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More on High-Speed Rail



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Good talking points this morning concerning President Obama’s high-speed rail plan from my colleague Randal O’Toole:

Obama’s plan to build so-called high-speed rail in ten new corridors is unfair to taxpayers and bad for the environment. Here are the most important problems with the plan.

1. NOT TRUE HIGH-SPEED RAIL

Except in California, the trains Obama is proposing are “moderate-speed rail,” running at top speeds of 110 mph and average speeds of only 60 to 70 mph. Many American railroads ran trains this fast in the 1930s through the 1960s, and they were unable to keep people out of their cars.

Only California is proposing true high-speed rail (as fast as 220 mph), but this will be extremely expensive. A true, nationwide high-speed rail network would cost more than half a trillion dollars, and wouldn’t even provide through high-speed service from New York to Chicago, much less to the West Coast. (Obama’s plan, when fully built out, will cost about $100 billion.)

2. LESS THAN 1 PERCENT RIDE, MORE THAN 99 PERCENT PAY

More than 4 percent of federal transportation spending goes to Amtrak, yet Amtrak carries only 0.1 percent of passenger travel.

Moderate- and high-speed trains will significantly increase the subsidies but have little effect on the total travel. Why is it fair for 99-plus percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other less-than-1 percent?

Even with subsidies, high-speed rail fares will be about 50 percent higher than ordinary Amtrak fares. For example, passengers pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington, and $99 to ride high-speed train. (By comparison, an unsubsidized bus fare is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99.) This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

3. MODERATE-SPEED RAIL IS DIRTY

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will be conventional, Diesel-powered trains running faster than today’s Amtrak trains. Higher speeds will require more energy and emit more pollution and greenhouse gases.

Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient, per passenger mile, than cars and planes. While cars and planes are getting cleaner and more energy-efficient every year, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.

4. IT DOESN’T WORK IN EUROPE

High-speed trains in Europe are convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. Even in France, which has more high-speed trains than any other European country, the average resident rides heavily subsidized high-speed trains just 400 miles per year. Despite punitive fuel taxes, they drive 7,600 miles per year, a number that is increasing faster than high-speed rail travel.

5. IT DOESN’T WORK IN JAPAN

The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per year. The Japanese ride trains more than anyone else — nearly 1,900 miles per year, including urban rail — but premium high-speed train fares keep nearly 80 percent of train riding on conventional trains.

6. EVERY CAR OFF THE ROAD MEANS MORE NEW TRUCKS ON THE ROAD

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America’s rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways.

Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway. By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe puts nearly three times as many trucks on the road.

I love trains. If moderate- or high-speed rails worked, I would be the first to support them. But all they will really do is subsidize the rich, while they do more harm to the environment than driving or flying.

Go over to Randal’s Cato policy page if you want to feed your inner wonk. 



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