Today on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Jim Cramer and Robert Reich discussed unemployment and getting the economy back on track. Matthews eventually brought up the idea that America should make a large capital investment and amortize it over a very long time. He then proceeded to pitch high speed commuter rail as the solution because they’re state of the art. Cramer on the other hand said we should build new roads using US made steel and Caterpillar equipment. Cramer touts US Steel and Caterpillar stock all the time so it isn’t surprising. Matthews speaks of a north east corridor where a maglev train system could ferry people to DC, NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, etc. instead of being tied up by airplanes and terrorists.
Business and recreational travelers do not want to be stuck on a 300mph train when a Boeing 717 can go 600mph. Most tickets on Airtran and Delta start at $49 each way. To make the train reasonably priced, it would have to be in the $5-15 range each way. Matthews also forgets that terrorists can blow up trains just as easily as planes. This would mean putting the TSA in every train station, which would be expensive and inconvenient for the traveler.
A much better investment than high speed rail would be to invest in slow rail for cargo. Freight train is more efficient than moving goods by 18 wheeler to distribution hubs where the 18 wheelers can then pick up the cargo and deliver it to the final destination. Trains are 2-4x more fuel efficient than trucks per ton-mile and emit 1/3 the NOx of trucks per ton-mile. Cramer’s picks of US Steel and Caterpillar are right on target with slow trains, high speed trains, or roads for trucks, but we need something sustainable after the construction is over.
Another reason high speed commuter rail is not the solution is the use of technology to eliminate the need to commute. GenX and GenY are more comfortable with running a virtual office. Whether these groups are business owners or executives at established businesses, they will influence the workforce to become more decentralized. Instead of meeting in person in a conference room, you can use GoToMeeting, WebEx, or the open source tool DimDim. The last time we ordered a nifty IT appliance a Sales Engineer didn’t come out to set it up. We placed the device in the server room with an IP address. Then the Sales Engineer took control of our PCs through WebEx Remote Support and did all of the configuration from California. They could have sent a real person, but why do that when it’s more efficient and green to do work over the internet? Skype and SIP based calling allow workers, vendors, and customers to communicate across the world for the same price as it would cost to call across town. In the near future there will be no reason to go to the office which is good for workers, good for the environment, and bad for high speed commuter rail.