WaPo Pundit: Mass Transit Good for Others, Not U.S.

“Robert Samuelson Doesn’t Like Trains” is what Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 8/24/09) takes to be “the unifying theme from his column today, since his arguments against high-speed rail do not make a lot of sense.”

In his August 24 broadside against what he dubs Barack Obama’s “Rail Boondoggle,” Samuelson trots out the tired argument against “almost $35 billion in subsidies into Amtrak” that “the federal government has poured” in the last four decades–with the usual corporate pundit omissions, like the fact that, as long ago as 1994 it was determined that “hidden subsidies for drivers amount to well over $2 for every gallon of gasoline sold.”

Beyond that, “Samuelson tries to tell us that trains might be useful in Japan and Europe, but they won’t work in the United States”:

He tells readers that:

Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it’s 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile.

The density for the United States as a whole would be relevant if the plans were to build a train network going from Florida to Alaska, but that is not what is on the agenda. Instead, the issue is about deepening and improving the network in relatively densely populated parts of the country, like Ohio (277 people per square mile), New York (402) and New Jersey (1,134). The population densities of much of the United States are very comparable to the regions in Europe through which high-speed rails travel.

Baker then tells how “Samuelson also bizarrely compares long-distance train with the 140 million daily trips to work each day,” even though “most people do not travel between cities every day, so it’s not clear what the point of the comparison is.”

Recapping, Baker writes that “Robert Samuelson doesn’t like trains. He told us that this morning in his column.” However, “he didn’t tell us anything else.”

See the FAIR magazine Extra!: “The Railroading of Amtrak: Trains, Planes and Automobiles Held to Different Standards” (7-8/02) by Christopher Ott.