My Forbes column this week focuses on the US rail system, and argues that despite all the angst that we are somehow missing the boat in emulating Europe, Japan and China in building expensive bullet trains, we actually have the best rail system in the world.
These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff. We are “asleep.” Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occured when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry - all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.
In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.
Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.
As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world. Europe and Japan are not even close. Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan. As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States. For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.
You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible. You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains. This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.