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All Aboard the Collectivist Train

Thursday, 17 March 2011 10:44 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed | name.

All Aboard the Collectivist Train
New Mexico extended a rail line in 2008 for people commuting from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. (Photo: Rick Scibelli, Jr. / The New York Times)

Columnist George Will wrote a piece recently for Newsweek on President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail initiative that was truly bizarre.

“So why is America’s ‘win the future’ administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior,” Mr. Will wrote. “Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons — to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use … the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

It is astonishing to see Mr. Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line with regard to train travel.

Of the three modes of mechanized transport I use, trains are by far the most liberating. Planes are awful: there is usually a long wait to clear security, then you have to sit with your electronics turned off during takeoff and landing, and there’s no place to go if you want to stand up. Cars? Well, aside from traffic jams, the problem with cars is that you have to drive them, which prevents you from doing anything else.

But on a train I can read, listen to music, surf the Web or go to the cafe. So I prefer to take the train when possible, even if the trip is a couple of hours longer, because it’s much higher-quality time.

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Now, it’s true that planes are much faster, and will always have this advantage. But there are some costs associated with plane travel that can be avoided or minimized on a train trip, and those costs are the same whether a person is taking a transcontinental flight or going on a quick hop halfway up the East Coast. You have to get to the airport on the outskirts of town to embark, for example, and travel from it to your destination when you disembark; this is a greater distance, usually, than getting to and from train stations, which are usually in central locations.

Suppose that I put the fixed costs of plane travel — including the extra time spent in security lines and boarding — at 2 hours. And suppose that planes fly at 500 miles an hour, while our new high-speed trains travel 200 miles an hour. Then the crossover point would be at 667 miles. It would still be much faster to travel across the continent by plane — but not between Boston and Washington, or between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

At short distances, there’s a

similar crossover between trains and cars, related to whether their routes run directly to and from the desired destinations.

But my point is that there is a niche that could be served by fast trains. If trains represent soulless collectivism, count me in. 

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.

Last modified on Thursday, 17 March 2011 13:24