The facts do not bear out several aspects of President Barack Obama's desire to push high-speed rail projects with federal resources ($8 billion in the economic stimulus package, another $5 billion in his 2010 budget) — chiefly, that the rail projects are more efficient and more environmentally friendly than modes of travel now widely in use.
Saving energy and reducing pollution are worthy goals, and if high-speed trains could achieve these goals, the president's plan might be a good one. But since they cannot, it isn't.
Obama's proposal should really be called "moderate-speed rail." His $13 billion won't fund 200-mile-per-hour bullet trains. Instead, it is mostly about running Amtrak trains a little faster on existing freight lines.
Outside of the Boston-Washington corridor, the fastest Amtrak trains have top speeds of about 80 to 90 miles per hour and average speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. Obama proposes to boost top speeds to 110 miles per hour in some places, which means average speeds no greater than 70 to 75 miles per hour.
This is not an innovation. The Milwaukee Road, Santa Fe and other railroads routinely ran trains at those speeds 70 years ago — and still couldn't compete against cars and airlines.
Moderate-speed trains will be diesel powered. They will consume oil and emit toxic and greenhouse gases, just like cars and planes.
According to the Department of Energy, the average Amtrak train uses about 2,700 British thermal units (BTUs) of energy per passenger mile. This is a little better than cars (about 3,400 BTUs per passenger mile) or airplanes (about 3,300 BTUs per passenger mile). But auto and airline fuel efficiencies are improving by 2 percent to 3 percent per year (for example, a Toyota Prius uses less than 1,700 BTUs per passenger mile).
By contrast, Amtrak's fuel efficiency has increased by just one-tenth of 1 percent per year in the past 10 years.
This means, over the lifetime of an investment in moderate-speed trains, the trains won't save any energy at all. In fact, to achieve higher speeds, moderate-speed trains will require even more energy than conventional trains and probably much more than the average car or airplane 10 or 20 years from now.
California wants to build a true high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, capable of top speeds of 220 miles per hour and average speeds of 140 miles per hour. The environmental analysis report for the California high-speed rail projects costs of $33 billion for 400 miles, while the Midwest Rail Initiative projects costs of $7.7 billion for 3,150 miles of moderate-speed rail. That's $82 million per mile for true high-speed rail (partly because the California project goes through some mountains) and only $2.4 million for moderate-speed rail. All else being equal, high-speed rail will cost 10 to 12 times more than moderate-speed rail. A true, national high-speed rail network would cost more than half a trillion dollars.
Construction of such high-speed rails will consume enormous amounts of energy and emit enormous volumes of greenhouse gases. Since future cars and planes will be more energy efficient, there are likely to be no long-term environmental benefits from investment in high-speed rail.
Electricity would power the California trains. But, because most U.S. electricity comes from coal or other fossil fuels, these high-speed trains won't reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. As we develop more renewable sources of electricity, we would do better using it to power plug-in hybrids or electric cars than high-speed rail.
Americans who have ridden French or Japanese high-speed trains often wonder why such trains won't work here. The problem is, they don't work that well in France or Japan.
France and Japan have each spent roughly (after adjusting for inflation) the same amount of money per capita on high-speed rail as the United States spent on the interstate highway system. Americans use the interstates to travel nearly 4,000 passenger miles and ship more than 2,000 ton-miles of freight per person per year.
By comparison, high-speed rail moves virtually no freight and carries the average resident of Japan less than 400 miles per year, and the average resident of France less than 300 miles per year. It is likely that a few people use them a lot, and most rarely or not at all.
Interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes, and most Americans use them almost every day. Moderate or high-speed rail would require everyone to subsidize trains that would serve only a small elite. Which symbolizes the America that Obama wants to rebuild better?