Conservatives and Trains

Why the Center-Right in America Won’t Get on Board.

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that that the extension of the Golden State’s high-speed rail project to Los Angeles was being postponed indefinitely, conservatives and libertarians piped up with the same hate on trains. It seems that whenever the word trains or light rail is used, more often than not the phrase “boondoggle” will follow. People drag out statistics showing how rail is not cost-effective. When conservatives get in power, any money geared towards a rail project is canceled.

The question I’ve always had is, why? What is it about putting a vehicle on a track that sends most folks on the center-right into orbit?

In the ’80s and ’90s, Northeastern Republicans (when that was still a thing) were always in support of funding for Amtrak. Because that’s Amtrak’s busiest line, it made sense. But those Republicans are gone and what is left is a cultural movement that seems to think the only proper mode of transport is the automobile (and maybe planes).

Conservatives tell us over and over again that cars are far better, or that our cities are too far apart and we have too many mountains. Over and over again, conservatives and libertarians give some excuse for why we can’t add rail to our transit options.

But how true is all this? Japan was the first nation in the world to introduce high-speed rail with the Shinkansen trains in 1964. Last I checked, Japan is not a flat surface. It’s pretty mountainous, which is not the easiest place to build, well, anything.

I think some of the objections are not that way off and can make sense. Megan McArdle noted the excessive cost overruns with New York City’s Second Avenue subway, especially when cities like Paris can build subways at a fraction of the cost.

In commenting on the California High-Speed Rail debacle, McArdle believes that high-speed rail will never come to America. She makes some good points as to why it is so challenging to build high-speed rail in America as opposed to Europe. But it feels like she is telling Americans to accept our fate: because of many factors, we will never have high-speed rail in the United States.

But I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think we should give up working on creating high-speed rail lines. We may not get a Shinkansen or the TGV, but I do think there is a way to get high-speed rail in parts of the U.S., while keeping on budget.

Now, I’m from Michigan. My parents worked for General Motors. I am a car guy. I have subscriptions to magazines like Motor Trend. I am not someone that hates cars or wants them banned or what have you. So this isn’t coming from the I-hate-cars left. I am basically a classical liberal. But people can be for good roads and also support good rail and mass transit. Classical liberals can like cars, but also believe having different modes of transit as freedom enhancing, not limiting.

This is a two-part article; the first part will look at why conservatives don’t like high-speed rail and the second will show conservatives that do support it and show projects where high-speed rail is done right.

So here are the reasons I’ve noticed that sour conservatives on trains:

It’s a cultural thing. Conservatives have said that they don’t like public money going to wasteful projects like rail, but the problem is not economic. If it was, you would see a lot of support for some of the private high-speed rail projects in America like the Brightline in Florida or the Texas Central high-speed rail which will use Shinkansen trains. But there is still opposition to Florida and Texas. The opposition is more cultural, a sense that trains just don’t belong in 21st century America.

Trains are seen as progressive and collectivist, as George Will once said. Cars are seen by the right as “liberty machines,” the freest form of transportation. Cars created a culture in our country that has been around for nearly a century. Airplanes don’t have as big a culture, but it is there. People look at the 1960s as the pinnacle of air travel and it sets the standard for decades. Trains are foreign. Very few people remember when we had passenger rail in the U.S. and Amtrak is not a big part of American culture since it is not well known outside the Northeast. This leads me to the next point.

Trains are considered 19th century. In 2017, the mayor of Miami-Dade County Carlos Giménez called trains “19th-century technology.” I believe a lot of conservatives believe that trains, even high-speed trains, are considered old fashioned and archaic. Why spend billions on a technology from the Civil War era? This explains why conservatives are now hanging on to the belief that autonomous vehicles will be the wave of the future. Of course, autonomous cars will still have the same issues that current cars have; to gain access to cars, you have to buy a car and get insurance and the like. If you have millions of autonomous cars on the road, then expect something you see with “dumb” cars today: congestion. It will also take time for these vehicles to ramp up and become ubiquitous. But with all the drawbacks, it is still considered modern as opposed to an old train. It will be far more efficient getting people from a specific point to a specific point, which trains can’t do. (Never mind that fully autonomous cars won’t be available for quite some time.) Another reason is Republicans have become a more rural party and more suspicious of cities.

Trains are considered urban. There was a time that conservatives and Republicans tended to favor the city. Many cities still had Republican mayors and Republicans in the city council. There were many Republicans in Congress from the Northeast where Amtrak has a large presence because so many people use the service and so they were supportive for funding it served their constituents who lived in their urban districts.

But the GOP of today is not a party with an urban wing. The city is viewed as the “other.” As Avi Woolf notes, when conservatives do talk of cities it tends to be in the negative:

If cities are brought up at all, it is usually in a negative context — Chicago as an avatar of the failure and dysfunction of black urban life, New York as a source of loony SJW legislation, D.C. as the source of all the country’s ills with its wonks and elites caring about nothing but cocktail parties, and L.A. embodied by Hollywood: the bastion of all that is evil in “librul” America.

Because trains basically begin and end in cities, trains are seen as urban and not part of “real” America. As the party has become more rural, it has placed more emphasis on roads and cars. Why support anything that deals with those cesspools known as the city?

The cost. Whenever people talk about roads vs. rail, the price of rail is always very transparent. The costs of roads are not always as clear. Witness the old argument that highways pay their way while rail doesn’t. The problem is that many of the costs are indirect and therefore not as easy to follow. The costs of rail, especially the cost overruns are made known for all the world to see.

Tons of ink has been spilled detailing the California High-Speed rail project’s spiraling costs. Although it is important to share news like costs overruns no matter what, it also feeds into the belief that rail is a boondoggle while roads are cheap. (We also don’t talk about highway cost overruns nearly as much.) The reality is no transportation project is ever cheap.

Car hate (from train advocates). As I’ve said before, I’m from Michigan and have parents and other relatives who worked for the auto industry. So, although I love cars and highways, I also support high-speed rail and mass transit. But other pro-train people seem at times to come off as car-hating nuts.

In the above example about the costs of driving vs. trains, there is always talk about how cars create sprawl, how they add to climate change and so on. If you are a conservative that lives in a small town and drives a truck and then there is someone writing on a blog that you are to blame for everything wrong in the world, you probably aren’t going to be thrilled to have your tax dollars going to a train.

I think that instead of trying to denigrate cars and the people that drive them, the better strategy is to talk about the benefits of trains without saying that cars are the devil’s tools.

So that’s some of the reasons that conservatives don’t like trains. In my next post, I will show high-speed rail projects in the U.S. that are working.