Building a High Speed Rail System Like It Is 1892

1982-CRHThe other day I came across a report published by the University of Illinois’s Railway Technology Center, entitled “Privatization Versus Public Works for High-Speed Rail (HSR) Project by Tsung-Chung Kao, Yung-Cheng (Rex) Lai, and Mei-Cheng Shih.  Essentially this paper compares two very similar high speed rail projects in Taiwan and South Korea.  The Taiwan HSR was a private franchise while the South Korean HSR was funded and managed by the government.  No surprise but the private Taiwan high speed rail system came in closer to the budget and closer to the planned start date than the government run endeavor in South Korea.  In fact, some of the reasons for delays in South Korea seem comical.  For example, just naming a station became a long and difficult process.  Then again, there was the South Korean Buddhist nun who staged multiple hunger strikes in protects of the tunnel being built UNDER a mountain.

So can you guess which side the US high speed rail project falls into?  Yea, with the amount of lawsuits with California’s HSR program, the debacles in Wisconsin, now a potential scandal in Florida’s with All Aboard Florida, and of course the fact that Acela only operates for 150 mph for 28 miles…I think we might be making the South Koreans look like All Stars.

The tough part is, to be successful a high speed rail system really needs to be a bi-partisan endeavor.  Really, a high speed rail project will bring benefits that both the Democrats and Republicans can both claim as successes.  However, instead rail has become a highly polarized issue which in the end just makes any railroad program look like a pork barrel project.

However, perhaps we need to get into the hot tub time machine and go back to how most of our public rail systems today were originally built.  For example, in the 1800’s Chicago wanted a mass transit system.  So what Chicago did was offer franchises to companies that would build the system.  Under this franchise agreement the company would build and operate the system, with an option to transfer after a certain lease period.  Now, it’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of corruption in allocation of the franchises…this was 19th Century Chicago after all.  However, the Chicago L system got built by such companies as the South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company and the Lake Street Elevated Railway Company. Now technically those companies that built the rail eventually did go bankrupt; BUT a transit system got built with minimal public funds and built more efficiently than had the city of Chicago built the system itself.

Now get back into the hot tub and let’s travel back to 2014.  This type of arrangement still exists today.  In fact, this is how airlines typically build their airline terminals.  For example, if at Washington’s Dulles International United Airlines were to build a new F Concourse; United would design and pay for most (if not all) of the construction.  However, the terminal is actually leased from the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA).  If United were to build and then leave Dulles, the lease would expire and concourse F would be given back to the MWAA (an ultimately the State of Virginia). Essentially MWAA gives United Airlines a franchise.

In a similar fashion, this is how Denver is expanding its transit system to Denver International and its Eagle 3 consortium.  Essentially private industry takes the risk (and potential rewards) under the direction of a government agency (and not politicians).

So why can’t we just have the government issue a rail franchise to a private consortium and provide cheap capital/financing to that company…like the Taiwanese?…I don’t know, but it makes more sense to me than the current situation.

After all, imagine what the internet and the world wide web have looked like today if politicians had built the first web browser (which btw the first web browser, Mosaic, was also developed also at University of Illinois – Champaign).  It would have taken 20 years longer.  There would have been no Netscape, Firefox, or Chrome; and Alta Vista would still be the primary search engine (too bad Google). Also, the states of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida would have opted out of the internet citing that the itwould be a complete waste of money.  After all, who would really want to use a computer at home to buy stuff from a bookstore called “Amazon” or a song from an iTunes; when there are so many good stores down right down the street.

… Perhaps we should start thinking like those in 1892 again.

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