Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Randal O'Toole: Anti-train Grinch?


Fred: The Randal O'Toole I always imagined from your commentaries was a mirthless, humorless man with a distaste for trains. Maybe you breathe fire, too.

O'Toole: My writing tends to be dry. I stick to the facts. But the reality is, of course, I've always loved passenger trains, ever since I took that first ride when I was five years old on the Western Star, from Grand Forks to Portland, Ore. 

That was one of the pleasures of reading your book, to discover you are a lover of trains and railroads and that you marry this with a contrarian way of thinking. Do you take perverse pleasure in that combination? 

Oh, not at all. To me, it's really sad. I wish I could support passenger trains, and I do support them as far as riding them and things like that. But I know enough about government subsidies to know that they reduce overall productivity and usually end up taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The people who are riding the Acela are not people in need of government handouts. The people who are riding light rail and things like that are not the poor, by and large.

What is the future of the long-distance trains? 

The role they fulfill is giving people access to scenery they can't see in any other way, and really, it ends up being something for the wealthy. I think the Rocky Mountaineer model is the future of long-distance trains, and if you look at the United States, where can we have a Rocky Mountaineer? Certainly, Oakland to Denver, probably Oakland to Los Angeles, and after that it gets pretty iffy. They would become cruise trains.

You seem almost as uncharitable towards the short-distance passenger trains. 

Amtrak does its best to deceive people about how well these trains do, for example, counting state subsidies as “passenger revenues” in order to make itself eligible for more subsidies. I wouldn't mind short-distance trains if they worked, but the Cascades, the California service, those trains aren't really doing anything. A lot of money is spent carrying not that many people...

See also Fast Train to Failure on California's high-speed rail project and Why freight rail pays and passenger trains flunk.

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