Here's the key quote from Jarrett's comment on Jaffe's post: "Rail is optimal for particular distances. Europe has lots of great rail services, but still, if you’re going 2000 miles within Europe, and you’re not a tourist or time-rich wanderer, you’re definitely going to fly. ... Australia is too big for rail networks to be national, and so are the US and Canada."
I've faulted Jarrett in the past for transportation myopia, and here it's causing him to repeat the old "density to support transit" canard. These are the three questions that get you out of this myopic viewpoint:
- Would transit work if it had a better mode share?
- Does the area have the density to support roads or airplanes either?
- Would people live or work more densely if the car or air infrastructure were less subsidized?
1. Would long distance trains work if they had a better mode share? Absolutely. Take the ridership on just about any Amtrak long distance route and there are more than a hundred times that many people driving or flying. Shift half of those drivers or flyers to the train, and you can charge enough to break even.
2. Does the area have the density to support roads or airplanes either? No. There are very few highways that pay for themselves, and I don't think any of those compete with trains. Air service is heavily subsidized: public airports, publicly funded air traffic control, Essential Air Service.
3. Would people live or work more densely if the car or air infrastructure were less subsidized? Yeah. You'd still have people living in Seattle and Phoenix and along train lines connecting them, but a lot less in small towns scattered around the country.
So we see that it's not that Australia, the US and Canada are too big for national rail networks. It's that they're too big for three national networks, road, rail and air. Cut the subsidies to one of the other two, and we can get enough passengers for rail.
Jarrett makes a further argument based on efficiency with his remark about the "time-rich wanderer," which is echoed by Nourish. That may have merit, but it's a separate issue, and it doesn't help anyone if you conflate them. I'll deal with it in another post.