Magazine | April 4, 2011, Issue


How Efficient Is High-Speed Rail?

I am disappointed that National Review has again (in “The Week,” March 7) dismissed high-speed rail as a “niche market” item. And, although the statistics in Stanley R. Staley’s insightful article in the same issue, “Transportation-Policy Crossroads,” seem to support your thesis, I prefer his approach: using objective core principles to determine federal transportation-policy priorities.

Studies show that trips of less than 800 miles can be more efficiently done by train than by air. Airlines have long lost money on such routes and have curtailed them. In addition, many Americans do not drive because of age, infirmity, or other reasons. This number is likely to increase as our population ages.

The only quarrel I have with Mr. Staley’s article is that the statistics he uses do not break out long-distance trips from trips to the grocery store. I believe applying his core principles honestly would reveal the need for an appropriate high-speed-rail initiative, or, at the very least, an appropriate increase in existing long-distance service.

One example of the latter: Currently, Amtrak runs the Capitol Limited, leaving Washington, D.C., at 4 p.m., arriving in Chicago at 8:45 the next morning. It makes intermediate stops in a number of cities, including Pittsburgh and Cleveland, in the dead of night. The return leaves Chicago at 7 p.m. and arrives in D.C. around 1:30 in the afternoon. Again, intermediate stops take place in the middle of the night. By adding one extra train, leaving D.C. at 7 a.m., arriving in Chicago at midnight, all intermediate stops would be better served, with passengers being able to board at reasonable hours and even return in the same day. Ridership between intermediate cities would certainly improve if more reasonable choices were properly marketed. Other current routes might also be reviewed to see if limited added service could make a positive impact.

A small step like this might suffice to address the need. But only an honest study, putting aside partisan rhetoric and preconceptions, can reveal that.

Jeanne M. Mallett

Washington, D.C.

Samuel R. Staley replies: I appreciate the comments, but I am doubtful that breaking out long-distance versus short-distance trips would give us the desired results. Intercity passenger travel, whether by plane, train, or automobile, is a relatively small part of the overall travel equation and challenge. Moreover, high-speed rail is a redundant transportation alternative that attempts to substitute for an already extensive air-travel network and an interstate-highway system that facilitates low-cost automobile and intercity bus transport. Only the dense and unique Northeast Corridor is able to generate revenues that meet operating costs for intercity rail, implying that a more extensive intercity-rail network would need taxpayer subsidies.


Michael F. Cannon’s “Obamacare Can’t Be Fixed” (March 21) cited an estimate by the Cato Institute’s Jagadeesh Gokhale that New York State would lose $66 billion because of the health-care law’s unfunded Medicaid mandates. Mr. Gokhale has since found an error in the study; the correct number is $52 billion.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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