As part of the stimulus package, President Obama provided billions of dollars to develop and operate high-speed passenger rail in the United States. The purpose is to replicate the high-speed rail transportation networks that exist in Europe, Japan and China. Unfortunately, this program is not likely to take many cars off the road. In addition, it could threaten the current freight rail systems, one of the few remaining bastions of unregulated, profitable and efficient commerce left in the country.
Since the railroad industry was deregulated in the early 1980s, productivity as increased some 200 percent and costs have declined by nearly half. As a result, goods are easier and cheaper to move around the country. In addition, the advantages of freight rail have taken tens of thousands of tractor-trailer loads off the roads, reducing pollution and making the roadways safer. Also, the improved capacity and speed of rail transport has made it easier for the military to move equipment around the country and to transport forces from peacetime bases to ports of debarkation.
The Obama plan for high-speed transportation threatens both the commercial and security advantages created by the current freight rail system. The high-speed trains will have to use freight rail lines. Consequently, there will be increased competition between the movement of passengers and freight. By some estimates, each high-speed passenger train takes the place of six freight trains, reducing capacity and raising costs for the latter. Because high-speed passenger rail travel requires greater safety precautions, the entire system is likely to be burdened by the cost of heightened security measures. Inevitably, mixing high-speed transportation with traditional freight operations means increased regulation for the entire industry. The Obama Administration has never met a regulatory regime it did not like whether it made sense or not.
The administration’s plan for high-speed rail could negatively affect the environment. The combination of reduced freight capacity, increased costs for rail shipping and burdensome regulations will negatively affect the productivity of rail freight and, ironically, result in increased use of commercial trucking. This will produce a negative effect on the overall economy and counterbalance any reduction in road use by increased use of high-speed passenger trains. Europe may have a good high-speed passenger train system; its freight rail system is inefficient and slow. Why would we seek to replicate this failure in the United States?
Overall there are two potential national security consequences from this plan. First, there is likely to be increased costs to the military to move material across country. Higher transportation costs will also be reflected in the costs of most of the goods the military acquires. Finally, the current system provides for the fast and most predictable movement of military forces to ports from which they can be deployed overseas. The effectiveness of the expeditionary military could be compromised by a misguided effort to emulate the passenger rail systems in Europe and Japan.
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