The Corner

High Speed Rail: A Genuinely Horrible Idea

I sat on the transportation board of a sizeable county for a year, and had the displeasure of hearing/reading numerous presentations on various forms of passenger rail. Here are four reasons why Obama’s idea to make a major investment in passenger rail is horrendous:

1) Genuine high-speed rail — 150-to-200 miles-per-hour, as found in Japan and parts of Europe — requires separate rights of way: broad curves, very shallow grades, and no 60-mile-per-hour freight sharing the track. It is VERY expensive to engineer and maintain.

2) If you cut corners, as Obama implied, by using existing infrastructure, you come out with a system that will do 90-mph max, and will gum up existing freight traffic, which is much slower.

3) If you (unlike this author) believe that greenhouses gases are a problem, you DON’T WANT a shared passenger/freight system. One of the reasons why Europe is doing such a wretched job of complying with Kyoto is that it does only 10% of its freight by rail, as opposed to 51% in the U.S. Europe moves more people by rail, and more freight (i.e., heavier stuff) on trucks. Our intermodal system of truck-to-rail container transfer helps account for the fact that freight emissions of greenhouse gases are 155 grams per ton mile in the U.S. compared to 193 grams per ton mile in Europe.

4) Obama joked that with High-Speed Rail, you “wouldn’t have to take off your shoes.” Attacking trains, my friends, is much, much, much easier than attacking planes. You’ve got hundreds and hundreds of miles of attack points to choose from; the technology necessary to cause havoc is low. “You won’t have to take off your shoes” because the terrorist needn’t board the target at all, as the Turks discovered in WWI.

5) Another feature of High-Speed Rail will be the unionization of a major sector of transportation. Check out how that works in Europe before hopping on board.

I will add: The Reason Foundation and Wendell Cox have produced excellent studies comparing the pros and cons of various transportation investments. Anyone wishing to become more literate in this area should visit their work.

— Richard Nadler is president of the Americas Majority Foundation, a public-policy think tank in Overland Park, Kan. 

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