O'Toole Says Trains Are For Tourists

Randall O'Toole- in a curiously non-audio opinion piece from NPR- says that trains around the world are fun but are otherwise overly expensive transportation systems used mainly by the elite.

"Japan and France have each spent as much per capita on high-speed rail as we spent on our Interstate Highway System. The average American travels 4,000 miles and ships 2,000 ton-miles per year on the interstates. Yet the average resident of Japan travels only 400 miles per year on bullet trains, while the average resident of France goes less than 300 miles per year on the TGV - and these rail lines carry virtually no freight.

Throughout the world and throughout history, passenger trains have been used mainly by a wealthy elite and have never given the average people of any nation as much mobility as our interstate highways.

Moreover, the interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees, while high-speed rail requires huge subsidies from general taxpayers."

Full Story: Trains Are For Tourists



Assertions without foundations

As is typical with such puff-pieces from the Cato Institute, there's a surplus of opinion coupled with a deficit of fact. Note the subliminal cherry-picking and sleight-of-hand extrapolation of examples, i.e.:

Japan + (Western Europe) = The World

And the hilarious assertion that, "Moreover, the interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees."? Oh, please, Mr. O'Toole, stop, you'll give me a stitch in me side! Check out the Wikipedia entry:


(it's more like 56% of construction and operating costs paid by gas taxes, user fees and tolls).

Of course, Mr. O'Toole's whole argument would be undercut by the inclusion of the Indian Railway System and/or those of the (former) Eastern Block, but why ruin a grand bit of blarney with such contradictory statistics?

But Mark Twain, (as always) said it better:

Life on the Mississippi (1884):

“In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-pole. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo [Illinois] and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science [OR 'Big Lie' Editorials - Esullivan] . One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Award For O'Toole

Award for the most disingenuous opening paragraph goes to this article, beginning:

"When I went to Europe, I loved to ride the trains, especially the French TGV and other high-speed trains. So President Obama's goal of building high-speed rail in the United States sounded good at first."

Does anyone believe that, after making a career of supporting the automobile and opposing public transportation and becoming a Cato Institute Fellow, O'Toole initially reacted to Obama's proposals for high-speed rail by supporting them?

But the truly pernicious distortion in this article is:

"automobiles are the most egalitarian form of travel ever invented. Throughout the developed world, people of all income levels regularly travel by car, while only a small number of people regularly ride trains."

In reality, the developed nations' overuse of the automobile has begun to leave the developing nations without enough fuel for essential uses and without enough food. A couple of years ago, demand for ethanol by Americans drove up corn prices enough to cause hunger in Mexico, and this problem will probably become worse in the future. Is this egalitarian?

Advice for O'Toole: live simply, so that others simply may live.

Charles Siegel

Cato = Exxon Mobil

The comments following O'Toole's article on the NPR site, including a few of his own, were interesting. The comment period is now closed though. Who knew that the libertarian Cato club gets major funding from Exxon-Mobil?

No matter how we fuel today's vehicles, they present a severe impediment to walking, bicycling and mass transit (rail and bus). The argument that suggests the subsidy of mass transit is unecomical may be the short-term view. The healthier long-term economy may need rely upon all these basic modes of urban/suburban travel.

That said, I'm not much a fan of high-speed rail. These 200+mph trains are overkill, if you ask me. Nixing electrification on the California project would cut its cost by 30%. Non-electrified Talgo-type trainsets can reach a top speed of 150mph with the right locomotive. Fast enough. The needed work is on the trackbed. Amtrak already runs trains through the corridor between Sacramento and Bakersfield.

seriously--no, REALLY

Why does anyone listen to this guy? He distorts the facts and his group is funded by conservative ideologues.

Let's review:

Gas taxes DO NOT fully fund highways and roads--in some states, gas taxes don't even make it into the highway fund. Most gas taxes are a flat-rate tax (not a percentage of sale price) that falls far short of funding highway maintenance, never mind construction.

In some states, user fees/tolls pay some construction and maintenance costs. Perhaps some states fully recover costs, but I don't have complete information on this. In many states, there are NO user fees/tolls, which is why they are termed "freeways."

Roadway/highway construction and maintenance are, therefore, very substantially funded by subsidies--unless there's a tollbooth at the end of your driveway, your automobile trip is subsidized, at least in part.

Contrast that with buses, which are REQUIRED in most places to recover a minimum percentage of the cost of the trip. Same with trains. Bicyclists and pedestrians pay taxes that are used for pavement and their taxes are not modified to reflect the degree to which they use the pavement.

"Throughout the world" only rich people ride trains is silly and simply not true. See all of Asia for the most obvious evidence to the contrary. Also true in other parts of the world, but often to a lesser extent.

Speaking generally, cars are a measure of wealth (although in places like California, even the poor MUST drive in order to do the business of daily life) and transit is used by the less well off. So the thought that only rich people ride trains is, on its face, absurd.

Please stop wasting good space on this guy.

Apples vs. Oranges

I'm impressed with O'Toole's sleight of hand in consistently comparing miles traveled on high-speed rail with miles traveled on the Interstate highway system. High-speed rail is only (or almost only) used for intercity travel, whereas the Interstate system is used for both inter- and intra-city travel.

Wouldn't it be great if debates on transportation took into account the life-cycle costs of the different modes, honest accounts of their benefits and drawbacks, and only relevant apples-to-apples comparisons? You'd think so, but libertarian "think tanks" are really only interested in cherry-picking data so they can stay in their cars indefinitely.

O'Toole ignores the facts

In answer to the poorly thought our argument of Mr O’Toole:
As he points out, in 45 years, the Japanese Shinkansen has reported no deaths, compare that to the 42,636 people who died on US roads in 2004 alone, with US road deaths having an annual economic cost of over $3.5bn. Skilled people are lost to the economy and then there are the health and care costs associated with injuries. So have the US Interstate roads paid for themselves?


58% of a cars environmental footprint occurs when it is manufactures, so improved performance doesn’t have the impact that Mr O’Toole assumes. Exactly what materials will be used for the batteries of all these electric cars of the future, where are the materials for the battery going to come, how will they be mined extracted and will these batteries be suitable for use in extreme temperatures?

Trains like EuroStar are already contributing minimal emissions, so cars will have to improve more than Mr O’Toole can imagine… And what about PM10, and the health effects of these? Has he wondered where his brake pads and tyres wear away too? Has he thought that they might be in our lungs and contributing to the poor visibility of many cities?

Why do Americans travel 4,000 miles per year? Why do Americans need to ship 2,000ton-miles on the interstates? The French ship less as they consume more local produce, living in happier, sustainable communities, purchasing from local growers and shop keepers, whereas Americans shop in huge out of town, car dependent Big Box stores.

What of the 10% of Americans without cars? Why does Mr O’Toole exclude these people? What happens when the baby boomers get too old to drive themselves, or peak-oil makes it less affordable to keep on driving?

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