Out of Control Policy Blog

Who Will Be Able to Afford High-Speed Rail Tickets?

My new column looks at the high-speed train proposals:

High-speed rail, unlike the Interstate system, isn’t transportation for the masses. Even with the federal government absorbing almost all the capital costs, prices will likely be too high for most Americans to use it regularly.

Today, a three-hour trip from New York City’s Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan to Union Station in Washington, D.C. on the Acela Express, the nation’s only operational high-speed train, will cost a passenger at least $155 each way. That’s cheaper than flying, but still well outside the budget of a typical commuter.

On the yet-to-be-built California system, a one-way trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost just $70 – not this year, in the year 2030 - according to the California High Speed Rail Authority.  Those projected costs are clearly unrealistic.

A detailed Reason Foundation examination of the California high-speed rail plan concluded that the system would need massive taxpayer subsidies to cover basic operating expenses. The due diligence report found "the San Francisco-Los Angeles line alone by 2030 would suffer annual financial losses of up to $4.17 billion." And that’s a $4 billion-a-year loss on what is expected to be one of the most popular parts of the train route.

It’s time for politicians to be realistic: very few people will commute to and from work via high-speed rail or use the trains regularly. These high-speed rail proposals are really catering to business travelers and tourists who already travel by car or use existing commercial airline shuttles between major cities. While this niche market might be robust enough to support a high-fare, rail alternative to flying or driving, all taxpayers shouldn’t be asked pay for it. Asking everyone to shoulder the financial burden of building train lines to benefit a narrow and wealthy segment of the traveling public is just wrong.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow

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Comments to "Who Will Be Able to Afford High-Speed Rail Tickets?":

Derek | May 1, 2009, 5:28pm | #

In New York, at least, Amtrak is EXTREMELY popular as a means of daily-commuting for residents of Albany, NY to take the 2.5 hour train ride each way, every day, to Manhattan.

Amtrak historically has offered -- especially on commuter-heavy routes like this one -- a monthly pass. I know plenty of people, myself include, who would probably pay a 50% premium to get a significant chunk of their days back, every day.

Duane | May 2, 2009, 10:11am | #


You have a choice to get a significant chunk of your day back. Move closer. Your 50% premium won't even come close to paying the increased cost the rest of us will have to bear for your decision to live so far away from where you work.

With all the talk about 'green' there is no talk about how inefficiently people have chosen to live. Increasing transportation options and green cars aren't the solution. The solution is getting people to move back to the cities & towns they work in. Having people moving around less, no more. There is almost no carbon footprint if people walk to work.

David Kerr | May 2, 2009, 9:18pm | #

For short routes, in high density urban corridors, rail may work. For SFO to LAX aviation has the edge. When the cost over-runs from high speed rail come in, CA will see it chose very badly. Meanwhile, aviation is getting more efficient. High performance composite airliners with the current generation engines, like the Boeing 787 which is to make its first flight this June will make aviation much more efficient.

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