Romance of the Rails. Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need by Randal O’Toole (Cato Institute, 2018); 376 pages.
If ever there was an example of how government intervention in the marketplace creates unintended consequences and makes a situation it was intended to solve infinitely worse by virtue of being involved in it in the first place, then rail transportation should be its poster child. Randal O’Toole’s Romance of the Rails makes a compelling, lucid, and incontrovertible case that government support and involvement in passenger rail — on all levels — has actually become an expensive impediment to the achievement of providing cheaper, cleaner, faster and safer transportation.
In doing so, O’Toole lays the groundwork by reviewing the history of transportation from the beginning of the industrial revolution and how transportation technology advanced to meet the transportation needs of both people and goods as America and Europe transitioned from pre-industrial to industrial economies. In America, the steam engine was the catalyst for transforming a rural agricultural society whose population was concentrated closely around navigable waterways, to one which could expand into every nook and cranny of the continent. And while this technology was critical to meeting the needs of the ever-expanding economies of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, at least as it concerns the movement of people, rail transportation has become obsolete in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as it has been supplanted by buses, cars, planes, and interstate highways. As to the latter, it too has enjoyed generous taxpayer support, but has still provided a much more efficient return on expenditure, and is largely maintained by user fees in the form of taxes assessed at the pump.
What government has done with rail is an almost luddite obsession with it, where it has provided massive and literally obscene amounts of subsidies to perpetuate a technology that is ineffective and counterproductive in meeting today’s requirements for moving people from point A to B. That is because rail transit subsidies divert resources away from transportation modes that really do a good job in meeting those needs.
In example after example, O’Toole documents how rail subsidies impede the development of more-efficient technologies. That is because the cost of building, operating, and maintaining a public rail system is many times greater than just about every other mode of transportation. In San Francisco and Atlanta cost overruns in building their rail systems forced reductions in bus service, resulting in a net reduction in transit ridership — by two-thirds in Atlanta from 1985 to 2015. And this scenario is played out in cities all over America. So here we are, spending billions to expand rail transit throughout the country, resulting in a transit system that fewer people use.
Yet despite this sorry record of failure, there has been over the past four decades a dramatic increase in the number of cities building new rail transit. The drivers here are many. Most nefarious of all is the federal government, which has given incentives to local governments to build them by providing matching grants. As O’Toole points out, when it comes to local politicians, there is little concern over the cost versus the benefit, because for them “the cost is the benefit — especially when the federal government is paying a large share of it — because it means more money to hand out to contractors and suppliers.”
Another driver is the popular belief that rail transit systems will take people out of their cars, so that those who choose to continue to drive, which is almost all of us, will enjoy less-congested roads. Yet the facts do not support that belief. Over the past few decades public transit has declined because cities have become nanocentric, meaning that the traditional monocentric model — where nearly all of the jobs were in a central city and all of the residential areas were outside the city center — has become a thing of the 19th-century past. With jobs and residential areas now widely dispersed, the personal automobile, buses, and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are better equipped to meet today’s transportation requirements.
One of the biggest impediments of fixed-rail mass transit is its lack of flexibility and its inability to adapt to a changing landscape. In contrast, the ability of the free market to adapt to these changes in an efficient and cost-effective way is truly amazing. In Atlanta, where I live, seemingly overnight I saw the profusion of scooters where one uses an app to activate them, the user gets charged on the basis of the distance traveled, and the user leaves the scooter at his destination, making it available for the next user to do the same. At night the company providing the scooter service gathers them up, recharges them, and makes them ready for use the next day.
That is but one example of the stark contrast between how the market responds to a need and how government seeks to perpetuate an obsolete technology. Technology replacement also holds great promise to further enhancing our transportation options, further driving down costs and improving mobility with enhanced safety. The autonomous self-driving car comes immediately to mind. Managed lanes, where a commuter can pay automatically and electronically to travel on a limited-access road with guaranteed trip times has proven to be a great success in Atlanta and elsewhere.
While O’Toole covers a lot of ground with respect to rail mass transit, Amtrak and the phenomena of high-speed rail, both in the United States and internationally, have not escaped his examination. He clearly spells out, with tons of data to support it, that these projects are financial black holes, where the costs are way out of line with the alleged benefits. Indeed Amtrak, when you factor in the massive taxpayer subsidy that goes with its operation, is the most cost-ineffective mode of city-to-city transportation available today. Not only is air travel much cheaper and faster, but Megabuses operating in the Northeast corridor, cost but a small fraction of what Amtrak charges for the same destination points and does it at a profit! Once again, the free market at work, driving down costs, expanding consumer choices and options.
O’Toole is unequivocal and his advocacy for the immediate abolition of all subsidies to rail, and for the cessation of, and opposition to, the expansion of any and all government-owned and -operated rail transit systems. While there are some cities such as New York where the existence of rail transit may be essential, even there he suggests a transition to private ownership, where a different set of incentives would come into play that would enhance safety and reliability.
Normally when I review a book, I have some caveat or area where I take some exception to what is presented. But not so with this book. It is as perfect a book on this subject as I can imagine and provides a fascinating and engrossing history of a subject that is integral to all our lives. OK. Maybe I have one caveat. When you read about the abhorrent, extravagant, profligate waste of your tax money, it should make you very angry. And maybe that will motivate you to take a closer look at what the tax man is doing in your community to subsidize rail, and to do something about it to get spending in this area on the right track.
In the Atlanta area, taxpayer advocates have been successful in thwarting rail transit expansion plans, and recently voted one down in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Armed with the information provided in Romance of the Rails, maybe you can make a difference in your community. I encourage you to do so.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.