Which lost continent?

New high-spped line under construction – in Morocco.

In a Christmas card from friends in France:

Rémi and Magali … are off to Morocco for a year to build the first TGV line there.

Yes, this is actually happening. From the website of Moroccan railways :
service_tgv

I can’t swear that high-speed rail is really the best way for Morocco to invest its scarce capital, and the project has certainly been greased by a lot of pressure and money from France. Even so, this is the right kind of prestige project, unlike jet fighters or motorways to the airport. It plausibly has large and broadly spread externalities, at least to the urban middle class, if not the peasantry, and is going to be powered in good part by solar thermal energy.

In this area the USA is falling behind not just Europe and China, but Africa. You should be shocked, shocked.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

16 thoughts on “Which lost continent?”

  1. I should be, but somehow I'm not. There will probably be high-speed rail from Hong Kong to Australia before we get in the U.S.

  2. I can live with falling behind Africa in uneconomic infrastructure investments like high speed rail, or the tallest mostly empty skyscraper. It's falling behind other countries in things like fiber optic networks that bugs me.

  3. Uneconomic investments? Dunno. The French TGV lines were built in the expectation that the financial rate of return would be positive but in single figures, but doubled if you take account of externalities. Old document here from around 1990. The recent rises in the cost of road transport, and recognition of climate change externalities, must have increased the social rate of return. The French certainly have no regrets over their TGV investments. I've no data on the Moroccan lines; your suspicions are plausible, but have no relevance to the economic asessment of US projects.

    The tallest empty skyscraper must be one of those in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, which aren't in Africa.

    I fully agree with you on fiber optic networks, see old post here.

  4. James, a couple of relevant facts:

    According to Wikipedia, Amtrak received direct subsidies of 22 cents per passenger mile in 2006. Airlines' yield per revenue passenger mile (their total revenue–not just profit–per paying passenger per mile) is typically in the 12-to-14-cent range. In other words, the US government could have saved at least 35 percent by simply making Amtrak disappear, and instead purchasing an airline ticket for each would-be Amtrak passenger. (Of course, many of Amtrak's passengers are metropolitan-area commuters, for whom flights wouldn't be an option. All of those passengers could presumably be issued bus tickets, which are comparable to airline tickets in cost per passenger mile.)

    2. A quick survey of one-way fares on Amtrak and Expedia reveals that even on high-volume Northeast corridor routes (the ones for which Amtrak presumably is on the best competitive footing, compared to airlines), lowest airfares consistently undercut Amtrak's fares. (The BTS chart linked to above confirms that the overall picture is much worse, with Amtrak revenue per intercity passenger mile more than double that for airlines or bus lines.) In other words, Amtrak passengers are selecting for comfort and convenience over price when choosing rail over air or bus travel.

    And all this is without high-speed rail, which would obviously increase both the necessary subsidy and the fares charged.

    Now, perhaps you can explain to me why the government should massively increase its rail subsidy in order to make an expensive luxury travel option even more expensive and luxurious for those well-heeled enough to afford it. I'd be fascinated to read that argument.

  5. Dan,

    Your observations re Amtrak are accurate but Amtrak is, I beg to point out, a sad lash-up passing in most parts of the country for passenger service. Except in a few select corridors, it is indeed an excursion service that was created in order to camouflage the death of substantive passenger service throughout the nation. Passenger service was long been subsidized by rail post office funds; when the PO went to trucks and air shipping, the railroads did their dead level best to get shut of the pesky passenger service once and for all.

    My guess is that Amtrak wasn't _meant_ to survive, much less provide competititon with air carriers.

    And yes, those air fares undercut Amtrak, but the former are creeping up, and so are the irritations, restrictions and humiliations associable with air travel. These must somehow factor into that social rate of return. My eight year old daughter hits the right note, I think, when she tells her friends about how she didn't have to take her shoes off until she sat down on her train seat and could put her feet up.

  6. David, I don't deny for a second that for short inter-city hops, at least, a well-run passenger rail service can provide a superior travel experience. The point is that it will always come at a substantially higher cost. What, then, is the argument for massively subsidizing this boutique travel option? If the goal is to use public funds to make travel more accessible to everyone, then the most cost-effective approach would be to pour the subsidies into making air travel cheaper. If the goal is to use public funds to make travel more comfortable and convenient for the average traveler, then the most cost-effective approach would be to pour the subsidies into making air travel more comfortable and convenient. Pouring public subsidies into making high-end rail travel even more high-end would only benefit the few well-heeled travelers who can afford to pay the premium. One might as well subsidize luxury ocean liners.

    As for the security issues, you might want to ask, say, the Spanish whether passenger rail transport is any less vulnerable.

  7. "Airlines’ yield per revenue passenger mile (their total revenue–not just profit–per paying passenger per mile) is typically in the 12-to-14-cent range. "

    Are airlines subsidized at all? Frankly, if they're not, their lobbyists would be the most pathetic people in the world community of lobbyists.

  8. Barry, before deregulation, the airlines didn't need subsidies because they were protected by a heavily regulated market that allowed them to extract healthy profits without facing cutthroat competition. Deregulation changed that, but the precedent of no subsidies persisted. (For example, airport building and upkeep is fully funded through taxes on airfares.)

    Since then, the only subsidies I know of are the government bailouts of "troubled" airlines–certainly not trivial, but much more sporadic than the subsidies of other types of transportation (including, of course, automobiles).

  9. Pouring public subsidies into making high-end rail travel even more high-end would only benefit the few well-heeled travelers who can afford to pay the premium. One might as well subsidize luxury ocean liners.

    Have you actually spent any time or effort looking at real HSR where it's actually working? This is certainly not true of Spain, France, Japan, or dare I say it, anywhere with operational HSR.

    As for the security issues, you might want to ask, say, the Spanish whether passenger rail transport is any less vulnerable.

    Congratulations, you have marked yourself as the kind of person who a) makes terrorism arguments whatever the issue, because it's easier to suggest your opponents are traitors, and b) knows absolutely nothing about their subject. The 2004 attacks occurred on three *suburban* trains, one at the suburban junction of Alcala de Henares and the others in a Madrid terminus used exclusively by suburban trains – a little like attacking the LI&RR or MetroNorth.

  10. Alex, I assume your quibble is with my use of the word, "few". Fair enough–just as lots of people occasionally fly first-class or use limousine services in the US, lots of people occasionally take high-speed trains in Europe. But high-speed rail is considerably more expensive than conventional rail, and discount airfares routinely undercut them both. So my point stands: price-conscious customers avoid high-speed rail, and its subsidies (I'd be astonished if they weren't much larger than those for either alternative) are thus spent disproportionately on passengers who can afford to choose a relatively expensive travel option.

    As for the stuff about the Spanish rail bombing, (1) I have no idea what difference it makes that the railway station served commuters rather than inter-city passengers; (2) I was responding to David Ware's introduction of the anti-terrorist security issue, not introducing it myself; and (3) about your bizarre inference as to "the kind of person" I am, the less said, the better.

  11. (1) I have no idea what difference it makes that the railway station served commuters rather than inter-city passengers;

    Well – it's not an argument against HSR. It is irrelevant. It is, however, an example of waving the bloody shirt, using terrorism as an all purpose emotional manipulator.

    Further, to use some actual data here – I agree this is a shocking way to conduct oneself, but sometimes it's unavoidable – I just checked prices on the SNCF booking site for a couple of trips. I could travel Paris-Marseille return tomorrow for €80; Paris-Strasbourg return in a week's time for €29. This does not strike me as being as expensive as first-class liner travel (although I could go first class for €34). Lille-Marseille tomorrow for €100 return or €38 next week. If you're willing to play the yield management game to the limit, you could get from Paris to Nice for €15, but like all "wahey! eleventyone! cheap fares!" yield management promos and especially the low-cost airline ones, this is unrepresentative.

    There were 97 million individual journeys by TGV in 2006, which is the most recent figure in the French Wikipedia article. There are about 65 million Frenchmen.

  12. Alex, enough with the "bloody shirt" crap. David Ware argued that air transport was uniquely subject to the threat of terrorism and its attendant inconveniences, and I was simply contradicting that point–that's all. Having been in a London train station twenty years ago, where garbage cans were banned for security reasons, and where the left luggage attendant completely unpacked and repacked my bag before storing it, I stand by my point.

    Your comparison of TGV fares with first-class conventional rail fares pretty much says it all. Normal people taking normal trips don't travel first-class. Your next statistic confirms that: 97 million (presumably one-way) trips is less than a round-trip a year per person, which must be a tiny fraction of all intercity trips–and probably of all intercity rail trips–taken by Frenchmen in 2006. It wouldn't surprise me, in fact, if the rate of first-class air travel in the US surpasses that. How would you feel about massive subsidies for first-class air travel?

  13. Your comparison of TGV fares with first-class conventional rail fares pretty much says it all.

    I didn't compare TGV fares with first-class conventional rail fares. The only first-class fare I cited was a first-class TGV fare, and it was thirty-four euros for 1000 km at 300 km/h in first.

    Further, you appear to imagine that there is no statistical distribution for travel in France. That every man-jack of those 65 million people travels just as much. This is ridiculous.

    and probably of all intercity rail trips–taken by Frenchmen in 2006.

    Probably not, as the main rail routes are worked with TGVs. The latest lot of rolling stock has two decks, like a Paris commuter train! Do you imagine that Alstom built them because the single deck ones were empty? Out of motiveless malignancy?

  14. Alex, if you weren't comparing TGV fares to first-class fares, then what did you mean by, "This does not strike me as being as expensive as first-class liner travel"?

    And yes, there is certainly a statistical distibution on frequency of rail travel in France. Presumably, for example, there's a core of business/government professionals who take weekly round-trips on the TGV on somebody else's dime. Let's say there are maybe a quarter-million of them, taking on average 40 round-trips a year (80 "distinct journeys"). That's 20 million out of 97 million, right there. Then there are probably another five million well-heeled Frenchmen who use TGV for all their normal travel, averaging, say, 5 round-trips (ten "journeys") a year, for another 50 million journeys. The remaining 27 million journeys would then be spread over the remaining 90 percent of the population–meaning fewer than a quarter took even a single round-trip on the TGV that year.

    These are just speculative numbers, of course. But I challenge you to suggest a plausible distribution that doesn't make the TGV look just as exclusive.

    (One more thing: I would guess that those double-decker cars are primarily a cost-saver. They allow the rail line to carry its current passenger volume–however large or small–on half as many trains, each of which has twice the capacity, yet still fits existing platform lengths.)

  15. Yes: they built them to double the route capacity. Does that suggest to you that nobody uses it?

    if you weren’t comparing TGV fares to first-class fares, then what did you mean by, “This does not strike me as being as expensive as first-class liner travel”?

    Ahem…

    One might as well subsidize luxury ocean liners.

    It might improve the coherence of your argumentation if you were to read your own comments.

    Further, here's an interview with the director of SNCF. By 2008, there were 120 million trips/year of which 70% were undertaken for personal reasons. The load factor is 77%.

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