A High‐​Speed Rail Mirage

May 20, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in USA Today on May 20, 2009.

At first glance, President Obama’s enthusiasm for building a high‐​speed rail network linking major cities seems like a wise move. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the plan would cost taxpayers billions of dollars and do little to reduce traffic congestion or improve the environment.

Already California, Florida, Illinois and other states are applying for funds under the president’s plan. But, except for rail contractors, Americans should find little reason to like this proposal.

Although every taxpayer would share the cost of these trains, high‐​speed rails are not about serving the common people. Instead, they are aimed at the elite. Japanese and French high‐​speed trains are attractive to tourists, but they’re not heavily used by local residents. Residents of Japan and France on average ride their bullet trains less than 400 miles a year.

Pricey option

Amtrak charges a minimum of $99 for its high‐​speed Acela from New York to Washington, but only $72 for its conventional train. Fares for unsubsidized buses on this route start as low as $20 (including free Wi‐​Fi), while airfares start at $99. Only the wealthy and those whose employers cover the cost will pay the $99 rail fare.

Obama’s 9,000-mile high‐​speed rail plan reaches just 33 states, yet the $13 billion he proposes to spend would cover about 2.5% to 25% of the cost, depending on how the system is built. In contrast with the interstate highway system, which paid for itself out of user fees, high‐​speed rail fares would not cover the capital costs and only part of the operating costs.

Most of Obama’s plan should really be called “moderate‐​speed rail,” as it would upgrade existing freight lines to run passenger trains at top speeds of 110 mph. At around $5 million per mile, the total cost would come close to $50 billion.

Not satisfied with moderate‐​speed trains, California says it wants half of all federal funds so it can build brand‐​new 220‐​mph rail lines. But it’s unlikely other states will settle for the slower trains if California gets the faster ones. Building fast trains nationwide would cost at least $500 billion. (By comparison, and adjusting for inflation, the 47,000-mile interstate highway system cost about $425 billion.)

Little congestion relief

Besides the high costs, these trains do little to relieve congestion. “Not a single high‐​speed track built to date has had any perceptible impact on the road traffic” in Europe, says Ari Vatanen, a European Parliament member. California predicts its 220‐​mph trains would take just 3.5% of cars off of roads. California highway traffic grows that much every two years.

Moderate‐​speed trains would do even less. Nor would such trains be good for the environment. Amtrak diesel trains are only a little more energy efficient than flying or driving, and pumping those trains up to 110 mph would reduce their efficiency. Because planes and cars are growing 2% more energy‐​efficient per year, rail would fare poorly by such measures over the next 15 to 20 years.

Moreover, high‐​speed rail consumes enormous amounts of energy and emits enormous volumes of greenhouse gases. These would cancel out any operational savings over cars and planes.

Interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes, and most Americans use them almost every day. Rail requires huge tax subsidies and would regularly serve only a small elite. Which is the better symbol for the America President Obama wants to build?

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