Planet Gore

High-Speed Fail or High-Speed Rail?

Dueling positions in today’s USA Today. First up, the editors:

Greenlight high-speed rail in dense corridors

Travelers in China, Japan, France and several other countries can hop onto sleek bullet trains and race between cities at 150 to 220 miles per hour, zipping past clogged highways and bypassing airport hassles. Picture that here. New York City to Washington, D.C., for example, now takes almost three hours, even on Amtrak’s Acela. Imagine cutting that trip to, say, 90 minutes or less. Sweet.

Don’t make any reservations yet, though. In the USA, long-promised high-speed rail projects have never left the station. Lately, President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have been touting the economic benefits of a network of bullet train routes all around the country. But their campaign has slowed to a crawl, hobbled by budget worries, rejected by cost-conscious governors in Floridaand Ohio, and mocked by critics who call “ObamaRail” nothing more than a bullet train to bankruptcy.

The experience of other countries, and a hard look at what might happen here, suggests the truth is somewhere between the extremes in the simplistic “good/bad” debate about high-speed rail.


Bullet trains are expensive to build and far from cheap to run. They won’t work everywhere. The sweet spot is somewhere between about 100 and 400 miles. Any less, and driving becomes more convenient. Too much more, and it makes increasing sense to fly.

Another must is a densely populated area with a lot of potential riders, such as the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, or California between Los Angeles and San Diego. In places like these, highways and airports are already saturated at peak travel times. With the U.S. population expected to grow by more than 100 million by 2050, mostly along the coasts, adding another way for people to get around seems like smart long-term planning.

I stopped the excerpt here for a reason, because this is where their perfectly acceptable argument for targeted high-speed rail falls apart. Train travel will only work between two cities if when you get to your destination, you don’t need a car to get around. That’s why Boston to New York City to D.C. works so well. Los Angeles to San Diego? Never. You’d spend hundreds of dollars in taxis just to get to your destination. If the editors think their targeted approach will work, then the navigability of the cities, without a car, is a must.

And arguing against high-speed rail is Robert W. Poole Jr. of the Reason Foundation, expanding on what I wrote above:

Experts agree that the most successful rail corridors in Europe and Japan are those linking major cities 100 miles to 400 miles apart. What many studies neglect to mention, however, is that those cities are highly concentrated, with major fractions of their jobs in a traditional “central business district,” unlike the large majority of decentralized U.S. metro areas. So most people there do want to go downtown-to-downtown, whereas most Americans need to travel suburb-to-suburb.

Countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Japan are also more attractive for high-speed rail because the cost of driving there is so much higher. Not only are gas taxes three to five times higher, but most of their intercity highways are toll roads. In addition, America has the world’s most competitive airline markets, so our cost of flying is also lower.

Measured against international criteria, only a handful of U.S. corridors — Boston-NYC-Washington and maybe Los Angeles-San Francisco — are potentially good candidates for high-speed rail. But even here we must question the value proposition.

Amtrak estimates it would cost $117 billion to build true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. Yet its own numbers show an annual operating loss of more than $350 per passenger if annualized capital costs are included.

The California project is now estimated to cost $66 billion — about twice what Warren Buffett paid for the (profitable) Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Reviews of projected ridership in California suggest the project would not even cover its operating costs, let alone the enormous construction cost.

Do read his entire piece. Poole’s conclusion in no taxpayer money for high-speed rail, and if Reason’s numbers on the losses are correct, then so is his conclusion.

Verdict: High-Speed FAIL.


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