Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Riled about rail: Why all the anger over high speed trains?

By Steven Harrod, Special to CNN
  • Critics emotionally identify rail as enabler of feared cultural values, says author
  • Professor: Emotional response to rail creates obstacles to economic growth
  • Many opponents mistakenly see U.S. as rural; it is increasingly urban, says expert
  • U.S. risks trailing other nations in mobility and quality of life, he says

Editor's note: Steven Harrod, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of operations management at the University of Dayton and specializes in the topic of railway operations management. He has traveled more than 25,000 miles, coast to coast, on Amtrak, and throughout the rail networks of the United Kingdom, Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

(CNN) -- "Stop the Train" was, literally, a rallying cry for post-Tea Party Republicans this past November.

Newly elected GOP governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have canceled already-funded high speed rail projects.

Much of the opposition to rail projects appears to stem not from economic arguments, but from fundamental cultural values on what "American" transportation should be.

A perusal of online commentaries about passenger rail stories reveals a curious linkage by writers between passenger rail and "European socialism."

See high speed rail around the world

Never mind that the majority of European passenger rail operates on a commercial basis.

Many critics of passenger rail emotionally identify it as an enabler of cultural values they fear.

Comments: Fact check on high speed rail

Passenger rail is symbolic of many changes in our lives.

High speed rail around the world
Interactive map: Proposed high-speed rails

For example, passenger rail inherently requires central administration. After all, trains cannot depart from a station without authority from a central dispatcher. This very need for central authority is unique to rail and frightening to those who yearn for an individual freedom from authority.

Railroads rank among the most physically restricted of all transportation modes. Trains demand the coordination of every single movement for safety and economy.

'Urban' areas vs. small towns

Second, a passenger rail project labels a route as an "urban" corridor, and provides the infrastructure and incentive for even more urban development.

This contradicts a vision of America, held by many, as a small town society centered on the automobile. In reality, rural towns continue to decline. The 2000 U.S. census classifies 79% of the U.S. population as "urban." Multiple studies project that statistic will reach 86% in 2030.

Steven Harrod has ridden railroads throughout the U.S., Europe and on this train in Wales in 1985.
Steven Harrod has ridden railroads throughout the U.S., Europe and on this train in Wales in 1985.

It is difficult for many to accept the impact of these population trends. Many legislators who are otherwise hostile to passenger rail accept that Amtrak's operations in Boston-New York-Washington are "profitable," or commercially viable, but characterize the East Coast as a region not representative of the United States.

Where high speed railroads are proposed

In reality, the U.S. Census Bureau projects through 2030 that New York's state population will remain flat, but Florida's population will exceed New York's by 50%.

Coffee at 150 mph

Third, most opponents to high speed rail simply have no experience on which to base their opposition. Those wishing to "Take America back" frequently glorify America between the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations, the peak of automobile enthusiasm in the United States.

A typical middle-aged voter knows of passenger trains only from movies like "Silver Streak" or "North by Northwest."

... most opponents to high speed rail simply have no experience on which to base their opposition.
--Steven Harrod, University of Dayton

In my youth, I had the privilege of traveling extensively on traditional long distance passenger trains in North America, and abroad on modern high speed trains in England, France and Italy.

Whenever I discuss passenger rail with opponents, it quickly becomes apparent that they are visualizing Cary Grant or Gene Wilder in a sleeping car, and not the modern efficiency of a cup of coffee at 150 mph.

Rail vs. highways

Finally, particularly in the case of Florida, the tax-saving arguments against these projects ring hollow.

You see, none of these governors actually wishes to turn away the federal money. Each of these governors seeks to redirect those federal funds to highway projects. They are not opposed to government funding of transportation, they are opposed to funding of rail transportation.

High speed rail program faces deep cuts

Florida rejects federal funds
2010: Obama on high speed rail

Passenger rail is a threat to the subsidy of rural highway systems, and rural economic development in general. Like rural free delivery of mail, and the 1935 Rural Electrification Administration, the 1956 interstate highway program provides a subsidy for the development of rural areas with taxes collected in urban areas.

Popular understanding is that the highway funding system is a "pay as you go" system, a socially just system, supported completely by fuel taxes. The assumption is that fuel use is proportional to miles driven, and thus highway funding is proportional to use.

The reality is entirely different.

Fuel taxes are disproportionately paid by urban users, driving on local roads (which, by the way, are often not funded by fuel taxes), and idling in traffic jams.

These funds then frequently support the construction of highways in unpopulated areas for the purpose of economic development.

The last truism is especially upsetting to rail advocates, because while the rail projects in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida were required to show their utility in the first year of operation, highways are frequently built before the economic development and traffic demand exist.

Rationally or not, rural automobile owners perceive a highway in an urban setting to be accessible for their use, and thus part of a shared infrastructure for all.

Public funding of passenger rail, on the other hand, allocates general tax money to an infrastructure investment for a specific geographic region or corridor, and upsets the expectation, however tenuous, that all travelers have equal access to the transportation network.

These emotional responses to passenger rail are troubling and obstacles to economic growth in the United States.

We are at very real risk of falling behind other developed countries, both in economic output, mobility and quality of life.

Take a look at China. China was still operating steam locomotives 10 years ago. China has invested $292 billion in its railways in the last five years. By 2014, China will have twice as many miles of high speed railway as all the rest of the world combined.

For some, the Chinese investment in passenger rail signifies a forward-thinking investment in the future, and something to be envied. For others, it is further evidence that passenger rail is only appropriate for a planned economy, and incompatible with the American way.

Part of complete coverage on
Fact check: High speed rail
Is high-speed rail a smart move -- or a waste of taxpayer dollars? Will it create jobs? Will it turn profits? Experts answer your questions.
High-speed rail funds cut
President Obama's proposed high-speed rail network suffers a serious setback as lawmakers fight over the budget.
Should a degree = green cards?
Amy Wilkinson: If immigrants earning science degrees got green cards, the U.S. could benefit from innovations by 70,000 people.
Where raucous culture rules
Which billion-dollar company is known for awesome employee perks and a raucous work culture? Heck, even business meetings are fun.
Struggling town bets on sunshine
Boulder City, Nevada, is uniquely poised to cash in on a new energy boom.
New York pauses 'fracking'
New York has haulted a controversial natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking" -- until July 1.
Engineers on infrastructure: D minus
Five categories of U.S. infrastructure received a grade of D minus in 2009 from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Featured Deal |