Ben Turon, one of our colleagues across the state line in Albany, has a lot to say about high-speed rail after reading the article from the Guardian we shared recently:
Interesting article, but not entirely accurate, I would certainly disagree with the assertion that “countries that have moved fastest on such systems tend to have a highly centralized governmental system, like France’s, if not an out-and-out authoritarian one, like China’s” in that many, many, many nations have built new high-speed lines, including Germany which has a federal government like America.
The difference is the designed and learned impotence and incompetence of the public sector in America, which as has been pointed out in numerous articles, essays, and reports is really very bad at delivering many public goods, including rail infrastructure, at anywhere near the price and quality of other democratic industrial nations in Europe and East Asia.
The New York Times had an excellent opinion piece over the weekend on this subject: “What America Needs Is a Liberalism That Builds.”
The United States was once decades ago the nation that regularly led the world in successful mega-projects, including the Interstate Highway System, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Apollo Program. Beyond the failings of the California High Speed Rail project, today we have NASA struggling well over a decade to return to the Moon with the Artemis Program, with numerous engineering failures leading to the estimated landing date retreating closer to 2030.
The US Navy over the past two decades has so badly managed its ship building program over the past two decades – with the Navy today proposing scrapping a whole class of “useless” warships that have been recently commissioned or are currently under construction – that China will likely not just have the biggest navy in terms of warships as it is today, but in tonnage and capability. To maintain numbers, decades old Cold War ships – along with crews – are being run to pieces to maintain presence around the globe.
Current US warships, in stark contrast to other NATO and East Asian navies, are rust streaked from lack of maintenance because they are always at sea and short on crew. The Navy has been operating at “wartime tempo” in ship deployment since 2000 because there are not enough ships. It’s not just a matter of funding, the nation lacks the industrial capacity to build and maintain a large fleet, or the one it has today, since the Cold War numerous Navy shipyards have been shuttered, with design work for new ships outsourced to private contractors.
China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system and is building the world’s biggest navy not just because it’s a centralized dictatorship, but because it has both the industrial capacity and institutional capacity in the public sector to do so, an achievement that took decades to do, with a lot of learning from best practices overseas.
America won WWII and the Cold War over several powerful dictatorships because it had the industrial capacity and institutional ability to do so. But this was lost in the Post Cold War-era, with the start of the decline beginning in the 1970s as post-Vietnam/Watergate disillusioned liberals and conservative political actors finding ways to make government not work, with Democrats adding layers and layers of red tape while Republicans sought to downsize the workforce of public servants. State capacity: what is it, how we lost it, and how to get it back
And of course, at the same time we have had a private sector that was financialized, with corporate leaders focus on maximizing term profit over long-term success and stability, this Jack Welch modus operandi leading to the wonderful successes at GE (being broken up) and Boeing (run by GE alumni), Boeing being a primary contractor for NASA’s Artemis Program, it being Boeing’s part of the program that have led to repeated failures and delays. “After Jack Welch retired in 2001 with a $417 million severance package, GE went into a tailspin from which it would never recover. His pupils, though, went on to run dozens of other major companies, including Chrysler and Boeing. Most of them failed.” How Jack Welch’s Reign at G.E. Gave Us Elon Musk’s Twitter Feed
So, what can be done for rail? The answer is to not repeat the mistakes of California and New York State (Pataki-era Turboliners and Cuomo-era EIS), but follow the example of Virginia which by building up institutional capacity has been able to steadily increase and successfully execute its passenger rail ambitions. I have written extensively about this on our ESPA website: Rail Planning and Management.
Private sector companies like Brightline for trains and SpaceX for spaceships are also successful (unlike Boeing) because they have the inhouse expertise and the motivation to succeed, their goal is more than just profitability, it’s to create a successful product long-term. This is one positive that separates Elon Musk from Jack Welch; it’s not just about the money, but the technological engineering achievement.
If New York State is ever going to get a decent intercity rail program, then we will need to build up institutional capacity within NYSDOT or outside it to do the majority of the planning and management, and not rely on outside consultants. You actually do see this in California with the sizable rail division within Caltrans (their Christmas card looks like a large class photo) and the regional joint-power authorities that oversee the Amtrak corridor services.
Before you can start building, you need the staff to do the planning, staff whose interest is to the success project and the state agency sponsoring, not some overpaid hired-guns from private consultants. Insourcing and not outsourcing. Private construction contractors are great at building things (and private consultants can offer specialized advice and review) like Six Companies at the Hoover Dam, but you need the planning and oversight expertise of the United States Bureau of Reclamation which conceived, designed, oversaw, and then operated the power dam and reservoir.
The same holds true today, and if California had created something like the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation, then it likely would have more to show for its efforts.