The Obama administration believes in recycling, as shown by the so-called high-speed rail plan it announced last week. Below is a map of the plan, and below that is a map of the Federal Railroad Administration's 2005 high-speed rail plan. As you can see, the proposed routes are identical. (The grey lines on the first map represent conventional Amtrak routes.)
Of course, this is a time-honored practice. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System was really the Bureau of Public Roads' Interregional Highway System. There is no doubt that the Federal Railroad Administration is thrilled that Obama has adopted its plan.
Yet there are several problems with Obama's plan. First, it is important to understand that most of Obama's plan is not bullet trains or TGVs. Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster -- up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph -- than Amtrak runs today. Based on this, here are my most important objections to Obama's moderate-speed rail plan.
1. Less than 1 percent will ride, more than 99 percent will 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 99.8 percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other 0.2 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 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.
2. Moderate-speed rail is dirty
Obama's claims that trains are better for the environment are pure speculation. Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient than cars and planes. While cars and planes are expected to get far more energy-efficient in the future, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.
True high-speed rail, which generally powered by electricity, is dirty too. Even if the electricity comes from renewable resources, the energy and environmental cost of construction will be enormous. It will take decades for the trivial annual savings to pay back that cost.
3. 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.
4. 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 the residents of any other country -- nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail -- but due to premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.
5. 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 put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.
Personally, I love trains. But Obama's plan is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment. We would be better off ending all subsidies to transportation than piling on subsidy after subsidy for transport that is supposedly environmentally friendly but in fact hardly anyone will use.