The Washington Post Features Rail Hack Job

This is the big problem with Ed Glaeser’s New York Times posts purporting to analyze the costs and benefits of a high speed rail system.

Despite Glaeser’s acknowledgment that his "back-of-the-envelope calculation" doesn’t "[represent] a complete evaluation of any actual proposed route," the posts are sure to be read and regurgitated by rail opponents uninterested in having an actual debate on the merits of high-speed rail investments.

Today, the Washington Post’s lame excuse for an economics columnist, Robert Samuelson, used numbers from Glaeser’s analysis in writing an extremely regrettable piece arguing that investments in high-speed rail are misguided. But this is no honest entry into the discussion of how best to invest in transportation infrastructure. It’s a hack job, plain and simple.

Samuelson begins by complaining about Amtrak subsidies, but he can’t be bothered to address what those subsidies actually suggest about the competitiveness of fast, intercity rail. On the corridor where service most closely resembles true high-speed service, Amtrak runs an operating profit.

It gets much worse from there. Samuelson argues against rail on the basis of population density, writing:

What works in Europe and Asia won’t in the United States. Even abroad,
passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable
because geography and energy policies differ.

Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct
connections between heavily populated city centers and business
districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it’s 653 in
Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land
in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and
factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can’t pick up
most people where they live and work and take them to where they want
to go. Cars can.

This is embarrassingly bad analysis. America’s overall population density includes vast expanses of land in the west where few people live and where high-speed trains won’t be built (have a look at the administration’s map of proposed routes here and note how many low-density states are not expected to get service).

The proper point of comparison is the population densities of metropolitan corridors where lines will be built. A child could understand the point, and yet Samuelson, out of ignorance or deliberate obtuseness, doesn’t get it.

He follows that up with a similar error:

Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can’t compete with planes.

Again, this is just embarrassing. Distances between major cities on planned corridors will be at most 400 miles. No one is suggesting that rail compete with planes on coast-to-coast routes.

This is a hugely important factual point, and Samuelson seems to be entirely ignorant of it. He simply knows nothing about the policies being considered.

Samuelson goes on to make other mistakes; like Glaeser he fails to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives to high-speed rail — given current congestion levels and expected population growth, new infrastructure of some kind will be necessary to keep the national economy functioning. But given the basic errors mentioned above, it’s hardly worth engaging with the piece.

The Post should be ashamed of its decision to publish this. And Glaeser should be at least a little bit uncomfortable that his work is being cited in factually challenged columns by writers who clearly have no interest in honest participation in the discussion.

  • The Post’s op/ed section has gotten *so bad* in the last 6 months or so. It’s almost like they are intentionally trying to throw the paper’s reputation out the window.

  • Doug

    For trips of 350 miles, which I make regularly, my car is competitive with air travel on cost, time, irritation and stiff knees. High speed rail would be a no-brainer, particularly on the opposite coast. It’s also worth noting how far west you have to go before 400 miles isn’t a valuable route. What percentage of the population doesn’t live somewhere that there are major commercial centers at that distance? Even in the far mountain west, lines along I-80 and I-40 could be valuable for business travel.

  • garyg

    Samuelson goes on to make other mistakes; like Glaeser he fails to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives to high-speed rail

    He doesn’t need to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives to HSR. The question he is addressing is whether the benefits of HSR would outweigh its costs. And his answer is that they would not. HSR is economically irrational. Not just a little irrational, but highly irrational. The benefits don’t even come close to the costs.

  • garyg “He doesn’t need to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives to HSR. The question he is addressing is whether the benefits of HSR would outweigh its costs. And his answer is that they would not. HSR is economically irrational. Not just a little irrational, but highly irrational. The benefits don’t even come close to the costs.

    Except consider Glaeser’s back of the envelope analysis.

    Its easy for the innumerate to throw around vague adjectives to cover over the fact that they can’t work the numbers, but actually Glaeser’s numbers said very clearly that the incremental, private benefits alone would cover the costs at under 10m passenger per year. Since there are corridors that can easily expect well over 10m passengers per year, your claim of “highly irrational” is just bluffing.

    And with the an Emerging HSR corridor costing $8m/mile or less, rather than his estimated $40m/mile, even the corridor he chose easily gets over the bar he himself set for the hypothetical corridor, a Houston/Dallas corridor where some mysterious force has imposed Zero Population Growth.

    Because he did not look at total transport benefit of the line, but net benefit to switching from flying to using the line. That means he is assuming that there are no new people who need new transport capacity.

    In a growing area, where the full transport benefit is included, even 1.5m riders per year gets much closer than he estimated for Express HSR, on private transport benefit/cost alone.

    And since an Emerging HSR corridor would be the cheapest way to add transport capacity, with any populatio growth it becomes a slam dunk.

  • stanley kowalski

    Add Samuelson’s “billions of dollars of subsidy to Amtrak” argument. That’s how you know its a hatchet job. Until the stimulus raised the number to 1.3 billion, Amtrak received subsidies in the $675 million range. The anti-rail folks always add the subsidy up over 40 years and pretend its an annual figure.

  • Juanita de Talmas

    Samuelson is a fool. Almost all of his columns are as moronic as this one.

  • Colin Peppard

    Glaeser on HSR got picked up in Newsweek this week as well.

  • john jeter

    When I see these articles about the pros and cons of high speed rail,I wonder if I am the only person in the country who read Phillip Longman’s article in the Washington Monthly from Jan/Feb ’09,”Back on Tracks”.I have yet to see it mentioned or referenced a single time.Why is it that with rail and seemingly every other important issue,we try to make the hardest sale first,offer the easiest target to the other side,and never,ever aim at what might be attainable.Longman’s argument could be shoved right down Samuelson’s throat,but it is sunk in the memory hole and may as well have never been written.

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2009/0901.longman.html

  • garyg

    Longman’s argument could be shoved right down Samuelson’s throat

    Longman’s argument is almost entirely about FREIGHT rail, not passenger rail, so I’m not sure what you think it has to do with Samuelson’s piece.

    I suspect Samuelson would agree with Longman that we should encourage the diversion of freight transportation from highways to rail. It would free up highway capacity for passenger traffic.

  • >He doesn’t need to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives to HSR. The question he is addressing is whether the benefits of HSR would outweigh its costs.

    Unless you are suggesting that mobility is unnecessary, this is nonsense. People have to travel *somehow*. The question is how.

  • garyg

    Unless you are suggesting that mobility is unnecessary, this is nonsense. People have to travel *somehow*. The question is how.

    No, the question Glaeser addressed is whether HSR would be economically rational. His answer is that it would not be. Whether providing some other new form of transportation, or expanding the capacity of an existing one, would be economically rational are different questions.

  • Glaeser’s big “proof” used Dallas-Houston- a route that is on nobody’s HSR list.

    Glaeser wouldn’t be much of an American economist if he couldn’t do a little fast footwork with figures. The fact remains that airlines in Europe have invested in HSR and are substituting HSR routes for short hops because it makes sense.

  • gargy: “No, the question Glaeser addressed is whether HSR would be economically rational. His answer is that it would not be.

    But that is not the question he actually addressed. He may have claimed that he was looking at that, but what he addressed was a narrower question.

    The question Glaeser addressed was whether two cities less than 300 miles apart with Dallas and Houston’s population and current air market but without their growth rates and without the options of 110mph Emerging HSR or 125mph Regional HSR and with no new demand for transport generated by faster trips at lower price would find it economically justified.

    The NEC already has over 1.5m rides for the sub-Emerging HSR trip speeds on the Acela, and both California and Florida are growing rather than ZPG states, so the hypothetical question addressed does not apply to proposed Express HSR in any of those three corridors.

    The Midwest Hub, Ohio Hub, Southeast Corridor, Cascades Corridor, Gulf Coast Corridor and New England Corridors are all proposed for 110mph, so the hypothetical question addressed does not apply to proposed Emerging HSR in any of those six corridors/systems.

    So the question Glaeser addressed was not actually about the real world HSrail policy … though Morris and Samuelson claimed that it was.

    At best Glaeser’s hypothetical addresses why the direct Houston/Dallas alignment that was in the Texas Triangle may be less economically appealing than the T-Bone, which increases ridership by giving Fort Hood, Temple and College Station direct connections to Houston that they lack in the Texas Triangle.

    But that is a far cry from the intellectually dishonest characterizations of his analysis that Morris and Samuelson have engaged in.

  • John Thacker

    “Glaeser’s big “proof” used Dallas-Houston- a route that is on nobody’s HSR list.”

    On nobody’s HSR list, but two of the top five metropolitan areas in the country by population (well, Houston is very close to Philly and may have passed it, but I’m not sure) with fast growing populations and separated by less than 300 miles. Even if it’s not on anybody’s list, that city pair sure looks like it fits all the standard requirements for HSR. Do you really think that his back of the envelope numbers would have looked better with other choices?

    New York-Philly is the only city pair that would do better, where we already have Acela. But this rail funding isn’t about Acela.

    Yes, fine the other rail proposals outside of California aren’t for 150+ mph rail. But if 150+ mph wouldn’t work Houston-Dallas, then it’s not going to work almost anywhere in the country outside the NEC. And don’t say that these moderate speed upgrades are going to help 150+ mph HSR– that would require all new track and these changes would do nothing to help it.

    So if you’re admitting that most of America has too low population density to support European-style speeds of HSR, but 110 and 125 mph trains would be helpful, then fine. But don’t just say, “No one is proposing faster speeds right now, so I don’t want to talk about it.” Say you would actively oppose such proposals right now because the economics doesn’t support it, or else I can’t take you seriously.

  • Matthew

    Glaeser has never seen a rail project that he liked, or pretty much any public works project either. Just check his affiliations. Asking him to analyze the benefits of high speed rail is like asking the pope to analyze the benefits of atheism.

  • I also attacked this column for the whole supposed failure of Amtrack. Check it out

    http://madrad2002.wordpress.com/2009/08/24/robert-samuelsons-column-is-a-train-wreck/

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