“OF ALL the high-speed train services around the world, only one really makes economic sense,” The Economist observed last week, that one being the Tokyo-to-Osaka route. “All the other Shinkansen routes in Japan lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in the world. Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling.”
What a difference a year makes. In February 2010, an Economist columnist pen-named Gulliver was gushing over “China’s dashing new trains.” “Scarcely a week goes by without another glowing report about racy Chinese trains,” the columnist reported in March.
In April, Gulliver praised Obama’s high-speed rail plan. “America’s failures in the HSR department are so glaring that they’re impossible to ignore,” the article noted, not considering that those “failures” might be because America was slightly less interested in “political patronage and national chest-thumping” than other nations. (Gulliver also often confused the “top speed” with the “average speed” of trains.)
“Would you ride a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles?” asked Gulliver. “I would.” Though a Washington DC byline suggests that Gulliver would rarely have the opportunity to ride the train, he or she seemed to feel that American taxpayers should spend the $45 to $65 billion needed to build the line just in case that opportunity should arise.
Some doubts crept in last July. “Americaâ€™s system of rail freight is the worldâ€™s best,” the magazine that calls itself a newspaper observed. “High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.” In December, Gulliver admitted that one of his or her “hang ups” was “America’s failure to build any meaningful high-speed rail,” and fretted that it now appeared that “not many” miles would be built in the coming decade. But the columnist blamed it on the “culture wars” rather than the sheer economic idiocy of spending hundreds of billions on a project guaranteed to lose money.
The story is different this year. China is “off the rails,” and its high-speed rail plans are “on the wrong track,” according to recent articles. (The most recent news from China, not yet reported by the Economist, is that the country may be scaling back its high-speed rail plans.)
While Gulliver may still want American taxpayers to pay billions for a few joy rides, the columnist who is taking a more realistic look at high-speed rail is called Babbage. Where Gulliver specializes in “business travel,” Babbage focuses on “science and technology” and actually lives in California. Given the name of the publication they work for, however, you would think both would be equally versed on the political economics of benefits, costs, pork barrel, and chest thumping.
Finally, you know your traindoggle is truly doomed when a normally apolitical comic strip like Shoe makes fun of it.