Monday, April 06, 2009

I don't think high speed intercity rail makes sense at this moment in time....

...Not that it never did make sense. And not that it never will...

Listen to Jim Kunstler make a strong case in a conversation with Jebediah Reed of The Infrastructurist, for the need to start with the abandoned/deteriorated rail roadbeds we have, and add to them, to create a great deal more stimulus bang for the stimulus buck.... And for building new rolling stock that isn't necessarily the state-of-the-art level of high tech. Just good intercity rail that will move both people and goods....

JR: So we’re starting a major new round of investment in our national infrastructure. Can we agree that’s a good thing?
JHK: Well, for instance, I think it would be a catastrophic mistake to devote a trillion dollars to fixing up the highways. I mean the days of “happy motoring” in this country truly are behind us. We should be planning for a period when energy resources are much more scarce. Throwing that kind of money at roads is not the way to go about doing this.

How would you be doing it?
I don’t know that I would undertake a spending program like this at all. That said, I’m a pretty strong advocate of repairing the national rail system. It’s obviously not the answer to everything. But it would certainly put a lot of people to work doing something that’s meaningful for society. The infrastructure is out there, waiting to be fixed. I’m pretty adamant that we shouldn’t be going the path of high-tech, maglev, high speed rail at this moment, because we need to prove that we can do this at the Hungarian level before we try to proceed past that.

That doesn’t sound very ambitious.
I perceive one our biggest problems being techno-grandiosity. We are so full of ourselves and so sure that technology is going to rescue us and that we’re so good at it that we can defeat every problem that faces us. It’s a fatal hubris, and it’s subscribed to by an awful lot people who have something to say about the course we take in this country.

In the past, you’ve been critical of Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute on similar grounds.
Don’t get me started on Amory Lovins. His basic program for hypercars promotes car dependency. Why do that unless you think we’re going to continue as a car dependent society? That’s why the highway infrastructure thing is so bad, because we’re not going to be able to continue the way we’ve been going. The car is not going to vanish overnight, of course. But it’s certainly going to become a problem as people develop resentments because they can no longer afford to participate in it [as oil prices rise over time].

But you think the answer with rail is to keep it very simple.
Absolutely. The infrastructure is already out there! The track beds are there! And you need an entirely new track corridor for high speed rail, because the high speed trains can’t deal with the curves in the existing tracks. The idea that we would have to create a whole new set of right-of-ways is nuts when we’re not even utilizing what we have. Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re going to be facing a lot of adversity in the years ahead, and we are a culture that will require psychological reassurance. We should have a project that’s achievable. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we’re still competent.

And the simple version of the national rail buildout would do that.
This rail project is ideal for that purpose. As I’ve said, we’ve got the tracks, and the rolling stock is pretty easy to get. You could argue that GM should be making this stuff. But it’s terribly important that we fortify ourselves psychologically so we have some faith in our ability to face all the other really important challenges that lie in front of us.

A lot of smart people are warning that if we’re going make this kind of enormous national investment, it would be a political disaster for Obama not to have some very tangible things to show for it.
Well, 2009 could turn out to be a politically rocky year. It’s really not clear how things are going play out in terms of the energy picture, the oil picture, and the picture for finance and capital. I’m afraid what’s really going on here is that a huge amount of capital is gone and is never, ever coming back again in any form.

If that’s true it would have been nice to have converted more of it into real and useful things while it was around — like, say, a good national rail network and a better electrical grid.

1 comment:

Dave Reid said...

To be clear the type of HSR we are talking about here in Wisconsin isn't likely to be any fancy high-tech trains. Generally it will just be track improvements/new track that allow for higher speeds.

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.