June 04, 2012

Trains to nowhere


Here is an amusing account of how crazy the money-losing economics of commuter rail transport can get even in train-crazy Japan, when JR East tried to axe a money pit of a rural line in Northern Japan, "the least trafficked line in the whole nation."

The line was put out of service by a landslide in 2010 that derailed a train. No one was critically injured. In a bit of unintentional satire, "JR East asserted that there were only three passengers [on the train], and all of them were train-spotters."

Rather than repair it, JR East would like to abandon it, as the line costs 32 yen for every 1 yen it takes in. And then make it the first in a long line of dominoes, as only 16 of 67 of JR East's conventional, non-Shinkansen lines were profitable in fiscal 2007.

In other words, JR East could replace these train routes with "fleets of luxury coaches . . . and still come out ahead!" Alas, as the author of the aforementioned article observes,

the love for local, loss-making lines, a fiercely nostalgic love for a past that never existed but which is no less a valid love for all that, flames in inverse correlation with the economic utility of the line.

Unfortunately, a similarly infatuated flight from common sense has now infected California. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Governor Jerry Brown is

hoping that Washington will pony up more than $50 billion [for a 500-mile bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles], but the feds have committed only $3.3 billion so far, and Republicans intend to claw it back if they take the Senate and White House this fall. If that happens, the state won't have enough money to complete its first 130-mile segment in the lightly populated Central Valley, which in any event wouldn't be operable since the state can't afford to electrify the tracks.

This is what happens when adults who liked playing with toy trains when they were kids figure out how to con the rest of the country into paying for their gold-plated hobby.

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