On February 27, Newsweek published a column written by George F. Will titled “High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals Love Trains”, in which he lambastes the Obama administration for proposing to build (and fund) a nationwide high-speed rail network. Will goes on to ridicule “liberals” for supporting taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service in general. While Will repeats many of the shibboleths that commonly trip off the lips and pens of all passenger rail opponents (it will drain our public treasuries, nobody will ride them, people prefer to drive, etc.), he goes a step further by presupposing an ideological divide over the issue. It’s “liberals” who want trains, and, further, the real reason these “liberals” want trains is to use them to modify the public’s behavior. These seditious “liberals,” after all, want to “[diminish] Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”
It’s quite unfortunate that Will would frame his complaint in ideological terms, because doing so only drives another wedge between Americans. The simple fact is that those of us who want to see a nationwide passenger rail network re-established believe that restoring rail transportation in the USA is a practical necessity. We don’t want trains for ideological reasons; we’re only seeking solutions to pressing transportation and energy problems.
Will’s argument that train travel would somehow lead the American public to embrace collectivism is extremely weak. I wonder whether, during the heyday of rail transportation in the USA in the early 20th century, anyone thought that trains were leading people down the socialist track. I wonder if the commuters waiting for the Metro in DC, the subway in New York, the T in Boston, or the Metra in Chicago experience pangs of worry that their support of public transportation is subverting American values. And since air travel, like train travel, forces passengers to abide by timetables and only takes people to predetermined destinations, I wonder if air travel might already be corrupting our individualism the way Will maintains that rail travel would.
The facts are these, in case Mr. Will is interested: we have a serious energy crisis and an even graver potential crisis. Petroleum resources are depleting worldwide, and new reserves aren’t coming into production fast enough to offset the rate of depletion. Fuel prices are once again on the rise. Many people can’t afford to operate their automobiles now, and it’s likely to get worse. The civil unrest in the Middle East threatens to disrupt the flow of petroleum and, thus, torpedo our global economy (This column by Michael Klare details how, historically, oil producing nations that have gone through political or social upheavals never return to their previous level of production). In this age of energy instability, do we really want to say no to rebuilding our passenger rail capabilities?
Of course, George Will can disagree with the Obama adminstration’s high speed rail plan if he wishes. (Even some rail advocates, most famously James Howard Kunstler, believe “high speed rail” is a pipe dream and that the money would be far better spent, not to mention go further, if we used it to rebuild a standard-speed system.) Will has the right to disgree with taxpayer-funded rail transportation altogether. But if he wishes to oppose passenger rail, he ought to give us his real arguments. In the Newsweek column, Will dismisses the arguments offered by rail advocates as “flimsy” and claims they point to an ideological purpose. I’m sorry to tell Mr. Will, but that doesn’t work. He need to answer our arguments; if they’re really as flimsy as he maintains, he should have no trouble whatsoever countering them. But because he offers us his ideological red herring instead, I suspect that he doesn’t really have any substantive rebuttals to our reasoning.