Precedents are funny things. In legal circles, they can decide a verdict, and even in the arena of ideas and public policy, they can make compelling cases for or against any given direction or innovative track. The choice of a precedent, though — and of which details you use to characterize it — can sometimes obscure as much as it reveals. In telling a story that sounds like a parallel, you might make such a persuasive narrative case for the inevitability of an outcome that no one stops to ask whether the case in point actually has anything to do with your precedent.
This is, in any case, one lesson to be taken from the precedent at the center of a remarkably narrow-minded op-ed on high-speed rail that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. The author is Richard White, esteemed Stanford professor and author of a new book on the 19th-century railroad boom in America that laid track coast to coast and fattened the bank accounts of many a robber baron. As I understand it — the book’s not out yet — White’s main point is that the vaunted “nation-building project” that was the age of rail was actually the birth of modern corporate triumphalism.
Rail boosters, White observes, made promises they never delivered — from cheap shipping to big profits — all the while losing public money while amassing huge personal fortunes. “By encouraging dumb growth,” he argues, “[railroad subsidy] laws sacrificed public good for private gain, and Americans came to regret it.”
Perhaps understandably, when White sizes up the prospects for high-speed rail in 21st-century America, he mainly sees the 19th-century rail boom in fast forward. He’s a cautionary-tale hammer looking for nails. He sees outsized government subsidies, dubious booster claims of ridership rates, and a parasitic corporate sector. White looks at the first undersized little branch of high-speed train travel in the United States — a section of track through California’s Central Valley that will eventually be part of a route linking San Francisco to Los Angeles — and dismisses it as a state-subsidized boondoggle, “a train to nowhere” and “a forlorn monument to hubris.”
History repeats itself, right? That’s just the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time until — but look at me, I'm ramblin’ (and shamelessly ripping off Sam Elliot in "The Big Lebowski" without proper attribution to boot!).
Let’s get back on the rails. Now, I'll admit I’m as invested in the whole precedent thing as anyone — sometimes it feels like my primary occupation is elbowing people in ribs and saying, “Hey, lookit what they’re doing in Europe!” And it could be that Richard White has high-speed rail pegged when he sums it up as Robber Barony 2.0. My knowledge of California state financing isn’t what it could be, so maybe this is a poor use of their limited funds just now.
Still, let’s take a stab at another kind of parallel precedent. Because it might just be that the priorities and exigencies of the 19th century — a time of newly abundant and ever-cheaper fossil energy, seemingly limitless natural resources, and so much empty space the main problem was getting people to fill some of it — has very little in common with the age of climate change, energy scarcity and resource depletion now upon us.
So why not look — just for instance — at another recent, national-scale high-speed rail project that was widely derided out of the gate as an extravagant and unnecessary expense in a country with insufficient population densities to support such trains the way they do in France and Japan? Why not use Spain as our precedent in this little exercise?
Though China is laying more high-speed track, Spain’s got to be the per capita champ. There’s probably no country that has gone as quickly from antiquated rail to state-of-the-art fast trains as quickly as Spain has. Starting with a continental laughingstock of a passenger rail network at the end of the ‘80s, Spain has built out its AVE network with staggering speed. It’s now on track to reach a point by 2020 where 90 percent of all Spaniards will live within 30 miles of a high-speed train station.
It’s also worth noting that Spain was a have-not country entering the European Union when it launched its network, and the rail project was sold to the dubious Spanish public in the face of ferocious political opposition as a nation-building exercise, a way to finally bind together its many disparate parts (one of which — Catalonia — has always seen itself as a separate country, another of which — the Basque Country — has played host to one of the most vicious and long-running terrorist campaigns in the world, with autonomy as its goal). And further worth noting that Spain is not very densely populated by European standards — at 236 people per square mile, it ranks 111th worldwide; California’s density, for the record, is 234 people per square mile.
So what lessons can we learn from Spain's adventures on the high-speed rails? Check in here tomorrow for the exciting, fast-paced conclusion, in which — among other things — you'll learn how Allentown, Penn., could be the next great borough of New York!
To talk in quick 140-character bursts about high-speed trains and much else, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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