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Why We Can’t Have Nice Trains

February 13, 2019, 4:59 PM UTC
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom Holds Press Conference At St. Anthony Foundation
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 08: Governor-elect Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
Jane Tyska—MediaNews Group/The Mercury News Digital First Media via Getty Im

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What is it with the U.S. and high-speed rail?

On Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom iced a plan to build a fast train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, confirming this country won’t experience modern rail travel for another generation—if ever. Meanwhile, China has recently built thousands of miles of new tracks, while the people of France and Japan enjoy rail networks that whisk them smoothly between major cities.

To be fair to Newsom, he made the right call. The projected price of California’s ambitious rail plans had jumped another $13 billion, even as a proposed link between the Bay Area and Los Angeles felt as far off as San Francisco’s chances of winning the World Series this year. As a consolation prize, the governor promised the state will get a 119 mile high-speed link between two Central Valley towns—a link that few people seem to want or need.

None of this is surprising, but it’s still discouraging. This is especially so since San Francisco, one of the destinations for the now-abandoned high-speed rail network, has a greater concentration of wealth and tech talent than anywhere in the world. If any group of people can figure out how to build a modern train line, surely these folks can. Part of the problem may be that a good portion of these tech savants (Elon Musk excluded) are directing their genius at perfecting delivery apps rather than developing infrastructure the U.S. desperately needs.

The bigger issue, though, is political. As Fortune CEO Alan Murray has pointed out on numerous occasions, the country’s legislative process has devolved into a torpid, dysfunctional swamp. And the current partisan clamor is unlikely to bring a fix anytime soon.

The G.O.P. was quick to dunk on California’s troubled rail project, tweeting “Reality: 1, #GreenNewDeal: 0.” It was an easy dig, but also one that does nothing to explain what the state should do instead to ameliorate its benighted freeway system. Democrats, meanwhile, are unlikely to look at how their own mania for regulation might be making infrastructure so prohibitive in the first place. For instance, why does a mile of subway in New York (another deep-blue state) cost seven times more than in other cities around the world?

I’m not sure what the answer to all this might be, other than to say it probably involves more centrist solutions. And I’m not bitter. I just want to ride a high-speed train between two big American cities before I die.