Once upon a time, there were trains. They were private. And it was good. A Krugman– or Yglesias-style argument in favor of stimulus will point out that the transcontinental railroads were made possible by ginormous land grants from the federal government, a clear-cut “in kind” capital cost subsidy. And of course, they’re right. But there was no operating subsidy. The Rainhill Trials, that was all private financing. And more important, all the streetcar and urban rail was private too. The BMT was private (and tasty), the Key System was private, and the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway, that was definitely private.
Sometimes the trains were tied up with land development interests (private) or freight railroads (private) or utility companies (TRUSTS!), and once in a blue moon they were even public from the start. But for the most part it was all capitalism – “free enterprise” if you prefer.
Meanwhile, governments large and small set about using your tax dollars to build free competitors to the trains. In 1926 we came up with numbers and then in 1935 we dumped scads of money into roads. We also made it illegal for an electric company to own a streetcar company, which is ludicrous, since the primary infrastructure of an electric company is a bunch of wires, and the primary infrastructure of a streetcar network is rails and a bunch of wires, and the primary nonlabor input to streetcars is electricity, which electric companies sort of by definition have in spades… but hey, it was the 30’s, Americans had been screwed by Wall Street, they were tired of monopolies.
Now you’d think that this would kill the trains. Certainly, more than a few small-town trolleys folded once the electric company umbilical cord was cut. But at the national level the trains came back stronger than ever. The “free enterprise” railroads decided to take their subsidized government competition head-on. And the result was this:
But, the government just kept on building highways. Not only that, they made a rule that trains could only do 80mph unless the railroads installed a ridiculously expensive signaling system. So what did the railroads do? They all bought these:
In fact, the 50’s turned into the greatest decade for passenger rail. Smoothsides and E-Units were cranked out by the hundreds. Even commuter trains got streamlined. So what did the feds do? They went and built this:
And what did the cities and states do? Well, they spent a whole lot of money building these:
And against that two-front assault, the trains folded. Most of the interurbans and streetcars were torn out the 50’s. Railroad petitions to abandon passenger service really took off in the 60’s. In 1971, Amtrak took over most of the passenger trains and immediately cut over half the routes. In fact, far from being the national savior of passenger rail which some now ascribe to it, Amtrak was originally intended to facilitate an orderly wind-down of passenger service in the US. That’s why it doesn’t have a guaranteed funding source, why it’s constantly subject to the whims of who’s appropriating this year, and why it maintains a staunch institutional commitment to incrementalism. It simply wasn’t intended to be a permanent entity.
Nowadays, any proposal for a train system is met with cries of “socialism.” Which is absurd. Railroads were PRIVATE ENTITIES THAT SUCCESSFULLY FOUGHT FREE PUBLIC COMPETITION FOR NEARLY FORTY YEARS.
So let’s posit an alternate history.
In 1926, the federal government nationalizes the core, trunk national rail system. (They leave the little branch lines and whatnot to private operators). They don’t make huge improvements at first, but they do create standardized train names, lots of reliable clockwork long-distance routes, and publish it all in a big national timetable.
Soon after, the depression hits. In 1935 the WPA and the PWA began sinking money into railroads in earnest. The biggest programs are electrification – where the US is still using steam in the 30’s, by the time the program wraps in 1943 you can travel under wire nonstop from NYC to LA, from Miami to Seattle.
In 1946 the federal government passes the “60mph rule,” which requires a maximum speed limit of 60mph on all public and private highways unless continuous rubberized guardrails are installed on both sides of the road. The Pennsylvania Turnpike installs these, and later the New Jersey Turnpike follows, but highway authorities elsewhere find the cost to be prohibitive.
Nevertheless, the nation’s automobility won’t be tied down. Throughout the 1950’s, more people are driving cars then ever. So in 1956, the federal government passes the “national system of interstate and defense railways.” From whole cloth, an entirely new system of high-speed railroads is constructed. These are fully grade separated, allowing speeds of 130mph throughout the system. Meanwhile, states and cities embark on subway programs throughout the 60’s and 70’s, replacing slow surface streetcars with fast municipal trains.
What do you think such a system would look like?
It’s not even a hypothetical question, because I’ve just described Japan.
OK, so there was never any 60mph turnpike speed limit. But the basic outline – government nationalizes railway, government spends lots of money on electrification, government then constructs brand-new parallel high-speed system out of whole cloth – is exactly the history of the JR Group.
JR is private. Or rather, it’s private in the sense that GM is private. The Japanese National Railways had a whole chunk of debt
from building the Shinkansen system, so the Japanese government spun it off into two companies – one that just held the primary rail assets, one that held the debt and other assorted frivolities. All the union contracts were renogiated. Pretty much like “old GM” and “new GM.”
But if that doesn’t quite meet your definition of “free enterprise”, you can’t really argue with the 100% privately owned suburban railways, which have survived by successfully competing with the government railway for 80 years.
That’s the Moonlight Echigo, doing about 55 by my estimate.
Other trains are faster. The Hokuhoku line runs at 100 (160km/h):
Should we try to emulate Japan? Not exactly. For one thing, that rail network is supported by a density that doesn’t exist here. Which is fine. If we had to pick a country to emulate, my first choice would be Germany, since you get ICE-T‘s and unrestricted Autobahns. But the truth is I don’t want to emulate any country. We build excellent roads here in the US of A. We used to build excellent trains, too. In fact, back in the 60’s, Japanese train companies licensed American train technology. Think about that for a minute. The Japanese… paid for our train knowhow.
Blows your mind.
So what I want, is for us to take our proven national abilities in highway construction and apply them to fast trains. And I want the (L)’s and the (R)’s to stop acting like roads that are half-funded by gas taxes are some sort of capitalist paradise while trains are an evil government plot to brainwash you into collectivism.
Trains were the original private enterprise. Roads were pretty much always socialism. That’s why the stuff on your train layout is all painted different eye-catching colors, whereas the highways all look pretty much the same.
Now, let’s go build some more trains.