America is a Big Country, Made up of Smaller Units

There were a lot of problems with the hatchet job on high-speed rail by Robert Samuelson that The Washington Post decided to run yesterday. But all you really need to know about the quality of the column is that it actually advanced the following argument: “Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can’t compete with planes.”

Of course Samuelson is correct to think that a Miami-Seattle line isn’t going to work. But why should America’s large scale counsel against HSR in general? After all, if instead of defining Spain’s high-speed rail system as serving “Spain” we decide that it’s something that exists in “Europe” we’ll swiftly discover that Europe is even larger than the United States. By Samuelson’s logic, whether we count a Madrid-Seville train line as part of Spain or as part of Europe matters critically to its viability. Or if Japan somehow annexed a huge swath of Siberian wasteland suddenly the bullet trains between Japanese cities wouldn’t work.

The real world answer to this problem, of course, is that we shouldn’t build high-speed passenger rail across America’s giant expanses of empty land. We should build it in the places that aren’t like that! Florida is geographically smaller than Spain and more densely populated. If Spanish cities can be beneficially connected by high-speed rail, then so can Florida’s cities. From Miami to Tampa is 260 miles. From Miami to Orlando is 236 miles. Orlando to Jacksonville is 140 miles. A Tampa-Jacksonville route that passes through Orlando is 224 miles. Samuelson even cites France’s 259 people per square mile as possessing sufficient density to support HSR — in Florida there are 338 people per square mile.

Obviously the fact that there’s a network of cities in Florida that could be productively linked by high-speed passenger rail doesn’t mean that we should have train lines linking up every random pair of towns on the empty northern plains. But by the same token, the existence of large sparsely populated areas of the country doesn’t mean that the densely inhabited areas where most of the people live shouldn’t have trains.