Thursday, May 21, 2015

A "plot against trains"?

The Little Engine That Could

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik is a good representative of the liberal mindset on trains (The Plot Against Trains). He sees the country's failure to invest in railroad projects as part of the failure to invest in maintaining the country's roads, bridges, and tunnels:

The horrific Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia this week set off some predictable uncertainty about what exactly had happened...and an even more vibrant set of arguments about the failure of Americans to build any longer for the common good.

("Vibrant" arguments?) Gopnik is a good literary critic---see his recent essay on Anthony Trollope---but his take on high-speed rail four years ago was so bad it prompted me to create a new label for posts: When Smart People Are Dumb.

The issue seems to be personal for Gopnik, who presumably rides Amtrak, which apparently is mocked back East:

This week’s tragedy also, perhaps, put a stop for a moment to the license for mocking those who use the train—mocking Amtrak’s northeast “corridor” was a standard subject not just for satire, which everyone deserves, but also for sneering, which no one does. For the prejudice against trains is not a prejudice against an élite but against a commonality.

I must have missed all that anti-northeast corridor satire. Actually, those are the only Amtrak lines that make money, since they operate in the most densely populated part of the country. And surely some people really do deserve a sneer, as do some projects, like the dumb California high-speed rail project that is supported by liberal elites and of course the unions, which like any and all projects that create jobs for their members, even dumb projects.

Gopnik's last paragraph reads like he's working on a new edition of The Little Engine That Could:

Trains take us places together. (You can read good books on them, too.) Every time you ride one, you look outside, and you look inside, and you can’t help but think about the private and the public in a new way. As Judt wrote, the railroad represents neither the fearsome state nor the free individual. A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination.

More or less! Are bad books banned on Gopnik's train?

This puffery is like the recent and silly Why can't America have great trains? article in the National Journal. Randal O'Toole answered that question: Because passenger rail systems are too expensive, and Americans will only ride highly-subsidized trains where ticket prices don't cover operating expenses. That's why Warren Buffett invested in freight rail, not passenger rail. And that's why the country got in the rail business in the first place with Amtrak after private passenger rail went belly-up.  

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At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Gregski said...

Gopnik's final paragraph is a very candid revelation for which we ought to be grateful.

The trainiacs' would have us direct huge public investments based on the enchanted, romantic nostalgia and sentimantal attachments of a small group of elitists. In other words, pay for my sacred cow.

I look forward to Gopnik's evocation of Judy Garland's trolley joy in "Meet me in Saint Louis" as he tries to convince us to sink our money into more "light rail" instead of more-flexible, more cost-efficient buses.


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