The Stupidity of High-Speed Rail

by Jonah Goldberg

This last weekend, my wife, my daughter, and I needed to go up to NYC for the weekend (the grown-ups to attend Rich Lowry’s spectacular wedding to his spectacular new bride, my daughter to stay with grandma). For boring and ill-thought-out reasons we decided to take the train instead of driving. Basically, our six-year-old Volvo SUV needs to go to the shop and both the Fair Jessica and I are on brutal work deadlines and we figured we could get some writing done on the train. So we booked  three unreserved coach tickets, round trip, weekend rate. The total cost? $750. Unlike the more pleasant, and more expensive, Acela, the train was loud, dirty, and crowded. The bathrooms had the rich, earthy musk of — literally — a Port-o-John on rails.

Now, as I understand it, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service is by far its most popular. Something like a third of all Amtrak’s daily usage is in the Northeast. Amtrak, of course, loses money, though its biggest losses come from the long-haul service. Anyway, my point isn’t to get deep in the policy weeds or the service’s books. But come on! $750 to replace a drive to New York City and back. We feel like idiots for doing it.

Admittedly, it’s a small anecdote, but all I could keep thinking was there’s no way high-speed rail makes sense economically. With today’s low-speed rail, it would cost a family of four a thousand dollars to take a round-trip train ride to NYC and back from Washington, D.C., for the weekend. Meanwhile, a car ride would cost, with gas and tolls, about a tenth as much. Yes, I know that the real point of trains is to diminish commuter-drivers, not weekend vacationers. But how is high-speed rail supposed to do that, exactly? Obviously high-speed rail is going to be more expensive than the N.E. regional. Its competition won’t be cars, but planes, which will still be able to get places faster and, often, cheaper — that is, unless high-speed rail is absurdly subsidized. And subsidies mean business travelers would have their travel costs underwritten by working-class folks, because low- and middle-income people are never going to find high-speed rail to be cheaper than driving, are they? So why should normal Americans pay for Joe Biden to take the train?

I still prefer taking the Acela to and from New York to driving or flying, but that’s mostly because that travel is usually paid for by someone else. When I pay out of my own pocket, I usually drive. I’m at a loss as to how buying much, much more expensive trains will somehow change that dynamic.

Update: Several folks say my argument makes no sense because the train was crowded, therefore it’s meeting the market test. It’s a good rejoinder as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. First of all it can be turned around. If the train is crowded, why on earth does it need massive federal subsidies? Second, as several commenters note below, part of my mistake was booking tickets at the last minute. Indeed, many of the people on the train appeared to be foreign travellers. Vacationers usually plan trips further out and at cheaper rates. Fine, so commuter rail is intended to make vacations cheaper? I hadn’t heard that from Joe Biden. Some claim that there’s no reason to think high speed rail will be more expensive than travel on trains that already exist and have been paid for. Uh huh. Others claim that high speed rail makes obvious economic sense which is why the federal government needs to subsidize it with billions of dollars borrowed from future generations. Got it! Others note — correctly — that many of the commuters weren’t traveling from DC to NYC but making shorter, less expensive, trips along the way. Yep, okay. And that makes the case for creating a vastly more expensive system because….why? Indeed, if all makes such obvious sense why do governors not beholden to unions cringe at the idea of spending state tax dollars on it?

Look, I wasn’t trying to make an omnibus case against high speed rail, but such cases can easily be made. If you want to read one you might start here, with this excellent Economist article on the subject.  Or you can just look at China, without Tom Friedman colored glasses.

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