Libertarians Against Choice: The Attack on Obama’s HSR Policy

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Recently, I speculated on what was behind the recent surge in op-ed articles using slipshod reasoning to attack the policy of the Obama administration to support investment in High Speed Rail travel options for the American Public. And, I stress, it was speculative:

However, just as with our Freakonomist Eric Morris, its a lot easier to adopt the stance of declaring “skepticism” and use that declaration as a magic incantation to dispense with any need to actually find information. Simply paint a specific Sustainable Energy Independence project as receiving “uncritical support”, declare yourself a skeptic, and you are free to spout the a Libertarian anti-HSR talking point without dwelling on such messy things as facts and figures.

However, in searching for specific examples of the “libertarian talking points” that I referred to, I came across this excellent collection at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, in their High Speed Rail: Fact versus Fiction, where they collect a series of talking points from the three main anti-public-transport think tanks – Cato, Heritage, and the Reason Foundation (just google if you need the links).

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I am not, of course, charging Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron, Freakonomist Eric Morris, or Economist Ed Glaeser with being part of a vast right wing conspiracy. It seems more likely that they were just being lazy, and taking advantage of material that the less than vast “Libertarian” Conspiracy had made available.

But the question of whether it is laziness or malice does not need to be resolved … in either case, it is important to push back against the “Libertarian” conspiracy.

The fictions used as “Libertarian” talking points that the Midwest HSR Association highlight are (and note the dates of the quotes … they have indeed been arming up for an August Recess attack):

  • “High-speed rail is a technology whose time has come and gone” (Cato Institute, July 09)
  • “Many trains, particularly Amtrak trains, are notoriously late, requiring travelers to factor in a time ‘buffer’ on both ends of their destination.” (Reason Foundation, May 2009)
  • “Boosting Amtrak trains to higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient and more polluting than driving” (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • “The Department of Energy says that, in intercity travel, automobiles are as energy-efficient as Amtrak” (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • “It’s not realistic at all because it’s not competitive on price and it’s not competitive on convenience.” (Heritage Foundation, July 2009)
  • “Asking everyone to shoulder the financial burden of building train lines to benefit a narrow and wealthy segment of the traveling public is just wrong.” (Reason Foundation, July 2009)
  • “No high-speed rail in the U.S. will ever pay its operating, much less capital costs.” (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • “Less than 1 percent will ride.” (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • “It doesn’t work in Europe” and “it doesn’t work in Japan” (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • “Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel….But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway….In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.” (Cato Institute, April 2009)
  • “Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road…trains will push freight onto the highways.” (Cato Institute, April 2007)

I urge anyone planning to roam through the newspaper Letters to the Editors following stories on HSR to bookmark this FAQ sheet, since the specific talking points will often show up verbatim, and there’s no harm in quickly getting the contrary facts out there. And, it goes without saying, I urge anyone who wants to support the President’s HSR policy to do exactly that … don’t stay within the blogosphere, but write Letters to the Editor and respond on online newspaper commentary sites.

/Update{ From the comments, note that you should go through the points and focus on paraphrasing those that strike you as strong arguments … if one of the arguments strikes you as being a little shaky, don’t use that one. The point here is to catch repeaters of the “Libertarian” think tank talking points who have not thought it through … and that can of course backfire if you get caught out parroting a counter talking point that you yourself haven’t thought through. }Update/

Especially in these economically trouble times, its something you can do when your ability to donate to the numerous good causes clamoring for your contribution has been tapped out.

I will not respond to the talking points point-by-point … click through the Midwest HSR Association FAQ sheet for that, they are all very good answers.

What I do want to do is to suggest three basic lines of attack that a roving group of three to seven grassroots HSR supporters could use to not only counter the “Libertarian” talking points, but to also to sway uncommitted readers before the “Libertarians” get their hooks into them.


This is why I have been putting “Libertarian” in scare quotes … this campaign by “Libertarian” think tanks has one main goal: to reduce the range of American’s transport choices.

The fiction that “only 1% will ever use it” is, of course, silly. It is based on the current Amtrak system, which for the majority of the country is a slow, often delayed, skeleton system normally operating one or fewer services a day, or, for much of their route, one or fewer services in the middle of each night.

Faster, more frequent, more reliable services with trips available when people want to travel attract riders. Hell, Illinois doubled its regional rail patronage just be making more conventional Amtrak services available, and California is doing the same thing.

Higher Speeds increase the population density per hour of train travel, and so it increases financial performance, so that well chosen HSR corridors will generate an operating surplus. That means that once we build them, the choice will continue to be available, independent of whatever state and local transport budgets will be coming.

And they are a choice of transport that can be made independent of imported gas and diesel. Even when they run on diesel, they can add another passenger with no extra fuel cost, so every time someone chooses to ride a train instead of drive a car, gas is saved.

Indeed, when people choose to ride the train instead of taking a car or a flight, that choice benefits those who choose to drive and fly. Growing cities and towns need more transport capacity, and 110mph Emerging HSR can be built in much of the country for less cost than a new interstate highway lane.

National Security

Investment in 110mph Emerging HSR and 125mph Regional HSR helps national defense in two ways. First, the most obvious, it provides us a way to move people from one place to another with less or no reliance on imported petroleum. This is why, after all, that the Department of Defense includes Amtrak service as a criteria for including a rail corridor in its STrategic RAil Corridor NETwork – STRACNET.

However, there is an additional point. The investments in Emerging HSR and Regional HSR include upgrades to level crossings, and signaling systems, as well as investment in passing track and dedicated track to allow passenger rail to run without interference from freight.

Those same upgrades allows freight traffic to run faster, and to run with less interference from passenger traffic. So while the Emerging HSR and Regional HSR upgrades are focused on supporting passenger rail service, they also benefit freight rail service. And so in terms of national defense, they serve double duty, allowing us to move more freight from one place to another in the face of an attack on our sources of imported petroleum.

Local Transport Choices

A well-designed HSR corridor has more stops than a competing flight would have, because the stop at a station is much faster for a train than landing and taking off is for a plane. That means that in big metropolitan areas, the HSR will have both a main downtown station, connected into the existing public transport network, and one or more outer suburban stations, readily accessibly to suburban motorists.

And Americans often stereotype local public transport … local mass transit rail service, light rail service, streetcar service, high frequency bus service … as something that primarily services dense urban core.

But when we look at why public transport routes struggle in suburban areas, one major problem is that they do not have a competitive advantage in serving any transport destination, so the only people riding the services are those with no choice.

So one benefit to local transport out in the suburbs is that an HSR station provides an anchor for patronage, that will attract those who have a choice, and for whom the local transport lets them leave the car parked at home.

This is likely to be only a marginal impact in a large city with 10% or more trips on mass transit and other public transport … but in an area that struggles to attract each fraction of a percent of local transport, it can be the difference between service every one or two hours and service every half hour, and can add hours to the total service day.

A second benefit for outer suburban areas that an Emerging or Regional HSR corridor passes through is that local trains can use the same rail lines. Once they have been provided with upgraded tracks and signals and crossings, the extra capacity to serve a local service as well is much lower … in many cases it will just be the locals-only stations, stable sidings at the ends of the routes, and the costs of buying and operating the  trains themselves.

This does not, of course, mean that every suburb will have a local rail line running through it … but it substantially increases the numbers of suburban residences that offer the choice of living within five miles of a suburban train station.

And finally, HSR make for attractive political alliances for local transport, since the HSR services attract interest from suburban and rural areas between metropolitan areas, and support for investment in conventional rail and other public transport in urban areas in addition to investment in HSR can attract suburban and rural support that investment in public transport in urban areas have struggled to attract on its own.

And we have seen this already. The $9.95b in state bonds for the California HSR system includes $9b in bonds for the Express HSR (220mph) system, and $950m in bonds for complementary transport services. The $8b in HSR funding in the Stimulus Package includes a substantial preference for infrastructure that can benefit both HSR and local public transport services.

Its a natural political coalition, since it is based on mutual self-interest. Strong local transport systems in big metropolitan areas ensures a stronger passenger share of HSR systems in inter-regional transport, and a stronger ridership on those systems ensures more frequent services serving the HSR stations in suburban and rural areas.

Meanwhile, since well chosen HSR corridors will operate at a surplus …

Libertarian talking points that I have seen that dispute this have  invariably used one of two tricks. The first trick is to pool subsidised conventional rail service with HSR service in order to mask the operating surpluses of HSR services. The second trick is to cherry-pick operating losses in the first few years of an HSR service that is building its ridership. Indeed, I have seen the Cato propagandist O’Toole point to the loss of the first year of the Taiwanese HSR corridor, even as it outperformed its projected ridership and so was on track to reach operating surpluses even faster than originally expected. Indeed, an HSR system that has ridership with confirms that it is on track to an operating surplus can use revenue bonds to finance losses in its first two or three years as it builds up its ridership.

… the operating surpluses available to HSR services means a well-chosen HSR corridor will not divert funds from operating subsidies for local transport systems. So supporters of local transport can support even quite substantial capital subsidies for HSR systems, without it blowing up in their face in the future.

This is in marked contrast to roadworks, where support for new capital spending on roadworks to boost a local economy in the short term is often a ticking financial time bomb that will blow up the state and local transport budget, but only after the people that cut the ribbon and celebrated the highway widening have moved on to other things.

So HSR will benefit local transport in three ways: by providing transfer patronage – which is especially important for struggling suburban transit authorities; by providing opportunities to share the infrastructure built in support of the HSR service, and by supporting a political coalition expanding well beyond the traditional large urban political base of high frequency local public transport services.

Go Out Now And Preach the Word

Now, the “Libertarians” have their propaganda development arms at Heritage and Reason and Cato, and a small army of people “spreading the good news of less transport choice and weaker national security” in multiple online locales, from Youtube and Facebook and Myspace to a determined presence in the online commentary sites of any newspaper that prints a story on HSR.

On the other hand, they need as many advantages as they can get, since they labor under the handicap that they are just making shit up, and once they get beyond the incestuous merry-go-round of citing the people that got talking points from the other people they cite, and hit the actual Wide World of Facts and Information, their talking points do not hold water.

Above are lines of argument to draw on to seed newspaper LTE columns and online commentary sites with perspectives that a lazy  “Libertarian” informed columnist or reporter will not have brought up, and the Fact and Fiction page offers a well written set of needles to use to puncture the “Libertarian” hot air balloons that you are most likely to see launched.

So, if you want to support the President’s HSR agenda, sign up with Transportation For America, the National Association of Rail Passengers, the US HSR Association and/or a local Citizen Rail Group (links courtesy NARP). Or, if you want to “roll your own” rapid response team, use High Speed Rail (that is last week, last day for a collaborative group), set up an email alert, and hit the trenches.

Arise! Break these “Libertarian” shackles … we have nothing to lose but hot air, and we have new transport choices to win!

Midnight Oil – Read About It music video


Skip to comment form

    • BruceMcF on August 9, 2009 at 22:50

    … though, actually, as can be seen by the focus of the “Libertarian” groups on HSR this last July, you definitely CAN read about the “Libertarian” side of the story … its the other perspectives we are less likely to read about if we don’t write them up ourselves.

    • pico on August 9, 2009 at 23:38

    I love riding rail, and I’d love to see a more comprehensive and accessible rail network for us to use in this country.  

    It’s an old article, but this is another resource worth pulling out to counter some of the more specious claims by anti-rail advocates.  The fact is, the market is there.  That doesn’t mean we don’t face special challenges in this country – our automobile fetish, our city geography (which create our often transport-less suburbs) – but opportunity and choice can be game changers.

    That said, a couple of the “FACT” responses in your link are a little disingenuous.  For example, on the question of whether high speed rail is working in France:

    Tell that to the people who account for 90 million rides on French TGVs every year (for a country with a total population of 65 million

    Why compare total population to the number of total rides per year?  That makes no sense.  In fact, if you divide out average rides per day, you’re looking at less than 4% of the population, a number that makes this claim look awfully shaky.  

    But it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent diary, so thank you again.

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