Downtrodden Michigan seems to be pinning its hopes on a revival of train production.
With the American automobile industry in free-fall, some in Michigan are hoping that a more potent train industry could provide relief. President Obama’s commitment of $13 billion for high-speed rail is seen as the first step towards reviving U.S. manufacturing. But those ambitions are overstated, and unless GM or Ford make quick changes in their operations or acquire a train maker, Michigan seems unlikely to benefit.
Last week at a town hall in Michigan, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke told a reporter from the Huffington Post “As you see more construction of rail cars, high-speed cars, it’s going to require new engineering, new products and services and that’s the natural fit and extension for automotive dealers and suppliers and manufacturers.” Governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm, in Washington, agreed, saying “We have lots of capacity in Michigan and workers who know how to make things.”
As I’ve made the case before on The Infrastructurist, even a sudden increase in train orders from American rail services (even with a required Buy America pledge) would never employ nearly as many people as does the existing auto industry. The simple fact is that fewer people are needed to build trains because you don’t need nearly as many of them in a train-using society as you need cars in an automobile-dependent one; the three top existing train manufacturers today — Siemens, Bombardier, and Alstom — collectively employ fewer than 100,000 people in their transport divisions. One of the reasons mass transit is efficient is because vehicles can be shared by thousands of individuals, rather than being monopolized by one person or family.
That said, a vibrant train industry would create hundreds of thousands of service jobs, but only in places where rail travel is encouraged. France’s SNCF has more than 100,000 employees, for instance. A huge train network with hundreds of thousands of daily passengers in the United States would induce the similar creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Yet California, with $10 billion already committed to rail services, is far more likely to get those jobs than Michigan, which has few state funds dedicated to fast rail.
The Wolverine State shouldn’t rest its hopes on the potential of the train industry. Auto plants — whatever Ms. Granholm thinks — cannot simply be converted to train manufacturing; they’d have to be completely rebuilt and retooled. The American car industry has no affiliation at all with train manufacturing and wouldn’t know where to start, because it has no existing research done on the subject; it would take decades before Ford or GM could compete with Siemens or Alstom on the production of high-speed trains. And while many Michiganders may “know how to make things,” so do many people in Iowa or Arizona. Why would train companies choose to build their product there? For new plants, foreign auto manufacturers have shown their preference in the past for Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio, not Michigan.
The state has a long way to go before it’s healthy again, and the train industry is unlikely to be its savior.