I like trains but not as much as I like making decisions that make good sense in the long run. I don’t live in California so it is not my business but since every now and then some Canadian politician proposes high speed trains for some high density corridor in Canada I’ll make it my business. It is an ideological version of fighting a foreign war instead of waiting for the war to get close.
Why do we need high speed trains.
Technology has mad high speed trains passe, so passe. (pronounced pass-eh). High speed is passe because riding public transport is no longer a jail sentence. As long as you are electronically connected to the world it doesn’t matter where you are. Being on a train or bus is the same as being in your office or bedroom. Trains are passe because engines are small and light so we do not need to build special steel roads for them. Buses and trucks do what trains used to do and more efficiently with one exception and technology is now taking away that exception.
If you could magically take away the cost of building the special right-of-way that trains require they would be a good idea on efficiency grounds. A train can move cargo using less fuel and labor per unit that the equivalent moved by bus or truck. That is about to change. Within the next couple of years trucks and buses will be equipped with the technology to allow them to convoy up. Imagine three trucks traveling between two major cities synchronized by computer so that they can tailgate each other. They become a three truck road train. The driver in front steers and controls the speed. The other two watch movies or sleep. The three truck road train gains efficiency because of aerodynamics. The road train also has the advantage of being able to split and go to three different destinations upon reaching the city. Mid-trip the trucks can change positions so a different driver is in front. The result is safer and more efficient truck driving. Needless to say the three truck convoy can just as easily be a twenty truck convoy.
The same thing can apply to buses. Imagine a two bus road train. One driver is in control and the other one can rest. When the train reaches the destination city the cars can split off and go to different parts of the city or even offer door-to-door service. Think about it. This is not something that is decades off. This could happen in two or three years is we wanted to make the effort.
Why do we need trains at all.
Trains were invented because engines were inefficient and operating them was a specialized skill. The engines had to be made large to haul cargo which meant they needed special steel roads to hold the weight. The specialized labor meant they needed to haul a lot of cargo per worker to spread the cost of the labor. Compare that to a motor in a truck. The engine is small and while not simple it is reliable such that no specialized labor is required to operate it. The result is that the efficient cargo size is less. This is a long way of saying that trains are passe. No one would build a railroad if they did not already exist and no one should.
There is one advantage that still accrues to trains. They are fuel and labor efficient. Those advantages are not enough to overcome the disadvantage of requiring their own right-of-way but if the track is already their then use it.