Even as it becomes ever more clear that last week’s Amtrak horror in Philadelphia had nothing to do with, as the refrain goes, “America’s Failing Infrastructure,™” many in the media and lobbying spheres have continued to demand greater spending on rail. As part of that campaign, this week, a New York Times article attempted to make the case that, as the headline put it, “Low U.S. Rail Spending Leads to Poor Safety.”
The article is deeply flawed.
For one, the Times frets that “Over the past decade, even developing countries, including India, Russia and Turkey, have consistently spent far greater shares of their G.D.P. on rail.” But the even in that sentence is woefully misplaced. Of course developing countries spend more on building out rail infrastructure than do developed ones. That’s because they’re, er . . . developing. For the same reason, developing countries obviously spend relatively more on new roads, power plants, and sewage system than do developed countries. The article also appears to conflate spending on new rail lines versus spending to maintain extant routes.
An even greater problem with the article is that, in attempting to prove that the U.S. spends far too little on rail, it relies on ludicrous measurement. “Per capita, the United States also comes up short In 2011, the most recent year for which comparative statistics are available, it spent roughly $35 per person on all rail infrastructure,” writes the Times (italics mine). “Japan spent nearly three times as much as the United States — more than $100 per person — with the 28 member countries of the European Union investing similar sums.”
But per capita – which includes all Americans, irrespective of whether they take trains or not - is a preposterous way to measure relative rail spending. After all, a much smaller percentage of Americans ride the rails regularly than do the Japanese, the French, the Germans, or citizens of dozens of other countries. (We’ll leave aside the fact that simple per-capita spending tells us next to nothing as well, given the variance across countries in labor and energy costs etc.)
According to the World Bank, the rail systems of India, China, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, the UK, the Ukraine, Egypt, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Pakistan, the Netherlands and many, many other countries, transport more passenger miles than American rail. Approximately 31 million people take Amtrak each year. In Japan, meanwhile, one line of the Shikansen Bullet Train alone carries 138 million passengers annually. All of which is to say, of course Japan (and many other countries) spend more per capita on rail maintenance than the United States. Rail is vital infrastructure in Japan used daily by a large percentage of the country’s population.
If the paper of record had wanted to make a more fair, if still rough comparison, it would have made much more sense for the Times to compare rail spending per rail passenger. But given the lavish spending on trains that occurs each year in the United States, methinks that wouldn’t have supported the narrative of the "underfunded" American rail system.