Randal O'Toole's Slam Dunk
By David Henderson
Randal O’Toole’s recent book, Romance of the Rails, is a slam-dunk. Actually, that is an understatement. The book is full of slam-dunks. In chapter after chapter, O’Toole, a long-time fan of railroads, puts his fandom aside and shows what a disaster government subsidies to, and regulations of, rail transportation have been. The book, subtitled “Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need,” is a fact-filled and numerate critique of some aspects of government-subsidized rail transit, whether it be passenger trains, subways, low-capacity rail, or high-speed rail. His bottom line is that in case after case, governments have turned the clock back on transportation, resisting and trying to reverse its progress.
O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has been writing about transportation for many years and the depth of his knowledge shows. Chapters One through Five are largely about the successes of the early railroads. Chapters Six and Seven document the decline of urban rail transit and intercity passenger trains in response to market forces. Chapters Eight through Seventeen document the hugely expensive methods governments have used to preserve and extend rail transit, including subways, with little or no positive effect on passenger use of those modes of transit.
One of the most interesting and positive characters in the book is Ralph Budd, an early innovator in rail transportation. In 1934, Budd delivered the Zephyr to the Burlington Railroad. The Zephyr was a “streamliner,” a light train that could travel at over 100 miles an hour using minimal fuel. To show off its virtues on a 1,015-mile trip from Denver to Chicago, Burlington had guards at all of its 1,700 grade crossings so that the train would not have to slow. The train arrived just 13 hours and five minutes later. The cost of the fuel used? $15. I emailed O’Toole to ask if that was a typo. It was not. O’Toole explained that the Zephyr used only 412 gallons of diesel fuel, one of the cheapest fuels around. As a fellow train buff, I recall seeing a mid-1930s ad in Fortune with the saying “Have dinner in Chicago and breakfast in Denver.”
The rest of the book is pretty much downhill from there—not, I hasten to add, in quality, but in negative finding after negative finding.
These are the opening 4 paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “Romance and Reality: A Review of Romance of the Rails by Randal O’Toole,” Econlib, November 4, 2019.
In case you can’t tell, I loved the book.
Some other excerpts:
No book that covers the decline of urban rail transit would be complete without the obligatory section on the alleged streetcar conspiracy. I will not tell all the details here. The highlights are that, in 1974, an antitrust lawyer named Bradford Snell claimed in front of a Congressional committee that General Motors had tried to destroy urban rail systems in order to sell more cars. Snell averred that, in 1947, the federal government had brought an antitrust suit against General Motors for trying to destroy transit systems. A simple search of 1947 antitrust cases by a Congressional aide would have shown Snell’s statement to be false: the 1947 antitrust charge against GM was for monopolizing the sale of its buses. Moreover, although O’Toole does not point this out, basic economics says that monopolizing an industry causes the price of the industry’s output to rise. That makes Snell’s charge against GM all the more ludicrous because a higher price for buses makes the switch from rail less likely, not more. I recall George Hilton, my transportation economics professor at UCLA, telling us in class how absurd Snell’s claims were. O’Toole references Hilton’s testimony on the issue before Congress. O’Toole also quotes two transit historians’ conclusion that if there was a conspiracy to destroy streetcar companies, the feds should “indict everyone who bought an automobile” between 1920 and 1950.
Unfortunately, the myth did not die. It lived on in popular books and in the 1988 Disney movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. O’Toole even cites Portland State University planning Professor Martha Bianco’s argument that the movie and an error-filled 60 Minutes episode helped persuade Congress to pass the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, both of which penalized cars and started large subsidies to rail transit.
And one of my biggest surprises, on “light rail:”
One of the most eye-popping and informative chapters of O’Toole’s book is titled “Low-Capacity Rail.” Low-capacity rail is what is usually called “light rail.” But light rail, notes O’Toole, is a misnomer. He writes, “A typical light-rail car built today weighs about 105,000 pounds, while a typical subway or heavy-rail car weighs 83,000 pounds.” Nor are the rails they ride on lighter than subway rails. Why, then, is it called light rail? O’Toole explains by drawing on the Glossary of Transit Terminology. It’s called “light” because it has a light volume traffic capacity. In short, light means low capacity. The real high capacity carriers, shows O’Toole, are buses. Not surprisingly, “light rail” does not clearly boost transit ridership. In ten of the 17 urban areas that have built “light rail” since 1980, trips per capita and transit’s share of commuting fell. Those two measures rose in only three of the 17 urban areas. The Los Angeles County transit agency’s experience is instructive. It cut bus service to minority neighborhoods to fund more-expensive rail lines to middle-class neighborhoods. The NAACP sued and got a court order restoring bus service for ten years. But after the court order expired, the LA transit agency cut bus service and built more rail lines. Result: the system lost five bus riders for every new light-rail rider. Interestingly, the fatality rate for light-rail riders is four times that of bus passengers.
Read the whole thing.