From Boston Herald (an op ed piece): U.S. rail boosters are missing the bus
Not long ago, I wrote about how the private sector outraces and laps government. While governments dither and dispute, the private sector discovers.
Now across my laptop comes news of another area in which private sector actors have overtaken government. Again an older technology has been improved and adapted to fill a need, while government dithers. The old technology in this case is buses.
While the Obama administration has been desperately seeking to spend $53 billion on so-called high-speed rail lines, private businessmen have developed Chinatown and Megabus lines that provide intercity service that has attracted legions of price-conscious travelers.
Chinatown bus service (they go by several names) started in 1998 to provide a cheap way for Asian immigrants to get from New York to Boston. You lined up at the curb, paid your $20 fare to the driver and settled into a comfortable bus for four hours or so.
Now there’s service to multiple destinations (including gambling casinos) from New York and on the West Coast, too. And competitors have arisen. Megabus routes exist between Maine and Memphis and Minneapolis, notably including many college towns.
The buses have bathrooms, AC power outlets and free wi-fi. They’re not as fast as the much more expensive Acela train, but they tend to run on schedule.
Chinatown and Megabus operators opted for a model that works for travelers for whom money is scarce and time plentiful. Who needs a station? Intercity buses can occupy curb space briefly just as city buses do. Who needs multiple stops? You can make money on people who want to go from one specific location to another.
Needless to say, the cost to the taxpaying public is minimal.
Private bus operators have effectively taken a 100-year-old technology, the bus, and adapted it seamlessly to the 21st century.
Compare high-speed rail. It is tethered to enormous stations that must be built or refurbished and limited to particular routes that, once the rails are laid down, cannot be changed except at prohibitive expense.
And it is enormously costly. In just two years, the estimated cost of the Obama administration’s pet project, California high-speed rail, in the “flatter than Kansas” Central Valley has risen from $7.1 billion to $13.9 billion.
Operating costs almost always end up higher than fares. And fares always turn out to be expensive, comparable to airfare if you book a popular flight the day before your trip.
So high-speed rail is a form of transportation on which government subsidizes business travelers. You don’t see backpackers anymore on the Acela or Amtrak trains from Washington to New York. They’re taking the Chinatown bus or one of its competitors.
Finally, most of the high-speed rail lines the Obama administration is touting are a whole lot slower than France’s TGV or Japan’s bullet train.
So the private sector provides cheap intercity transportation while government struggles to waste $53 billion. Please remind me which is the wave of the future.
Author Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner.