Railroad historian says California is on wrong track

Stanford professor Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' voices his staunch opposition to California's high-speed train

'We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion,' Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' said. 'They’re a disaster politically and environmentally.'

Considering that he spent 12 years studying the history of American railroads, you might assume Stanford University professor Richard White would be delighted to take a bullet train from nearby San Francisco to Los Angeles in the time it takes to watch a Harry Potter movie.

After all, it's a dusty 6.5-hour trek by car and a hassle of security lines and cramped seats by plane.

But Richard White, the author of last year's well-received "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," is no fan of the state's mammoth high-speed rail project, which is scheduled to break ground this year. He warned in the New York Times last month that "it will become a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop."

White's opposition to the bullet train is unusual since he comes from the political left rather than the right. [Editor's note: In this sentence White was originally – and incorrectly – referred to as "Wilson."]  (Many of the project's political opponents are Republicans.) I called him and asked why he sees the nation's railroad history as a cautionary tale instead of an inspiration. We also talked about the railroad baron he considers to be an airhead – the one whose name graces Stanford University, where White works.

Q: You write that the transcontinental railroads weren't needed but got built anyway on the public dime. What happened?

A: The basic thing is that no one would invest in them to begin with. You’re building a railroad into the middle of nowhere – railroads starting nowhere and ending nowhere. There's no traffic on these things, so that's why they have to be subsidized. You need all this public money and then borrowed money to get these things up and running.

They went bankrupt once, twice, three times, but the men running them got tremendously rich. Railroads become these containers for speculation, collecting subsidies and selling bonds, and financial manipulation.

They’re much like the companies we're familiar with now that have gone into bankruptcy but have made people rich.

Q: What was the legacy of the railroad boom?

A: We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion. They’re a disaster politically and environmentally. They begin modern American corruption, when corporations infiltrate the political system and make politics an instrument of corporate policy.

My argument in the book is that this is not a happy story.

Q: What do you say to skeptics who will say you're just another left-leaning academic bashing capitalism?

A: This is a book that proceeds mostly by quoting the people who did it. They make a far better case for what happened then I did. It's full of quotes, oftentimes very funny, about how they invent this kind of corporate capitalism.

If you don't believe me, the book is full of footnotes. For me footnotes are what give me protection. It's like smell to a skunk.

What’s interesting is that I'm attacked sometimes as being a leftist, which I am, and I am often attacked as being too conservative by people who want subsidies for these large infrastructure projects.

Q: You're not flattering about the brainpower of Leland Stanford, the railroad baron whose name graces your own university. What did you find out about him?

A: Stanford was not the sharpest tool in the shed. A lot of this stuff has to be explained to him.

His wife Jane realized exactly what was in his papers and she destroyed them all, but the story is in the papers of other people.

Q: What have your overlords at Stanford thought of all this?

A: I don’t think they really suspected that he was much more than how he's portrayed in the book.

Stanford University has been very nice to me, but I will never speak at Founders Day.

Q: How have your findings affected your perspective on the California bullet train project, which is estimated to cost almost $100 billion?

The writing of the book led me to question it in the ways I wouldn’t have before. This looks like pretty much like transcontinental railroads: people demanding a huge public subsidy for a railroad that will be extraordinarily expensive.

The public seems to be taking all the risk, and the gain will go to the contractors and people who build it. What they’re trying to do is make hard questions go away through all this gauzy public relations about how this is the future.

Q: How should the public look at projects like this?

A: You should be very leery of giving public money to large corporations on the promise that everything will be fine. The legislation has to be carefully written, and you should never have it that all the risk is public and all the gain is private.

Often the private sector pretty much protects itself and is confident that the public will come in and bail them out if things goes wrong. These public-private kinds of endeavors very often will lead to an exploitation of the public.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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