News & Politics

@AOC and the Magic Choo Choo

Liberals love their choo choos.

Look, I get it. I love trains. I come from a railroad family. I love riding trains, I love seeing trains, I used to live right next to railroad tracks in California and unlike my neighbors, I loved hearing them roll past at night. When I lived in Connecticut, I far preferred taking the train into New York City or Boston to trying to drive, and when I lived on Manhattan I liked riding the subway.

But the usual story is something like “the United States should have a world-class passenger train system, with high-speed rail like the French and Japanese have.” @AOC’s official-no-fake-no-just-a-draft-Republican-conspiracy-theory-why-are-you-all-being-mean? Green New Deal FAQ wanted one so good that air travel would become “unnecessary.”

Sounds great, and I love the covert “MAGA” aspect of the pitch, but it has one great big, pretty much insurmountable problem: America.

Not the country, the geography. People living on the coasts just don’t realize how big this country is. I was discussing it on Twitter with a Swiss who lives in Zürich who was telling me how great the Europeans trains are — and they really are comfortable, pretty fast, have great scenery to look at — but, well, let’s compare Colorado and Switzerland. Similar climate, mountains, pretty scenery, cranky natives who are suspicious of newcomers. But let’s go to the maps:

Colorado is 6.5 times as big, has 60 percent of the population — and, it happens, about two-thirds of the gross “national” product per capita.

Compare the lower 48 states with all of Western Europe:

The truth is, we’re in flyover country out here. The coastal clerisy don’t realize that on their five-hour flight from LAX to LGA they’re traveling 2,500 miles. Now, back in the days of the Super Chief and the 20th Century Limited, you could make that trip by train in only 76 hours, not counting changing trains in Chicago. (It takes longer on Amtrak.)

So, let’s say we could get high-speed trains for the whole trip that averaged 200 miles per hour, and could travel as the crow flies: that’s 12.5 hours.

Except of course you couldn’t because the crow is flying over some of the highest mountains in the country. You’re going to need rights of way, and you can’t use the rights of way that exist because they’re not suited for that kind of speed and they’re pretty full anyway. Also, it wouldn’t do to interrupt the existing freight lines, which actually are about as good as anywhere in the world.

You might be able to cut the old route’s time in half, making it only 38 hours.

University of North Texas Library, Government Documents Section

Now, that’s not going to be acceptable for important people like members of Congress and Washington Post opinion writers. So, when air travel is made “unnecessary,” that will be with the caveat that sometimes it actually is necessary. You can look forward to “is this trip really necessary?” and “do you have a signed ration card from your state’s Travel Coordination Office” and “sorry, you can’t board, you’ve been bumped by the assistant associate chief of staff of Senator Ocasio-Cortez. You can stand by but there’s no telling when a seat for someone with your priority will come up.”


Now, a really good high-speed rail system would be great. Let’s say something that can travel at 500 miles per hour or better. Something that can go to every major city, and with slower locals that only travel 200-300 miles an hour to service smaller, more out-of-the-way spots. Something that doesn’t need new rights of way, and isn’t impeded by the need to go through mountain passes or build new bridges. Something where the rights of way are as free as air.

But hoping for something like that is just crazy talk, right?