that would make sense was Arnie’s original proposal for CA: direct TGV 350kmh line from San Diego to Vancouver. But that was stopped by the greenies who didn’t want the governator smashing the railway straight up through the Bay Area.

  • GazzW

    Longhaul rail doesn’t work in the US for the same reason that it doesn’t work in Australia. Distance and low population densities once you get away from the Eastern Seaboard. It’s great for rail travel enthusiasts who want to make the rail journey part of their vacation experience but it doesn’t work for business travellers or holidaymakers who want/need to get to their destinations in the minimum time. Who can afford two days travelling from New York to Chicago (or Sydney to Adelaide) when air travel gets you there in a couple of hours? Rail fares are also massively uncompetitive.

  • CheesyEarWax

    Thats why Toll NZ kept the profitable freight business and sold the lemon passenger service to the Labour for $600M, which is now worth ~$300M. Nice work Sir Michael Cullen.

  • LabTested

    Last year I had to go from Auckland to Hamilton. Driving was not an option. The train left at an ungodly hour & the bus travel time was way too long. The cost of a flight was only a fraction more than the bus & i think no more expensive than the train. After seriously exploring all options I chose to fly. and that is for a trip of about 120km. Using that as a model for longer distances, flight becomes the only option.

  • WayneO

    Poor people ride the train.

    • Dumrse

      Lets shift the WINZ office to the railway station. Kill heaps of birds with that stone.

    • philbest

      They don’t, actually. Most commuter rail riders in every city in the world, are above average income earners.

      This is a strong argument AGAINST subsidising trains.

      Bus riders tend to be below average income. But Bus fares are far less subsidised.

      And poor people who do not use public transport at all, but use cars – a substantial majority of “the poor” anyway – suffer major disparate impact from all the anti-car, pro public transport policies.

  • Josh Metcalfe

    The problem with the rail system in New Zealand is that the gauge is too small to allow for faster locomotives. And the reason for that is the government putting in tracks as cheaply as possible. If you look at America where the rail industry was privately started the gauge is massive compared to ours. It also doesn’t help that the mountainous geography of New Zealand makes laying track more complex and expensive ie. The Raurimu Spiral

  • Anonymouse Coward

    The scribblers who write about these sort of things agree the boundary between customer choice over flight v rail is three hours travel time.

    So in Gods Own Country passenger rail between Auckland and Foggy Hollow is a goer given investment in rail and and population growth. Someone will work out that the electric over-head will shortly run a fair way of the distance and it will not be much of an effort to wire up the gap.

  • Mr Sackunkrak

    US domestic air travel is shite, but it’s cheap as chips, only the truely desperate go by train, and weird blokes with binoculars.

  • Mr_V4

    a) Because AmTrack couldn’t run a train on time to save themselves.
    b) Because for such a large country passenger rail is slow and take generally takes indirect routes

    The Eastern seaboad of the USA could easily sustain a proper high speed rail link (not Acela), esp given the congestion at JFK, LGA and EWR.

  • Bryan

    a Tourist from German standing in my shop said about Christchurch 18 months ago it reminded him of Germany after the war then he said this ” we put in the transport and straight rail lines city to city them rebuilt the cities around them, that’s why their system is so good today.

    • philbest

      They also have a population density for the country, about 40 times higher than us.

  • Ken Mathis

    >because they are gay

    nothing says heterosexual like an obese mental patient trying so hard to pretend he’s a manly man