01 March 2011
Automobiles (unlike high speed trains) are the masters of their fate
Brian Micklethwait

George F. Will has evidently been reading Transport Blog.  No, not really, but he does give an answer to the question at the bottom of my previous posting.  What, I asked, is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons - to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they - unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted - are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

For me the problem of railways has always been that they need things to be arranged in lines.  Cars (as I prefer to call them) enable a whole area to come alive.  Trains only really work when, for some fortuitous reasons like a dominant river or river valley, or a coastline with a hostile interior, things are naturally linear.

Or, see below, when you are trundling goods from A to B, also a linear thing, and are not in any hurry about it.

Or if, as was the case for a few decades after trains were invented, there is no other way to travel even slightly fast.

  1. In a similar vein, I am consistently astounded by how often some nitwit or other proposes a ‘new’ and ‘radical’ transport method, involving small (often personal) vehicles, travelling on a versatile web-like network, with routes assigned dynamically depending on the journey required. Often the ONLY difference between the ‘new and revolutionary’ system and road transport as we know and love/hate it today is the removal of any driver control.
    I often wonder what will happen with the current anti-road stuff when motive power moves on from ‘hydrocarbons we found in the ground’ and it becomes clear that roads, being largely dumb strips of hardened ground; don’t care a damn how the vehicles that travel them are powered. A lot of the often-stated ‘negatives’ about cars and trucks are based entirely on assuming fossil fuel power in perpetuity. It’s a lot harder to sell the idea of trains being electric and green when for example cars are electric too.

    Posted by Martin on  01 March 2011 at 11:56 pm

  2. There’s an Atlas Shrugged movie coming soon. I can’t work out if this is good timing or terrible timing for a movie about trains.

    Posted by Rob Fisher on  02 March 2011 at 07:18 pm

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