Monday, October 10, 2022

America's Bullet Train Boondoggle

I am sure you recall that fateful moment when New York Times columnist Tom Friedman averred that America was not a serious country. Commenting on the fact that China was building a bullet train between Beijing and Shanghai, which would reduce travel time to around three hours, Friedman noted that if you want to take a train from New York to Chicago, around the same distance, it would take you twenty hours. 

Naturally, cries of outrage flew from the bleachers. Who needs bullet trains when we have trains and cars. Besides, China uses slave labor and has oppressed the poor Uighurs, and we can never accept that.

We are, dare I say, holier than thou. One would like to say that the virtue signaling only comes from the left, but the cries of anguish over the Uighurs come often from the right. One notes, for what it’s worth, that no Muslim leader in the world has expressed any interest in the plight of the Uighurs. One also notes that our protestations have been largely inconsequential. Given our cries of genocide, the last time we phoned China and asked that government to rein in its friend Vladimir in Ukraine, the government of China sent our intelligence reports to Russia. 

Virtue signaling has a price, and it is worthwhile to assess cost and benefits when one engages in high school level foreign policy. Always recall the moment when Richard Nixon toasted Mao Zedong in Beijing. Mao was perhaps history's greatest mass murderer, and yet....

Be that as it may, bullet trains are not a Chinese invention. They are not a novelty. Countries as diverse as Japan and France have long since mastered the technology and have covered their countries with these wondrous machines.

So, it made a certain amount of sense when the Obama administration decided to finance a bullet train in California, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project had been kicking around for some time before the Obama team got their hands on it, but they tried to get it off the ground. Unfortunately, it has stayed on the ground. 

Of course, this was an instance of the dread industrial policy, where the federal government got into the business of picking winners and losers. As you know-- think Solyndra-- the Obama administration efforts were largely unsuccessful. 

But it is also an instance of American ingenuity and engineering acumen. At a time when the latest intellectual fad is “onshoring” and where we are going to bring all manufacturing back to the home country, it would be good if we could show that we were capable of building something that other countries had mastered decades ago.

Apparently, we cannot. An extensive and excellent New York Times report exposes a comedy of errors, a what-didn’t-go-wrong history of the project. Hats off to the Times for some excellent reporting.

Considering how much the Biden administration is crowing about its new infrastructure spending bill, it is worth considering what happened in California:

Now, as the nation embarks on a historic, $1 trillion infrastructure building spree, the tortured effort to build the country’s first high-speed rail system is a case study in how ambitious public works projects can become perilously encumbered by political compromise, unrealistic cost estimates, flawed engineering and a determination to persist on projects that have become, like the crippled financial institutions of 2008, too big to fail.

Among the seemingly insurmountable obstacles was politics. The Times report explains it:

Political compromises, the records show, produced difficult and costly routes through the state’s farm belt. They routed the train across a geologically complex mountain pass in the Bay Area. And they dictated that construction would begin in the center of the state, in the agricultural heartland, not at either of the urban ends where tens of millions of potential riders live.

The pros and cons of these routing choices have been debated for years. Only now, though, is it becoming apparent how costly the political choices have been. Collectively, they turned a project that might have been built more quickly and cheaply into a behemoth so expensive that, without a major new source of funding, there is little chance it can ever reach its original goal of connecting California’s two biggest metropolitan areas in two hours and 40 minutes.

Of course, one ought not conclude that no government can ever succeed at building a bullet train. The examples of Japan and France stand out. One might well conclude that American politics along with an empowered bureaucracy has made it nearly impossible to do so here.

Among those who signed on to the original project was the French government agency, the SNCF-- the national railroad. The French wanted to participate, and they certainly had the expertise to do so. Unfortunately, they could not overcome American politics.

The Times reports what happened:

Although it comes more than a half century after Asia and Europe were running successful high-speed rail systems, the bullet train project when it was first proposed in the 1980s was new to America, larger than any single transportation project before it and more costly than even the nation’s biggest state could finance in one step.

The state was warned repeatedly that its plans were too complex. SNCF, the French national railroad, was among bullet train operators from Europe and Japan that came to California in the early 2000s with hopes of getting a contract to help develop the system.

The company’s recommendations for a direct route out of Los Angeles and a focus on moving people between Los Angeles and San Francisco were cast aside, said Dan McNamara, a career project manager for SNCF.‌

The company‌ ‌pulled out in 2011.

“There were so many things that went wrong,” Mr. McNamara said. “SNCF was very angry. They told the state they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”

Morocco’s bullet train started service in 2018.

Of course, the money quote comes at the end of those paragraphs. The French company pulled out of California because it was too politically dysfunctional to build much of anything. Doesn’t that sound just a bit like what Tom Friedman was noting when he said that America was no longer a serious country.

So, the French went to Morocco where there is less political dysfunction and built a bullet train. Say what?

So, put that one in your hookah and puff on it, just a wee bit.


Freddo said...

For an even bigger contrast: compare the performance of SpaceX to NASAs SLS. Funny thing is how SpaceX also outcompetes all other contenders, including European, Russian and Chinese government initiatives.

Anonymous said...

The California bullet train is nothing more than money laundering to give unions and other special interests vast sums of money some of which is kicked back to politicians. It is and always was a scam. If it were to ever be completed only the rich could afford to ride it and after the intitial excitement they won't ride it. It will have to be heavily subsidized until it dies of old age.

rotator said...

And the whole point of 'high speed' travel between LA and SF was vitiated by adding in several stops in the central valley which would instantly reduce the average speed to 75-120mph range.

Anonymous said...

This is the 3rd or 4th time obama and biden have used "infrastructure" -- "roads, bridges, highways"! as an excuse for spending trillions, most of which went into their own and their cronies' pockets. Don't believe they are this time actually going to go on a "historic trillion dollar infrastructure spending spree" because the NYT carries their water for them -- again! Remember how the FIRST time, BO had to admit "Guess those jobs weren't 'shovel-ready'"? Just another democrat scam."

It was BO's job to start putting the country so far in debt we could never get out of it and raiding the treasury, along with redistributing middle-class wealth all over the world. It's was supposed to be HRC's 8 years that finished it -- they were furious with PDT when he (knowing their plans) got in the way.

The net has the chart with the "16-year plan" and no, it's not BS--- you can check off what's been done and what's still in progress.