I was shocked to discover in a conversation with a congressional staffer that rebuilding the country's train system is a topic that is strictly verboten on Capitol Hill. I was reminded of this when I read that a French train had set a new speed record of 357 miles per hour.Why is it that there is no political attention given to improving the nation's railway system? One of my favorite things about travel in Europe is the ability to do short and medium-sized trips without the hassle of going through airports. But in the US, train travel is very rare as a major source of intercity transportation, with the possible exception of the Boston-Washington corridor.
Trains are far more fuel efficient than planes. Even at much slower speeds than this new French train, service across the Northeast and between the Midwest and Northeast can be very time competitive with air travel, after factoring in travel times to and from airports and security searches. It is remarkable that politicians don't even have trains on their radar screens. This would be an item worthy of some serious attention from the media.
The problem with train systems is that they take a fair bit of public money to build and maintain. Unlike air travel, trains are rarely economically self-sufficient through private-only funding. But this does not mean that they aren't economically sensible.
Train transportation has significant positive externalities that air travel does not have. The biggest positive spillover is that train travel is far, far better for the environment than almost any other mode of transportation. Furthermore, trains are subject to increasing returns to scale in a way that air travel is not. In other words, the more people use trains, the cheaper it gets to operate them on a per-person basis. Finally, trains can do a lot more than air travel to alleviate traffic congestion, auto accidents, road maintenance costs, and tailpipe emissions.
Economic theory predicts that things that have positive externalities will be under-supplied by the private sector, and that society would be made better off if there was some sort of public funding or subsidy. Train travel fits the bill perfectly. It's a pity that politicians don't recognize that.