Why Do Progressives Love Trains?

The headline reads “Obama’s Rail Plan Speeds Ahead,” and the article explains that President Obama has “unveiled his plan to develop a high-speed passenger rail (HSR) system in the United States.” These “specifics” are evidently not actually very specific, however, because reporter Bruce Watson tells us only that the plan is three-fold: “initially, it will pour investment into infrastructure upgrades that have been approved but not yet funded. Later, it will fund high-speed rail planning and, subsequently, construction. In the process, it will also seek to improve rail service along existing lines, increasing the quality of current rail service and laying the track (as it were) for faster, more efficient rail in the future.”

Watson spends the rest of his article rhapsodizing about the glorious possibility that the Obama administration will succeed in “changing American patterns of behavior,” not simply by improving rail transportation, but also, along the same lines, by establishing “a strong moral counterbalance to the ‘greed is good’ ethos that has ruled much of the last 28 years.” You would have trouble making up this stuff.

What are progressives thinking? If I prefer automobile transportation to taking a train, they condemn me for my greed. Their preference for taxing people and pouring the money into economically wasteful expenditures for rail facilities, however, they laud as the very heart and soul of public-spiritedness.

AMTRAK lives on subsidies; always has, always will. Americans have limited demand for passenger-train services. Nearly everyone prefers to use a personal automobile, for all sorts of good reasons, including privacy, flexibility, and convenience. None of this is news. Transportation economists have been documenting it in study after study for decades.

Yet the leftists of this country at some point — I’m not sure exactly when it happened — fell head over heels in ideological love with trains. I lived for many years in the Seattle area, where traditional religion does not rank very high with the bulk of the population, but devotion to “light rail” serves as a perfect substitute for belief in a higher power. For decades, the Seattle leftists worked to gain voter approval of their beloved light rail system. Finally they succeeded, and the people of Seattle are now getting the “benefits” of this democratic boondoggle good and hard.

Republicans dish out subsidies for perfectly understandable reasons: they wish to enrich their pals in the corporate sector at public expense. Although I do not rule out similar motives among Democrats, a substantial contingent of Democrats seems to love passenger-rail subsidies for reasons that have little or nothing to do with pork for their friends. As the article I quoted earlier suggests, they view rail-over-road as a religious matter:  car = evil; train = virtuous. Reasoning with them is as futile as reasoning with any religious zealot. They simply know they are on the side of the angels.

I suspect that someone has written a book about this curious linkage of ideology and technology. If someone hasn’t written such a book, plenty of material surely awaits its interpreter. A cultural anthropologist might be best qualified for the task.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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