One recently revealed aspect of the European debt crisis is the role European passenger trains played in running up national debts. The Greek rail system, for example, has debts of $13 billion, or about 5 percent of Greece’s gross national product. Rail workers get paid so well that it would be cheaper to hire taxis to move passengers, at least if the taxis carried two or more passengers at a time.
Greece spends $1.20 per passenger mile on passenger trains. That’s twice what the U.K. spends, but even the U.K. trains are hardly a model of efficiency considering that driving in the U.S. costs only about 35 cents a vehicle mile, including subsidies to highway. Divide that by however many passengers you think are in the cars to get an average cost per passenger mile.
Spain, meanwhile, went so far overboard in building high-speed rail lines that it recently shut one down because it was attracting only nine passengers a day. That’s what happens when you let politicians decide where the trains should go.