Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why Republicans hate trains

It's a well known fact that most Republicans proclaim a loathing for passenger trains. On the other hand, it may just be spiteful propaganda directed blindly against whatever the Democrats happen to support, and not a deeply held belief. After all, railroads were once considered the backbones of capitalism, operated by gilded age robber barons and glorified by iconic writers such as Ayn Rand.
New York Central's 20th Century Limited locomotive.

Since those times, it has proven nearly impossible to run a profitable private passenger railroad, in competition with government subsidized automobile roads. The dearth of private railroads in this country could certainly turn off a principled conservative. But something doesn't quite add up about that explanation. If that were the only objection, then such bitter vitriol would not be used. Instead we would see an article written about the benefits of privatization and of cutting highway subsidies.

My speculation is that what we are witnessing is actually the petulant response to one sad fact: the twentieth century decline of the American railroad. Once, long ago, American inventors such as Frank J. SpragueThomas Edison, among others, helped pioneer the electric railroad technologies that we still use today. Today, we do not even have the expertise to build, provision and operate a true high speed passenger line, but must import it from Asian or European countries (or reinvent it, badly).

The sting of this slap in the face of American ingenuity must hurt so badly that Republicans like George Will are simply unable to handle it. Instead they lash out with ridiculous lines like this one:
[The] real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
According to this rather strange remark, the selection of steel wheels over rubber wheels is tantamount to killing freedom! To dig into it a little further, he is implying that fixed guideway vehicles are less "individualistic" than free-roaming rubber tired cars. At a highly superficial level, this is correct: trains run on tracks. But trying to derive any further conclusion just leads to nonsense. By Will's reasoning, the usage of buses, airplanes and ferry-boats is also "diminishing individualism" because these vehicles also follow fixed routes -- despite having no rail. Of course these systems have not led to the downfall of our way of life, nor do they hurt anyone's freedom of choice to ride or not.
High-speed rail. Not Invented Here. (source)

Further analysis of his remarks is likely a waste of time. They're not rational, and are rooted in an emotional backlash against the decline of the American railroad. For some people, the response might be a positive or optimistic determination: we can do better. But for George Will and Republicans like him, they would rather denigrate and tear down the enterprise itself. After all, why become proficient in something that you have deemed worthless?

It reminds me of the behavior of certain sports fans, who when confronted with the unsuccessful end to their favorite team's season, turn and say: Why care about them anyway?


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